Plaques at Capitol honor blacks who served Virginia during Reconstruction

From left, former delegate Dr. William Ferguson Reid, Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, and Del. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, unveiled the plaques at the state Capitol on Tuesday.

More than 120 Virginia African-Americans now have a place of honor in the state Capitol where they made history in the decades following the Civil War.

During a celebration at the Capitol on Tuesday evening, lawmakers unveiled three plaques noting the names of black men who served Virginia during Reconstruction.

One plaque notes the names of 24 African-Americans who took part in the state constitutional convention of 1867-68 and the names of 14 black people who served terms in the state Senate between 1869 and 1890.

Two additional plaques list the names of 85 African-Americans who served stints in the House of Delegates between 1869 and 1890.

“We are honoring those brave souls who sought elected office after the American Civil War, when it was dangerous and difficult to do so,” said Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

In 2012, McClellan and Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, proposed identical resolutions calling for plaques to honor the African-Americans’ service.

“We’re the first state to recognize the former slaves who participated in rewriting constitutions,” Marsh said Tuesday evening. “No other state has tried this. We’re proud to be first and we’re going to do it right.”

The General Assembly’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission is paying for the plaques. The commission’s website tells the story of the African-American pioneers. It notes that after the Civil War, Congress required former slave states to create reconstructed governments, hold state conventions and write new constitutions.

The lawmakers’ biographies on the website flesh out the names on the plaques, revealing their rich variety — they were bricklayers and lawyers, ministers and dentists, carpenters, blacksmiths, shopkeepers, farmers and teachers.

At the turn of the 20th century, Virginia held another convention and rewrote the state constitution, allowing the poll tax, literacy tests and other impediments that undid blacks’ gains and ushered in decades of disenfranchisement.

Viola Baskerville, a former state delegate who served as secretary of administration under Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, researched the African-American legislators and pushed for their recognition as a member of the commission.

Among the speakers at Tuesday’s ceremony was Dr. William Ferguson Reid, 88, a retired physician who in 1967 was elected a delegate from Richmond, becoming the first African-American elected to the General Assembly since Reconstruction.

Also recognized at the ceremony were descendants of Goodman Brown, a black man who represented Prince George and Surry counties in the House of Delegates in 1887-88.

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