Group One Materials
November 3, 1883.
On November 3rd, 1883, the Danville streets exploded with violence. Originally referred to as the “Danville Riot,” the event is now known as the “Danville Massacre.” Examine the documents below to understand the event, the biases of those who wrote about it, and how to draw information from a variety of sources.
Use this worksheet as a guide to help you understand and analyze the primary sources below!
Timeline of Events Leading to the Danville Massacre of 1883
November 1879 - The Readjuster Party [biracial, many African-American supporters] wins majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.
- March 4, 1881 - William Mahone, a Readjuster, begins his term in the U.S. Senate.
- March 14, 1881 - Almost 300 African American Republicans convene in Petersburg and decide to endorse the Readjuster Party in the important 1881 general election.
- 1882 - Readjusters win eight of twelve seats on the Danville Common Council. Four of the elected Readjusters are African American.
- Summer 1883 - Nearly 100 men are indicted in Danville for carrying concealed firearms, a spike in the normal number.
- October 1883 - Twenty-eight white men and businesses in Danville sign their names to the anti-Readjuster broadside "Coalition Rule in Danville," also known as the Danville Circular. It targets African Americans as a disruptive presence in the city.
- November 2, 1883 - William E. Sims, chairman of the Pittsylvania County Readjusters, denounces the Danville Circular outside Danville's old post office.
- November 3, 1883 - Racial and political tensions erupt in an election-eve street fight in Danville that leaves at least one white and four black men dead.
- November 6, 1883 - Democrats win a large majority in both houses of the General Assembly, unseating the Readjuster Party.
- November 13–21, 1883 - The so-called Committee of Forty meets in Danville to investigate the violence of November 3. It concludes that African Americans were to blame.
- May 27, 1884 - The U.S. Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections concludes that whites were to blame for the violence in Danville on November 3, 1883.
- November 1885 - The Democratic Party sweeps to power, winning all statewide elected offices. The Readjuster Party dissolves, with many of its members becoming Republicans.
Timeline source: Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Danville_Riot_1883
Benjamin Wolfe, Virginia Humanities:
“Feeling threatened socially, politically, and economically, a number of white citizens… attacked Readjuster rule in general and African Americans in particular.... [An] altercation on the street between a white man and two African American men escalated into violence. After several white men fired guns … 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.”
Notice: This primary source, like many produced during this time, contains difficult and outdated racially charged hate speech. While it has been marked out here, keep in mind that it is important to know this language was used.
This is the court record of Henderson “Hense” Lawson’s testimony during the 1883 and 1884 trials about the events of November 3rd. Hense Lawson was a black Danvillian accused of purposefully bumping into a white man while walking downtown.
What do we know about the incident from this document? Who is writing this? Why? Who would the audience be?
What biases or social behaviors can you point out in this source?
Don’t forget to use the worksheet provided above to help guide you through these analyses.
- Document 2
The testimony of Charles. D. Noell, the white man involved in the case, tells a different story than Lawson’s testimony.
Remember: What context surrounds this testimony? What does Noell’s testimony show us about his own beliefs and views on the world?
What can we learn from this snippet of his testimony? What biases does Noell possess? How do the accounts differ?
- Document 3
The Danville Times newspaper published this headline once the Democratic party seized control of local government once again following the massacre.
What does this tell us about the newspaper? About people publishing information to the public? About who the newspaper’s intended audience was?
Primary sources should be examined before accepting them as truth. Biases are a part of being human— we all have them, and they affect how we write. This is true of those writing throughout history.
What did you learn about the writers in Danville from the exercise above?