An online database of legislators created by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission will soon feature all African-American members of the General Assembly from the Reconstruction era to today.
The database, which is free to the public, is a product of Brenda Edwards, a staff member for the Division of Legislative Services assigned to the MLK Commission. While doing research on legislators years ago, Edwards came across the names of African-American men who participated in the Underwood Constitutional Convention in 1867-68 and in the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia during Reconstruction.
“I inadvertently made the discovery when fulfilling a research request from a legislator who wanted to honor a former lawmaker,” Edwards said. “I brought my discovery to the attention of the member who requested the research, who requested that the chairman of the MLK Commission add the creation of the database to the commission’s work plan for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.”
The MLK Commission started compiling the database in 2004. In 2013, to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, the commission launched the website with a roll call of the African-Americans elected to the Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868 and to the General Assembly during Reconstruction from 1869 to 1890.
Around that time, however, Virginia and other Southern states enacted legislation known as “Black Codes” to thwart the newfound freedoms of former slaves – for example, by imposing poll taxes, literacy tests and elaborate registration systems to keep African-Americans from voting. As a result, from 1890 until the late 1960s, African-Americans were not represented in the Virginia General Assembly.
“It was difficult for pioneering African-American historians to chronicle the history of black people. Due to the culture during the periods of the ‘Black Codes’ and Jim Crow, curators of African-American history and culture were basically nonexistent,” Edwards said.
According to the commission, Virginia is the only state that has researched and commemorated its early African-American legislators through such a project.
When reading the biographies of black legislators, it is easy to notice that chunks of information are missing compared to their white counterparts. This was due to the blatant discrimination and prejudice during that era. Black men were sometimes former slaves or descendants of slaves, and it was common for them to lack birth certificates, marriage licenses or other documentation.
That has made it hard to acquire well-rounded information on the legislators.
“In constructing the database, the primary challenge was the accuracy of and access to information because little if any information concerning African-American history, culture, achievements, contributions, education, sociopolitical status and biographies was preserved during the slavery and Reconstruction eras, and prior to the civil rights movement,” Edwards said.
Edwards is currently researching the African-Americans legislators in the 20th and 21st century so they can be added to the database in the coming months.
It is the commission’s goal to ensure political figures like James Carter, who introduced a resolution requiring students to attend public school for at least three months a year, and Johnson Collins, who advocated eliminating the poll tax that prevented many people from voting, aren’t lost in history.
To learn more about African-Americans who have served as legislators in Virginia click here.
Dai Já Norman, Contributing Writer