The Richmond History Podcast

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The "Lilly Black" Ticket

John Mitchell Jr, from the Library of Virginia
The American 1920's are commonly described with words like "roaring", denoting jazz, prohibition, speakeasies, flappers, and good times.  This doesn't address the political alienation of the black community through  Jim Crow.  In 1920 the Republican Party in Virginia developed a plan to further that alienation.  W.E.B. Du Bois' newspaper The Crisis described the plan like this:

"Mr Slemp (Congressman C Bascom Slemp) conceived the idea that if the GOP would simply ignore the negros, ostracize them, rob them of their weight in Republican conventions, it could win the Commonwealth with white votes, "Lily White" votes alone.  The plan was widely advertised."1

The plan was not openly endorsed by President Warren G. Harding or the Republican national chairman Will H. Hays, but rumors had them more then half endorsing the plan.1  This was an extra betrayal coming form the party of Lincoln, the great emancipator, which received most black votes at the time.  It emboldened the black leaders in Richmond, VA to put forward their own candidates.   These candidates have become know as the "Lily-Black" party by historians.   Richmond's black leaders of the time never used the term "Lily-Black".2 The term was first used by the Times-Dispatch, the leading Richmond white paper, on Aug, 7 1921, when they ran the headline "Lilly-Blacks Will Hold Big Conference Today".2  In contrast, on Sept 10, 1921 the cover of The Richmond Examiner, a black newspaper, read "The Republican 7", with a bust of their Gubernatorial candidate, John Mitchell Jr.2

Maggie Walker, 1920, courtesy of Maggie L. Walker NHS
John Mitchell Jr. was a community activist, the "crusading" editor of The Planet newspaper, a leader of the Knights of Pythias, President of the National Afro-American Press Association, and Founder and President of The Mechanics Savings Bank.3  Also running on the ticket was Maggie Lenna Walker for Superintendent of Public instruction, making her the first African-American woman to run for state office in Virginia.  Walker's presence on the ticket is more significant when you consider that the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, giving women the right to vote was only ratified Aug 18, 1920.4

The reaction in the white community was nation wide.  In Feb 1922 The Crisis reprinted this expert from a Houston, Texas paper:

"We may expect a string of saddle colored aspirants for office all over the south.  We may have one or two limelight-seeking negros in Houston, but we will have no negro officers, not as long as the Klu Klux lives and breathes"1

The Republican 7 were not completely supported by the black community either.  The controversial campaign prompted other black Virginia newspapers, including the Journal and Guide of Norfolk, to oppose them on the grounds it would split the black vote.3

Even in the Jim Crow era, with laws and portions of the white community preventing blacks from registering or voting, they still got about 20,000 votes while more blacks were thought to have voted for the Democrats in protest.1  The Republican 7 did not win, but the neither did the "lily-white" Republicans.  The Republicans lost eight seats in the Virginia House2 and the Democrat, Elbert Lee Trinkle won the Governor's mansion.  But even in loosing a statement was made.  An actual number was put on how many votes the black community could deliver or take away.5  A Brooklyn, NY paper wrote, "It is a warning to a Republican Administration that there is no hope in deserting their Negro allies."1  The St Luke Herald, Maggie Walker's newspaper, hoped the Democratic win would bring reconciliation between the white and black Republicans.2

Mitchell's failed bid for Governor weighed upon him.3  Shortly after his campaign he was accused of misusing tens of thousands of dollars from the Mechanics bank funds.3  The case eventually reached the State Supreme Court where Mitchell countered that the charges where retaliation for his Gubernatorial run the previous year.3  Many in the black community rallied around him, contributing to the "John Mitchell Jr Defense Fund".3  After almost a year, the conviction was set aside, yet the bank did not survive.  It closed in 1922.3  The trial left him broken, only retaining his newspaper, though his "strong arm was never the same".3 He remained editor until he died Dec. 3, 1929.3 

1. The Crisis, Feb 1922
2. Right of the Season: The Politics of Race, Class, and Gender in Richmond Va, By Lewis A. Randolph, Gayle T. Tate
5. Weight of ther Votes: Southern Woman and Political Leverage in the 1920's, Lorraine Gates Schuyler

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