The Lee Monument in Richmond has been the epicenter of the latest protests against police brutality and systemic racism in the city. It has been a gathering place for protesters who have painted the pedestal with brightly colored graffiti. In the midst of this, I grew curious about how Richmond residents, especially African Americans, responded to the monument’s unveiling in 1890. To learn more, I turned to The Planet, Richmond’s African American-run newspaper and the voice of its editor John Mitchell, Jr. While in quarantine from COVID-19, I was able to read this historic newspaper and other newspapers online for free through Chronicling America and through a subscription to newspapers.com.
I intended to read opposing views on the monument, but I instead learned about election fraud committed against African Americans the week the Lee Monument was unveiled. I have written an account of what happened and hope this will help more residents in Richmond to understand the context in which the Lee Monument and other Confederate Monuments were raised. I have included a hyperlink to every source cited, which will allow anyone reading this to see and explore the original newspaper accounts online.
The Lee Monument was unveiled on Thursday, May 29, 1890. The Planet was a weekly paper, and the first issue printed after the unveiling was Saturday, May 31, 1890. The front page had a small article on the Lee Monument where John Mitchell Jr., described the rebel flags, rebel yells, and decorations. Of the festivities he said:
“These emblems of the ‘Lost Cause,’ many of which had been perforated by Union bullets were carried with an enthusiasm that astounded many… The South may revere the memory of its chieftains. It takes the wrong steps in so doing and proceeds to go too far in every similar celebration. It serves to retard its progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound.”
This was a blistering assessment; However, the headline at the top of the first column caught most of my attention. “Fraud in Jackson Ward. Ballot-Box Stuffing – Schemes Which were Frustrated – How it Failed.”
I was disturbed to read about election fraud in the African American neighborhood of Jackson Ward, particularly the week the Lee Monument was unveiled. I learned that Richmond held a local election for city officials one week earlier, on Thursday, May 22, 1890. Jackson Ward was one of several neighborhoods voting that day. It was a bustling African American neighborhood and a stronghold for the Republican Party.
It is important that I pause here to clarify that the Republican and Democratic parties in 19th century Richmond should not be confused with the two political parties today. In the 19th century, the Democratic Party in Richmond was generally favored by those who supported the Confederacy. The Republican Party in Richmond was generally favored by African American residents and Union Veterans.
The Republicans were split in Jackson Ward for this election, and they put forward two ballots for a vote. The Democrats learned of this division and submitted a last-minute ballot the morning of the election in the hopes that they would secure a victory. The day before the election, The Richmond Dispatch ran an article alerting readers to the Democratic ballot in Jackson Ward, which ran next to an article heralding the “Southern Chieftain” Robert E. Lee in advance of the monument’s unveiling. It is important to remember that the two events occurred simultaneously.
As election day dawned in Richmond, certain members of the Democratic Party were not content to simply hope they would win in Jackson Ward, so they used voter suppression, intimidation, and ballot-box stuffing to increase their chances. Their efforts seemed well coordinated despite the last-minute Democratic ballot (more on this in an afterward). In Jackson Ward's Second Precinct, election officials prevented African American men from voting based on their answers to trivial questions and by making them wait without reason. This included men who had been voting in that neighborhood for as long as 20 years. Officials further did not allow any residents who lived on Goddin Street to vote because the street name had been changed from Webster Street. The new street name was accurately reflected in the poll books, but officials still did not allow those residents to vote. The Planet listed some of the names of those who were not allowed to vote, and I've included their names along with the details I found on their lives in an afterward.
In the First Precinct, Richmond police officers were out “in full force” intimidating African American men into voting for their candidate for City Sergeant. The reports of police officers committing voter intimidation were haunting, particularly in light of the current protests against police brutality and other misconduct. The police officers favored Charles H. Epps, who was the Police Captain and a Confederate Veteran. His opponent was the incumbent James C. Smith, who the police arrested for “being disorderly” the day of the election. The officer who made the arrest was Thomas C. Epps.  His name led me to study the genealogy of both Charles and Thomas, and I learned that they were brothers. I've included more on J.C. Smith, his arrest, and allegations against him, which I was not able to verify, in an afterward.
The Planet further reported on the disturbing behavior of one man in particular: Preston Belvin. He was a prominent white businessman and a member of Richmond’s Board of Alderman, representing Madison Ward. Belvin hindered and obstructed African American men from voting in Jackson Ward’s First Precinct, and “a coterie of officers” supported him in his efforts.The Planet reported that this illegal behavior occurred despite Belvin being under a federal indictment. The article didn’t specify what the indictment was for, so I had to plunge deeper into Richmond’s historic newspapers.
The results are jaw-dropping: one month earlier, a Grand Jury with the United States Circuit Court in Richmond delivered an indictment against Preston Belvin and several other prominent white Democrats for acting to, “unlawfully and maliciously combine and confederate with each other… to hinder, delay, prevent, and obstruct” voters in Jackson Ward in the Congressional Election of 1888. This is shocking! Preston Belvin boldly exhibited the same behavior in the same neighborhood barely a month after his indictment. He clearly did not believe that he would face consequences. Further, the officers mentioned openly supported a man who was committing election fraud and who was already under a federal indictment for that behavior. Belvin and his fellow indicted conspirators did not hide the fact that they targeted African American voters when they claimed, “they simply performed a plain duty in challenging illegal colored voters.”
Now for the ballot-box stuffing. In Jackson Ward’s First Precinct, the ballot box contained 644 ballots whereas only 388 people had voted per the poll books. Therefore, 256 ballots were fraudulent, which represents a shocking 66% of the 388 voters that went to the polls. The Planet reported that the law required this to be addressed by selecting a man to remove surplus ballots while blindfolded so that the remaining ballots equaled the votes cast.
As an aside, that is a woefully incompetent method to address ballot-box stuffing. I was appalled enough to look up the details of this law for myself and found it immortalized in the 1887 Code of Virginia (Chapter X, Section 129). It is so absurd that I am suspicious that it was intentional. After 1877, white Southerners began to dismantle the progress made during Reconstruction with a particular focus on removing political power from African Americans. A law that focused on the number of ballots instead of the accuracy of the ballots indicates that lawmakers either didn’t understand the risks involved in ballot-box stuffing, or they understood them well and wrote the law to make sure those fraudulent tactics were successful.
Which man in Jackson Ward did officials select for the blindfolded task? To my horror, they chose Preston Belvin, who everyone knew was under a federal indictment for election fraud in that neighborhood. Once blindfolded, he removed 200 mostly African American Republican ballots, giving white Democrats the advantage (which was his intent). Both the Republican representative and the election judge objected, and Belvin angrily insisted that the others should manage the situation. Yes, someone under a federal indictment for election fraud should not be overseeing a resolution to the election fraud in which he was involved. An election judge was then blindfolded, and he pulled out 224 ballots that were a mix between Republican and Democrat. The 224 ballots still did not equal the required 256 ballots, but that seemed irrelevant. The Planet reported that “this overwhelming Republican Precinct” lost to the Democrats by 24 votes due to “fraud and corruption.”
Despite the loss in the First Precinct from ballot-box stuffing, the African American Republican voters prevailed in Jackson Ward’s other precincts, which produced a win for the party as a whole in that neighborhood. Disappointingly, The Dispatch described the election this way: “A more quiet election than that of yesterday has seldom, if ever, been held in this city.” Both The Dispatch and The Times failed to report the voter suppression, police intimidation, or ballot-box stuffing. The reporters for both newspapers were likely aware of the circumstances because both covered the election. The omission by both papers was likely intentional, and their readers were kept in the dark. The Planet referred to the fraudulent behavior as an “inanimate corpse of Democracy” and “a disgrace to Christian civilization.”
All of this played out less than two miles from Lee Circle where the Lee Monument would be unveiled seven days later. The unveiling ceremonies included a parade described by The Dispatch as “an imposing affair” that, “eclipsed anything of the kind ever seen in the South.” Thousands of Confederate Veterans from across the country marched in columns with their military units. This “imposing” parade was led by sixteen mounted police officers who rode ahead of the Chief Marshall, General Fitzhugh Lee. A platoon of thirty more police officers followed a bit later. How many of those officers had intimidated African American voters in Jackson Ward a week earlier? How many marchers helped Preston Belvin in his voter suppression tactics? It may not be possible to know. However, Charles H. Epps (Police Captain, Confederate Veteran, and newly elected City Sergeant) and his brother Thomas C. Epps, Jr. (also a Confederate Veteran), would likely have been among them.
It is important to understand that the unveiling ceremonies and the monument sent a message to Richmond's residents. That message was unmistakable to African American residents who had endured illegal voter suppression, ballot-box stuffing, and police misconduct the same week that white residents unveiled a monument to a man who led an army that fought for their enslavement. The pain they felt is hard to imagine, but we can see representations of it in the graffiti painted on the monument’s pedestal today.
I visited the Lee Monument while immersed in this research. The graffiti is striking, and it looms high above Monument Avenue. When I look at it, I see the pain that generations of African Americans have suffered, including the pain from June 1st of this year when Richmond police officers used tear gas against peaceful protesters at the monument without warning and before curfew. I also see a representation of the pain felt by the residents of Jackson Ward when the monument was unveiled.
The atmosphere the day I visited was pleasant and seemed hopeful. Free popsicles were being handed out, people were playing basketball, and families were taking pictures. I was especially heartened to see a voter registration table. Considering the election fraud I was researching, this took my breath away. I chatted with the volunteers and learned that the organizers are two local women who had joined the protests but wanted to do more. They formed a not-for-profit called Richmond Action Alliance and were actively registering people to vote.
The election fraud of May 1890 failed, but the white Democrats were undeterred in their efforts to prevent African American men from voting. A year later, a judge quashed the indictments against Preston Belvin and others for their actions in the 1888 election. The headline in The Dispatch announced to the city that, “It was not a Crime.” Judge Robert W. Hughes cited the Supreme Court case, United States v Cruikshank from 1876, which had determined that it was not a crime against the United States Government for individuals to interfere with the voting rights of others based on race. It was only a federal crime for a State to interfere with voting rights based on race. That Supreme Court case had opened the door for white supremacists across the South to interfere with African American voters.
In Richmond, the tactics grew to include marking the names of living voters as dead (preventing them from voting)  and forging the names of fake candidates with names similar to legitimate candidates onto ballots (confusing African American voters). These efforts ultimately led to the total disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Virginia Constitution of 1902. The disturbing discussions about the intentional removal of voting rights from African Americans are preserved in a formal report of the proceedings, which is available online.
Election fraud and voter suppression are linked to the unveiling of Confederate Monuments as white Southerners worked to dismantle the progress of Reconstruction. The Lee Monument and the fraud of May of 1890 are one example. The Dispatch directly linked the fresh memories of the war brought on by the Lee Monument to the election and encouraged residents to vote for Confederate Veterans. Historian Dr. Karen L. Cox has written on this topic in her recent article, The Racism of Confederate Monuments Extends to Voter Suppression. It is vital that we understand the context in which these monuments were raised. That history echoes to what we see today. The Planet’s editor, John Mitchell Jr., left us with a prediction on the Lee Monument, and he ought to have the last word. He pointed out that African American men were hired to do the work to raise it. Of that he said:
“[African Americans] put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down.”
Afterward: More on the Election Fraud and Preston Belvin
I was surprised by the well-coordinated tactics of Preston Belvin and his “coterie of officers” in light of the last-minute Democratic ballot. I looked back at The Dispatch the day before the election in May of 1890 and spotted a small notice to members of the Powhatan Club about a meeting to be held that night to discuss the election the next day. The notice was signed by the group’s president, Preston Belvin. His name leaped out, and I wondered if this organization could have been behind the last-minute coordinated efforts in Jackson Ward.
The Powhatan Club was a political organization for Democrats made up of prominent white men. Governor Fitzhugh Lee was a member. They operated as an auxiliary to the City Democratic Committee. The club and its President, Preston Belvin, (who The Planet ominously described as “a favorite among the boys”) advocated for segregated railroad cars, streetcars, and schools. They pushed for African American teachers to be replaced by white teachers and attempted to “array one class of citizens against another.” Their mission was clearly rooted in white supremacy. There's also evidence that the club was involved in voter suppression.
On the day of the election, The Times reported, “the work mapped out last night by the Powhatan Club will be felt in the election today.” The paper then confirmed this activity specifically in Jackson Ward with the following remark the day after the election: “the valiant Powhatan Brigade was as undaunted as ever." A year earlier in 1889, a newspaper article reported that the Powhatan Club sent 200 members to “do duty at the polls in Richmond on election day.” Remember that the club’s president, Preston Belvin, and others were indicted for election fraud committed a year before in 1888. They responded to that indictment by saying they, “simply performed a plain duty in challenging illegal colored voters.” It is clear that they planned to interfere with African American voters in May of 1890, allowed it to be reported in the papers, and did not deny it when indicted for similar activity in an election two years earlier.
The club only lasted a few more years and was bankrupt by 1896 as a result of financial mismanagement and leadership turnover. John Mitchell Jr. wrote of its demise in The Planet: “Well, ‘tis best that it should be so. A lesson to the demagogue of the future and a lasting reminder to those who were tempted to emulate its example. Selah.”
Afterward: The African American Men Prevented from Voting
The Planet listed some of the African American men who were prevented from voting in May of 1890. The names published are listed below. I performed basic genealogy on each to learn more about them as individuals. The 1890 Census would be the best place to start, but it burned and is lost to history. Therefore, I started with the city directory for Richmond, which is on Ancestry.com for the years 1889 and 1891. I then used any details learned to find them on the 1880 and 1900 Censuses.
Channing Carter of 14 E. Baker St. Channing M. Carter was born between 1864 and 1868. He worked as a Porter, Waiter, and Bartender in Richmond. His parents were Charles and Caroline Carter. His father worked in a restaurant, and his mother was a Laundress. His brother Charles was an Express Driver, his brother Edward was a Teacher, and his brother Willie was a Barber. His Grandmother, Liza Channing was 81 years old when she lived with the family in 1880, which puts her birth year in 1799.
Robert Taylor of 8 E. Duval St. Robert Taylor worked as a Laborer. There were nine African American men named “Robert Taylor” in the city directory and about as many in Richmond’s Jackson Ward in the 1880 and 1900 Censuses. Without more information, it is not yet possible to know which one is this Robert Taylor.
Edward Harris of 1022 St. James St. There were many African Americans named Edward Harris in Jackson Ward in the late 19th century. Fortunately, the article listed his address as 1022 St. James St. The 1889 Richmond city directory had an Edward Harris at that address, and he worked as a Coachman. Both the 1880 and 1900 Censuses for Richmond listed an Edward Harris who was a Coachman who was born between 1853 and 1854. Edward (or “Ned”) was married to a woman named Sarah (or "Sallie”), and they had a daughter named Ethel. Ethel Harris was 12 years old on the 1900 Census when it was taken on June 5th. Sadly, she died on the 17th of that month, and her obituary ran in The Planet on the 30th.
William Glasgow and his two sons William Glasgow was listed on the 1880 Census as living on Webster St. in Jackson Ward, which was changed to Goddin St. He was born in 1840 and was married to Sarah. They had a daughter, Mary, and two sons: Frank and Travers. Father and sons worked as Hucksters.
Richard Randolph of 408 Goddin St. Richard Randolph was listed as a Porter in the 1891 city directory. There was more than one African American man named “Richard Randolph” on the 1880 and 1890 Censuses. Without more information, it is not yet possible to identify which man is this Richard Randolph.
All other African American men that lived on Goddin St, which had been changed from Webster St.
More names were listed in the indictment against Preston Belvin and his conspirators from the 1888 Congressional Election. Many more were prevented from voting, but those listed in the indictment included: 
William Harris There were 15 African American men named William Harris in the 1889 city directory for Richmond, many of which lived in Jackson Ward. Without more clues, it is not yet possible to know which one was this William Harris.
Washington Meade Washington Meade lived at 1104 Boyd Street in Jackson Ward. He was born in 1820 and worked as a Quarryman. His wife, Clora, worked as a Laundress. Their children were Nora, Emily, Eliza, Eliza-Anne, and William H. Meade. He died before 1900 when his wife was listed as a widow on the 1900 Census.
Minor Johnson Minor Johnson was born between 1850 and 1852 to a mother named Martha. He married Margaret Lewis in Goochland in 1874. She was the daughter of Caroline and George Lewis. Minor Johnson worked as a Laborer, and Margaret worked as a Laundress.
George Mims George W. Mimms was born in 1853. He worked as a Teamster, and his wife, Georgianna Robinson Mimms worked as a Laundress. They were listed on Boyd Street in Jackson Ward on the 1889 city directory and on the 1900 Census. The 1900 Census has them living with Georgianna's father, Isaac Robinson, who was a Gardener.
Robert Banks There were two African American men named Robert Banks in the 1889 Richmond city directory. Both worked with plaster. There was one in 1891, and he was a Cook. There were several on the 1880 and 1900 censuses for the city, and without more information it is not yet possible to know which one is this Robert Banks.
Willis Brown Willis Brown may be the Willis Brown listed on the 1900 census as being born in 1860. He worked as a Day Laborer and was married to Betsie, who was a Laundress.
Afterward: J. C. Smith & his Campaign Against Charles H. Epps
The Times reported that J.C. Smith (or someone in his campaign) created Democratic ballots with his name on them in an attempt to confuse Democrats into voting for him. J.C. Smith was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and ran as an independent candidate. Therefore, a Democratic ballot with his name on it would be fraudulent. The Dispatch mentioned the incident the day before the election in two very small notices, which raises a question as to why they didn't highlight it further. His arrest on the day of the election was for disorderly conduct because The Times reported that he tore down a sign that highlighted his name on Republican ballots (not Democratic ballots). The fact that he was arrested by his opponent's brother and the fact that I cannot find evidence that he was charged in either case raises some questions that I have not been able to answer.
 Alexander, Ann Field. Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting Editor,” John Mitchell Jr. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia, 2002.  The Planet, May 31, 1890. Page 1, Column 2.  The Planet, May 31, 1890. Page 1, Column 1.  The Planet, May 24, 1890. Page 1, Columns 1 and 2.  The Dispatch, May 21, 1890. Page 1, Column 3.
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 The Times, May 23, 1890. Page 4, Column 3.  Norfolk Weekly Landmark, October 30, 1889. Page 2, Column 6.  Alexandria Gazette, April 10, 1890. Page 2, Column 2.  The Planet, October 3, 1896. Page 2, Column 2.  The Planet, May 24, 1890. Page 1, Columns 1 and 2.  The Dispatch, April 10, 1890. Page 1, Column 3.