Danville, VA coup and massacre A political coup and a race riot. On November 3, white conservatives in Danville, Virginia, seized control of the local government, racially integrated and popularly elected, killing four to seven African-Americans some say 20 or more in the process. The so-called Danville Riot, which took place on November 3, 1883, in Danville, was a racially motivated street fight that ended in the gun deaths of at least five people. It came at a time of high tension in the rapidly growing, majority–African American city. The biracial Readjuster Party had taken control of the city council in 1882. Feeling threatened socially, politically, and economically, a number of white citizens signed their names to what became known as the Danville Circular in October 1883. It attacked Readjuster rule in general and African Americans in particular. On November 2, the chairman of the Pittsylvania County Readjuster Party denounced the Circular in a public speech in Danville, and the next day, an altercation on the street between a white man and two African American men escalated into violence. After several white men fired guns (testimony is inconsistent about whether any black men were armed), at least five people, including four African Americans, were killed, and Democrats used the bloodshed to force local African Americans out of power and to steer them away from the polls. On November 6, the Democratic Party won back control of the General Assembly. A city investigation of the violence found fault with African Americans but led to no indictments. In 1884, a U.S. Senate committee found fault with Danville’s white population, but the judgment had little consequence. The Readjuster Party disappeared and with it, much of the political and social clout won by African Americans since the abolishment of Slavery.
A white militia captain arrived on the scene, as did E. M. Hatcher, who had been meeting with the Democrats at the Opera House. According to Adams’s testimony, he used a racial epithet in ordering the police officer to clear the street of African Americans. Earlier, George Lea had also ordered Adams to do his bidding, and when asked about it laterby a U.S. Senate committee, he explained: “Well, we generally speak that way to that class of people down there. We are in the habit of ordering them … I would not speak to them in the same way I would speak to a white man.”
The ever-growing crowd of African Americans now numbered as many as 100, perhaps more, and about half of them were women and children, according to the deposition of a bystander. While about twenty white men stood by, some with pistols raised, African Americans demanded that Lea be arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. The white police officer, Charles Freeman, urged them to go home, but they refused.
Two things then happened at once. Walter Holland, a white Democrat, stepped off the sidewalk toward one of the policemen. And several of the white men, including Lea, raised their pistols and fired.
A Senator later asked an African American bystander, R. W. Glass, whether the white men had “fired in the air.” Glass, who had expressed reservations about safely returning to Danville after his testimony, replied: “Well, I didn’t see them fire up in the air … I think they raised their pistols a little. I think some of them did, and I think some of them shot right in the crowd. Don’t think all raised their pistols.”
When the smoke cleared, Holland and three black men—Terry Smith, Edward Davis, and another whose name is unknown—lay dead in the street. A fourth black man died later of his wounds.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and after the crowd had scattered, white men with guns began looking for black citizens. William P. Graves found and confronted Charles Adams, the policeman’s brother, who had come out of a store to calm his horse. According to Officer Adams, Graves shot at Charles Adams twice, wounding him once in the right arm. Graves denied shooting Adams or that the horses Adams had tried to calm even existed.
Jack Redd, an African American Readjuster, testified that he saw Charles Adams bleeding and then the white crowd fired on him, prompting him to run. When the white men caught up with him, they delivered a beating and might have killed him were it not for the intervention of Congressman Cabell.
The town’s white militia and—against the urgings of Mayor J. H. Johnston—a number of its white citizens organized armed patrols to keep the streets clear of African Americans for the next several days. Democrats spread news of the violence and blamed it on Danville’s blasidewalk. Danville Riot, according to the lawyerBeverley Bland Munford, writing in 1905, “was nothing more nor less than a street fight between whites and blacks.” Although Munford did not say this explicitly, he seemed to imply that it was not, in fact, a riot, at least in the sense that calls to mind a large and violent group of people. Many white Virginians and their allies propagated the sense in the months and years that followed that the incident was an African American riot, and their preferred language came to define the events of November 3, 1883. Institutions less sympathetic to Democratic politics, such as the Chicago Tribune, which was owned by Republicans, referred to the “Danville Massacre.” So did the New York Times, which described in its headline“Inoffensive Negroes Shot Down in Great Numbers by Inflamed Whites.” The historian Jane Dailey has also used the word “massacre,” suggesting, like the Times, that Danville’s African Americans were defenseless and their killing a crime.
In their own defense, some of Danville’s white citizens denied that any white man had fired into a crowd of African Americans. Others insisted that the African Americans gathered on the street were armed, too, and that the white men had only fired in self-defense. The historian Jane Dailey has argued that no evidence exists supporting the idea that any of the black men carried weapons. “More to the point,” she has written, “the blacks outnumbered the whites by an estimated margin of ten to one. Had the black men been armed, they might have massacred the white men on the sidewalk.
from November 13 to 21 and concluded that armed African Americans had provoked the shooting and that Danville’s African Americans in general had become “rude, insolent and intolerant to the white citizens of the town.” No one was charged or tried for any crime. On May 27, 1884, after hearing more than 160 witnesses, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections concluded the opposite of the Committee of Forty, but to equal effect.
After the violence in Danville, two things seemed abundantly clear: that the Democrats were ascendant politically and that African Americans had been forcefully rebuked. In the words of the RichmondDaily Dispatch, they had been “taught a lesson.” “These negroes [in Danville] had evidently come to regard themselves as in some sort the rightful rulers of the town,” the paper’s editor wrote. “They have been taught a lesson—a dear lesson, it is true … but nevertheless a lesson which will not be lost upon them, nor upon their race elsewhere in Virginia.”