Virginia's Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902
On 16 February 1901 the General Assembly passed an act
calling for the election of delegates to serve in Virginia's fifth constitutional convention.
On 12 June 1901, one hundred delegates (eighty-eight Democrats and twelve Republicans) assembled in the
old hall of the House of Delegates at the Capitol. The Democrats had successfully pushed through a
referendum for a new constitution by campaigning for electoral reform and better state government. The
Virginia Democratic Party mirrored public sentiment throughout the South by favoring disfranchisement
of blacks, whose support of the Republican Party made it a powerful political factor. Eliminating the
black vote became the real work of the Convention of 1901–1902.
The main question for the delegates was how to eliminate the black vote without violating the Fifteenth
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Eventually they proposed that under Virginia's new constitution,
a man would be eligible to vote if he could satisfy one of the following three requirements: he could read
or understand the state constitution; he had paid taxes on property worth at least $333; or he was either
a U.S. or Confederate veteran or the son of a veteran. All three conditions were loopholes designed
to protect white voters. Further narrowing the pool of possible voters, minimum requirements were
set for age, residency, and literacy, and a poll tax requirement was also instituted.
The Constitution of 1902 also provided for the revision of the county court system, the creation
of the State Corporation Commission, and the direct election of certain officials. It also stated, for
the first time, that "white and colored children" must be educated in separate schools.
Before the convention met, the General Assembly had passed an act requiring that the proposed
constitution be ratified by the voters of Virginia. Unsure of how the new constitution might fare with
voters who were about to be disfranchised, the Convention instead took the unusual step of proclaiming
it the law of the commonwealth.
The new constitution became law on 10 July 1902. The old poll books were purged, and the
Virginia electorate was cut in half. Both the poll tax and the literacy requirements remained in effect
in Virginia until they were overturned by the federal courts and Congress in the 1960s.
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