The Virginia Supreme Court, Blacks, and the Law, 1870-1902

Pincus, Samuel Norman, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Flaherty, David H., Department of History, University of Virginia
Flanigan, Daniel J., Department of History, University of Virginia

When the native white Virginians reclaimed control of the state in 1870, they faced the demand of the new black citizens for equal treatment under the law. Such treatment ran counter to southern traditions, and there was uncertainty whether white officials would accord blacks true justice. Many scholars have studied blacks and the law during the years after Reconstruction, but their investigations have been limited to such areas of public policy as segregation and voting rights. Yet, the ability of blacks to receive fair treatment in the courts when attempting to collect a just debt, or when standing trial for petit larceny, probably was of greater importance to the majority of the black community. The treatment by the courts of blacks in the daily pursuit of private justice has remained unexamined. A study of such cases provides a more precise picture of the black legal experience than does the analysis of isolated civil rights cases.

The opinions of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals prove an excellent source for such a study. The opinions show that blacks did receive substantial justice before the high court. Blacks appeared as both appellants and appellees in a variety of civil causes. Even when the opposing litigants were of different races, the court approached the cases objectively and often ruled for the black party. The court also approached criminal cases on their merits. Black defendants, including some convicted of violent interracial crimes, earned reversal on the grounds of insufficient evidence and procedural irregularity. Even in criminal prosecutions under the antimiscegenation statutes, which the court strongly endorsed, the judges required the prosecution to meet a strict burden of proof.

Beyond reporting the specific result of individual cases, the appellate opinions contain comments by the judges which reveal their attitude toward the rights of black citizens and the law's responsibility to protect those rights. The reports also provide other helpful information. The facts of the cases contain references to such aspects of black life as family relations, business transactions, and relations between the races. Finally the case reports serve as a source of information. about the. treatment of blacks in the state's legal system generally. The histories of the cases recapitulated in the reports suggest that the lower courts did not always accord blacks the same level of justice as did the Supreme Court.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Virginia -- Supreme Court of Appeals, African Americans -- Civil rights -- Virginia -- History

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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