20th-Century Virginia
Connections Essay - 20TH-Centuray Virginia
/ Task 4/6‎

Virginia in the Twentieth Century

On July 10, 1902, a convention meeting in Richmond proclaimed a new state constitution. The Constitution of 1902 replaced the more democratic Underwood Constitution, enacted during Reconstruction. Unlike its predecessor, the new constitution mandated segregated schools. It also instituted a poll tax and literacy tests, greatly restricting voting by African Americans. As a result, the number of black voters in Virginia fell from 147,000 to fewer than 10,000 over a two-year period. However, the Constitution of 1902 also created a powerful State Corporation Commission to regulate the activities of corporations in the public interest.

This is the story of Virginia throughout much of the 20th century – a state rising to meet the challenges of a modern America while resisting social, gender, and (especially) racial change. In doing so, Virginia’s story reflects the two most significant themes in United States history over the last 100 years – the modernization of society, and this nation’s often painful struggle to become a multi-racial, multicultural democracy.

The SOLs ask students to understand Virginia’s “transition from a rural agricultural society to a more urban, industrial society.” Rural Virginians were pushed and pulled toward the city. Changing consumer habits led to changes in tobacco production, and tobacco farming shifted to Virginia’s Southside. Transportation changes expanded the market for new cash crops, including peanuts and oysters. Tractors and other machines replaced agricultural laborers. At the same time, farmers found opportunities in new industries in the growing cities. This industrial revolution was fueled by coal, and many farmers also gravitated toward southwest Virginia with the opening of coal reserves there in the 1880s.

Virginia’s farm-to-factory migration continued throughout the 20th century, although it has been slower here than in the rest of the nation. The 1920 census revealed that, for the first time, more Americans lived in urban areas than in rural ones. However, Virginia did not reach this milestone until 1950. It took World War II and the growth of the Northern Virginia suburbs to bring Virginia back into the American mainstream.

By 1950, the civil rights movement was taking place, and Virginia played an important role in this story. When the Constitution of 1902 was enacted, the federal government was not committed to using its power to preserve the rights of black Americans. Thus, in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson sanctioned racial segregation, introducing the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Fifty-eight years later, in Brown v. Board of Education, the court ruled that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal.

Brown was not a single case, but five cases. One, Davis v. County School Board, originated in 1951 in Prince Edward County, Virginia when black students at Robert R. Moton High School went on strike to protest inadequate facilities. The students contacted lawyers in Richmond, including Oliver W. Hill, who agreed to represent them on the condition that they change their law suit to demand desegregation. The students agreed.

Led by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Virginia officials opposed Brown and worked to prevent school desegregation. In 1956, the General Assembly adopted a series of laws known as “Massive Resistance.” One law empowered the governor to close any public school under court order to desegregate. In September, 1958, schools in Warren County, Charlottesville, and Norfolk closed. Four months later, both a federal court and the Virginia Supreme Court declared massive resistance unconstitutional. The state court ruled that massive resistance violated the provision of the Constitution of 1902 that required Virginia to maintain a system of free public schools.

Thirty years after the collapse of massive resistance, Virginia’s L. Douglas Wilder became the first elected African American governor in the United States.


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