LC in History: Racism in the ‘Burg

Dr. Clifton W. Potter Jr., LC History Professor~

Did racism exist in Lynchburg after the Civil War and Reconstruction?  Of course it did – and in every other city and town on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Was the Klu Klux Klan active in the Lynchburg area? Yes, but not as much as klaverns in the Mid-West.  How extensive was racism in central Virginia, and how intrusive was it in Lynchburg?

After the end of Reconstruction in Virginia in 1870, the blacks that were free before the war assumed the leadership of their newly enfranchised brethren.  By the 1880s local blacks were actually elected to City Council.  Jefferson Anderson and Henry Edwards represented a predominately African-American ward, and thus anticipated by 80 years, the true democratization of the city’s government. Unfortunately by the end of the century, the forces of reaction had stopped the involvement of black men in local politics. Carter Glass, who would help create the Federal Reserve System, and U.S. Senator John Warwick Daniel, a native of Lynchburg, helped to rewrite the Virginia constitution so that blacks and poor whites would, again, be disenfranchised.

By the beginning of World War I, Lynchburg was a fully segregated society—even the names of the soldiers who died in that conflict were separated by race on the plaque erected at the base of Monument Terrace.  This situation was not unique to Lynchburg or the South.  Real change, lasting change, only began after World War II, and especially after the United States Supreme Court rejected the principle of “separate but equal” in the famous Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case.  In the years that followed this landmark decision, a number of school systems closed their doors rather than integrate.  This did not happen in Lynchburg for a number of reasons.

The colleges in the area—Virginia Seminary and College, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Sweet Briar College and Lynchburg College—provided a cadre of potential leaders for the transformation of the community. The arrival of a number of professional engineers and management personnel to staff the new General Electric and Babcock and Wilcox plants changed the social dynamic of the city.  They were from areas of the North where segregation was already a thing of the past. Finally, the leaders of the local black churches, fraternal organizations and social clubs were willing to work with their white counterparts to create an increasingly more integrated society.  It was not an easy task—it never is—and it is still a work in progress.

On December 14, 1960, six college students—two from LC, two from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and two from Virginia Seminary and College—attempted to integrate the lunch counter at Patterson’s Drug Store on Main Street.  They were arrested, tried and sentenced to brief jail terms, but their courage emboldened the rest of the community, and Lynchburg can now take pride in over half a century of progress in race relations.  Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done.  LC has been in the vanguard, and I trust it always will be.