Managing white supremacy : politics and culture in Virginia, 1919-1939

Smith, John Douglas, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Department of History, University of Virginia
Gaston, Paul M., Department of History, University of Virginia

Throughout the 1920s, white elites in Virginia found it increasingly difficult to manage white supremacy. For decades, state-level political leaders, business executives, and newspaper editors had advocated a paternalistic vision of race relations. They supported segregation and disfranchisement laws in the name of order and stability, but also pledged to protect the commonwealth's black citizens from the excesses of the white masses. During the twenties, however, faced with internal contradictions inherent in the commonwealth's social and political system and challenged from without by blacks emboldened by their experience in World War I, elite notions of paternalism had begun a process of slow erosion. Although blacks lacked the leverage to overturn Jim Crow for several decades, they made clear their resistance to managed race relations and revealed the inherent limitations of such arrangements.

The maintenance of Jim Crow and white supremacy entailed overt power struggles on a daily basis. Cultural and ideological inertia did not ensure the perpetuation of segregation; instead a panoply of issues from the distribution of municipal resources to the application of criminal justice demanded constant negotiation and involved continual contestation. The activities of whites and blacks in Virginia in the 1920s and 1930s argue against popular and historiographical notions of a static period in race relations. The situation, contrary to the conclusion of historian George Tindall, was far from "settled." Instead, the 1920s and 1930s suggest a time of quiet but intense struggle.

Elite whites in Virginia had long enjoyed a reputation for friendly race relations. They denounced the Ku Klux Klan and pledged to ensure the fair treatment of the commonwealth's black citizens. In return, black elites agreed to work for change through channels acceptable to white elites. In the 1920s, however, paternalistic elites in the Old Dominion failed to prevent the rise of ideological extremism and the passage of legislation 11 aimed at fm1her isolating black Virginians. In addition, elites found traditional methods of managing white supremacy irrelevant in meeting the growing concerns of non-elite whites.

By the end of the 1920s, blacks in Virginia recognized that the achievement of their goals and desires could no longer depend on the unreliable whims of even their best­ intentioned white neighbors. In response, they developed new strategies which entailed a rejection of Virginia's tradition of elite paternalism. Emboldened by a series of court victories between 1929 and 1931, blacks in Virginia began to demand more vociferously that whites take seriously their own ideology of separate but equal. By the end or the 1930s, even the most progressive whites in Virginia announced that black demands had become "too radical for us."

Events in Virginia in the 1920s and 1930s did not fundamentally alter the basic boundaries of white supremacy. Whites retained total control of the electoral and law­ making functions of the state and local governments. Blacks continued to live in poorer neighborhoods, had little access to recreational facilities, and attended far inferior schools.

Nevertheless, the management of white supremacy became increasingly difficult and required new laws and strategies. Leading whites found themselves on the defensive, confronted with challenges to their authority on all fronts. Unable to maintain control over every aspect of race relations in Virginia, dominant whites made choices on a daily basis that perpetuated the power and privilege to which they had grown accustomed and which they thought they required.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

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

All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: