Robert Austin Paul

This encyclopedia entry is slated for publication in the African-American National Biography series which is being edited by Henry L. Gates and Evelyn Higginbotham and published by Oxford University Press.  I discovered R.A. Paul in my research on William Mahone and the Crater.  I’ve always wanted to try my hands at writing a biography and Paul would be the perfect subject.  Postwar Virginia is an incredibly interesting time in which to do research, especially the years of Readjuster control.  There was a great deal of black political action that unfortunately falls outside our radar screens in large part due to the fact that we carve up Reconstruction in a way that misses the changes that took place in Virginia after 1877.

Paul, Robert
Austin (3 Nov. 1846–1902), soldier and politician, was born to literate slaves in Virginia. As a young man Paul was taught how to read by his mother, father, and grandfather, Richard Madison. In 1852 he was sold to a neighboring slave owner, abruptly endinghis lessons until after the Civil War. Following the Civil War Paul took a job in a hotel (perhaps in Petersburg) but managed to pursue informal studies under the supervision of his mother; within a short period of time Paul was reading on such subjects as ancient history and pursuing law through Blackstone’s Commentaries. All the while he expressed an interest in a political career.

Paul eventually joined the Republican Party, though he played no active role until 1874 when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Virginia’s
ex-Democratic governor, Gilbert C. Walker. Even as Republicans struggled to counter Virginia’s Conservative Party, Paul remained active by supporting Rutherford B. Hayes against Samuel Tilden in the presidential election of 1876. Two years later he supported W. W. Newman in his unsuccessful bid for Congress against former Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. In addition Paul was appointed bailiff in 1877, and commissioned U. S. Deputy in 1880.

Paul’s political and public prominence was due in large part to the formation and success of the Readjuster Party in 1879, led by former Confederate Major General William Mahone. The rise of the Readjusters was spurred by the question of what to do about Virginia’s state debt which totaled $45,000,000 in 1870—the result of internal improvements made during the antebellum years. The Readjusters included black and white Republicans along with disgruntled Democrats like Mahone. They advocated scaling back the debt (or readjusting it) and supporting the state’s commitment to public education. By 1881 the Readjusters had control of the legislature and elected their own governor. Paul was slow to speak out in support of the Readjusters, but after election to
the Republican State Convention in 1880 called for a union with the bi-racial party. On 14 March 1881 Virginia Republicans, including Paul, met in Petersburg and decided to support the Readjusters. In June of that year Paul served as a delegate to the Readjuster State Convention in Richmond and supported William Cameron for governor. In addition the State Executive Committee appointed Paul to the position of campaign orator—one of only a handful of black Readjusters appointed to such a position.

Once in power the Readjusters adjusted the state debt downward to $21,000,000, leaving sufficient funds for public schools, the hiring of black teachers, and even a hospital for mentally ill African Americans in Petersburg. In 1882 Paul was appointed by Governor Cameron to the position of “Doorkeeper
to the Executive or Messenger to the Governor and Secretary of the Commonwealth.” He was the first black man to occupy this position. That same year Paul campaigned vigorously for the Readjusters in the Congressional elections on a platform calling for black suffrage, free education, and acknowledgment of the provisions contained in the Fourteenth Amendment. Along with the rest of the Readjusters he worked to abolish the poll tax and whipping post, which had been used to limit the black vote. The General Assembly passed legislation supporting a Literary Fund and appropriated funds for black public schools. In 1882 Paul was elected to the Richmond school board. Under his leadership black enrollment soared between 1881 and 1884 and the state mandated equal pay for black and white teachers. In addition Paul helped appoint three black men to the position of principal, and thirty-four new black teachers were selected to fill schools previously occupied by white teachers.

The end of Readjuster control of Virginia’s state government in 1883 also ended Paul’s political influence. Paul participated in the Readjuster Convention of 1884 and joined with others in aligning themselves with the Republican Party; in 1888 Paul joined the “Anti-Mahone” faction at the Republican State Convention. With the demise of the Readjuster Party Paul continued to work to improve the social standing of Virginia’s African-American population. In 1883 Paul helped subsidize the Richmond Planet, which was in publication for forty-five years and edited by John Mitchell Jr. Paul also remained involved with Lodge no. 2 of the black Knights of Pythias which he founded in 1882 in Richmond. In addition to these roles Paul commanded the black militia unit, the Richmond State Guard from 1878 to 1891. The unit was deployed by Governor Fitzhugh Lee in 1878 to Newport News to put down a strike which included black longshoremen.

Paul’s brief but active political career serves as a reminder that Virginia’s black population achieved notable success in the public sphere between Reconstruction and the more stringent segregation codes and practices that would define the Jim Crow South by the turn of the century.

Further Reading

Alexander, Anne F. Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting Editor” John Mitchell Jr.(2002).
Blake, Nelson M. William Mahone of Virginia:
Soldier and Political Insurgent
(1935).
Dailey, Jane. Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (2000).
Williams, D. B. A Sketch of the Life and Times of Capt. R. A. Paul (1885).

2 thoughts on “Robert Austin Paul

  1. matthew mckeon

    Great post. I’ve read your other posts about the Readjusters, and other political efforts in VA, after the Compromise of 1877. Makes the excellent point that white supremacy wasn’t preordained, but had to be imposed.
    In 20 years I have never taught Reconstruction very successfully, instead giving a broad cartoonish melodrama with stock characters: scalawags, carpetbaggers, KKK, Ben Tillman, Andrew Johnson. Oh well, there’s always next year. Plan to read the recentlly published “Redemption.” Any thoughts on that?

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Glad to hear that some of these posts are getting you to rethink how to talk about Reconstruction. I have not read Redemption and don’t plan on reading it. You may want to read Ed Ayers’s review in the Washington Post from a few months back. I recommend Eric Foner’s book Reconstruction as the place to start.

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