Did William Mahone Believe in Racial Equality?

A couple weeks ago I was interviewed for a story that was published yesterday by The Virginian-Pilot about former Confederates who supported African Americans during the postwar period. I focused on William Mahone, who was the subject of my first book. The reporter was interested in whether his postwar career as the leader of the Readjuster Party complicates his legacy and whether it offers a reason to keep his name on a stretch of Virginia highway and maintain his monument located on the Crater battlefield in Petersburg.

As I pointed out during the interview, Mahone led what I believe is the most successful bi-racial coalition of the nineteenth-century—a coalition that benefited Black Virginians in countless ways. Not surprisingly, the reporter wanted to know if Mahone’s postwar career signaled a shift in his racial outlook. Did he come to embrace racial equality. This question also came up in conversation with an NPR reporter in Virginia who is working on a follow-up story on this subject.

In both cases I was extremely careful in how I framed my response, at times almost to the point of wanting to avoid the question altogether. Both reporters were not about to let me off the hook so easily. They wanted a story of redemption. In Mahone’s case it’s an incredibly seductive narrative. On July 30, 1864 Mahone led a successful Confederate counterattack at the Crater that included the massacre of upwards of 200 United States Colored Troops only to lead a bi-racial political party that transformed Virginia twenty years later.

I’ve done my best over the years to try to piece together Mahone’s racial outlook, but the problem is that the historical record doesn’t warrant anything conclusive. It would be easy to give in to the redemptive narrative. It certainly would make for a good book, but historians must hold fast to the available historical record.

What we can say is that Mahone saw a political opportunity in aligning himself with Black Virginians. He recognized that Black and white Virginians could find common ground around a host of issues such as public schools and other public projects.

What I tried to emphasize during the interviews is that, ultimately, the question of what Mahone believed on the racial front is not nearly as important as what he did. The real lesson that the Readjusters offer is that Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement was not inevitable after the Civil War. There were moments of bi-racial cooperation that took hold in Virginia and elsewhere that could have continued, but for the specter of white supremacy that all too often broke whatever bonds had been formed.

The relevant issue regarding Mahone is not whether he should be honored or commemorated, but the lessons that can be learned from a closer look at his political victories in a society plagued by racism—lessons that his detractors all but ensured would be erased from the pages of history for nearly a century.

7 comments… add one
  • Walter D Kamphoefner Mar 2, 2021 @ 16:41

    Though he’s in a slightly later period, Tom Watson stood up for black voting rights in the Populist era, only to support black disfranchisement in the early 20th century. Maybe it’s because he didn’t live long enough, but at least Mahone didn’t undergo that kind of backsliding, instead evolving into a Republican.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 1, 2021 @ 14:34

    For anyone asking if [insert historical figure] believed in racial equality, I feel like asking, “What about you? Do YOU believe in racial equality?”

    As for Mahone’s case, I wonder if he may have had a repentance for his past sins (his involvement in the murders of Black soldiers at the Crater) in the years after the war. I suppose that is possible and such a change might be what the people who interviewed you were looking for. But a person’s politics may not necessarily match their personal beliefs.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2021 @ 14:44

      Hi Bryan,

      Good to hear from you. There is absolutely zero evidence that Mahone regretted what happened at the Crater.

      But a person’s politics may not necessarily match their personal beliefs.

      On this point we are in complete agreement.

  • Emmanuel Dabney Mar 1, 2021 @ 4:52

    I was interviewed as well, and my take is that while much still needs to be done deciphering Mahone’s messy handwriting–the bottom line is I don’t see him as completely jumping away from white men should remain in power. It wasn’t like he was supporting Black men to have the highest ranks of leadership in the Readjuster party. As I said–Mahone is complicated. Whether or not a road I hardly travel needs to be renamed, I’ll leave for people in that community to decide.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2021 @ 4:56

      Hi Emmanuel,

      I insisted that the reporter contact you. Glad to hear they followed through. You make a really good point about the place of African Americans in the Readjuster Party. At the same time, I think it is important to recognize the extent to which Black politicians leveraged the moment for their own gain.

      • Emmanuel Dabney Mar 1, 2021 @ 4:59

        Oh I fully agree. As I said the Readjuster party benefitted numerous members of my family who attended Virginia State University. From it government workers, educators, and a doctor.

        I guess that’s a bigger point–let’s reframe this from “Is Mahone bad/good?” to “What agency do Black men have in post-Civil War Virginia?”

        • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2021 @ 5:04

          You nailed it. Mahone can’t be understood apart from the initiatives taken by Black political leaders during Reconstruction and beyond. They helped to make a postwar-Mahone even possible.

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