Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 110 / Number 3
"They Are as Proud of Their Uniform as Any Who Serve Virginia": African American Participation in the Virginia Volunteers, 1872–99
- By Roger D. Cunningham, pp. 293–338
Between 1872 and 1899, Virginia armed and equipped at least twenty black companies in its organized militia—the
Virginia Volunteers. The units were raised in Danville, Fredericksburg, Hampton, Lynchburg, Manchester, Norfolk, Petersburg,
Portsmouth, Richmond, and Staunton for periods of time that ranged from less than a year to more then a quarter century.
The number of black militiamen peaked at about 1,000 men in the early 1880s.
African American militia units primarily served a social and recreational function within their respective communities, like
fraternal organizations, but they also participated in local, state, and national ceremonies, including four presidential inaugurations,
and responded to domestic disorder on at least five occasions. Governor Fitzhugh Lee's 1887 deployment of Richmond's State
Guard to quell a black longshoremen's strike in Newport News was the only such activation of a black unit by a southern governor.
Virginia’s treatment of the units was relatively equitable, but the black militiamen were often armed with the oldest and most
defective weapons and were excluded from the brigade that eventually included all white units.
During the Spanish-American War, African American units combined to form the Sixth Virginia Volunteer Infantry and
remained in federal service for almost eight months. Angered by the racist attitude of its white commander and the discrimination
that it encountered at Camp Haskell, near Macon, Georgia, the regiment was plagued with disciplinary problems. Its embarrassing
performance combined with a rising tide of racism to end black participation in the Virginia Volunteers by the turn of the century.