A Look at Virginians During Reconstruction

Author: Adapted with permission from lesson by Elly Greene and Linda Sargent Wood
School: Piloted at Lane Elementary School, Fairfax County as part of a Laurel Grove School Curriculum Project
Grade Level: Elementary School
Time Estimated: 2 days


In this lesson students will examine how governmental actions during Reconstruction (1865-77) affected individual choices. Students will consider the lives of African Americans in Virginia during this period, noting how national and state political actions impacted the education of African Americans in Virginia. This lesson focuses on the opportunities that Reconstruction opened up for African Americans. Specifically, it provides students the opportunity to learn about a former slave, William Jasper, and his family. It works well after students have learned about slavery and the Civil War in Virginia, and before students study the effects of segregation and “Jim Crow” on life in Virginia—a time during which many of these opportunities vanished.



Historical Background

Virginia, 1865-1870

The 1869 Virginia Constitution, unlike previous state charters, mandated public education. Virginia’s position on public education—let alone its position on educating blacks—had been tenuous at best. Despite the efforts of some of its more famous citizens, the state had long resisted a system of free schools. Thomas Jefferson’s unsuccessful campaign for free schools had yielded little more than a literary fund for indigent children. All of that began to change when Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of March 2, 1867 and demanded that southern states ratify new constitutions guaranteeing black suffrage. Once these constitutions met with congressional approval and after the state approved the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress promised re-admittance into the Union.

Responding to the Reconstruction Act, Virginians registered voters and called an election to decide if the state would hold a convention to revise the state’s constitution. In 1867, 226 Fairfax County blacks registered to vote and cast their ballots unanimously in favor of a constitutional convention. In 1869, they returned to the polls and voted for adoption of the Constitution.

At the 1867-1868 Constitutional Convention, education proved to be one of the most hotly debated topics. (The state’s war debt was the other top issue.) Though delegates, largely comprised of northern emigrants and freedmen, easily approved a public school system, they were strongly divided over the question of integration. Many northern immigrants viewed public schools as the foundation of a democratic society and a key to reconstruction of the South. They were not prepared, however, to vote for schools in which black and white children sat next to each other. When black members introduced resolutions ensuring equal access to education “without distinction of color,” most white delegates never took these suggestions seriously. Even radicals who supported desegregation voted against such resolutions. Mindful of widespread sentiment against mixed schools, they did not want to risk ratification. In the end, while most assumed public schools would be segregated, no language could be agreed upon and the question was not resolved until the legislature revisited the issue in 1870.

Though blacks lost their campaign for mixed schools, they still crossed a milestone. Gaining access to public education was significant. However, as a result of poor political and financial support, Virginia’s first public schools for both blacks and whites were grossly inadequate. Many did not have heat or toilets, schools were small and scattered, and the average term was less than the five months mandated by the Constitution, and attendance, which was not required, was sparse. Despite these conditions—and those for black children were considerably worse than those for whites—black and white children still learned.

The William Jasper family, 1808-1870 [Talking Points]

  • William Jasper, an African American, was probably born in 1808 not far from George Washington’s plantation in Mount Vernon. He was born a slave on the Hayfield plantation of William Hayward Foote. Foote was one of the richest men in Fairfax County—when he died he owned 50 slaves.

  • Jasper worked on a plantation that grew wheat and corn, and raised horses, cattle, sheep and hogs. Slaves at Hayfield, including Jasper, are likely to have been skilled as blacksmiths and carpenters.

  • Jasper and his family were not sold south to booming cotton and sugar plantations, as were many other slaves.

  • According to his will, Foote decided to free his slaves on or soon after his death in 1846. At this time Jasper, in his thirties, was valued by appraisers to be worth $350. Foote’s will also freed Jasper’s wife Sarah, in her mid-twenties, and their two daughters, Susan and Eliza, who were six and four. The family was actually freed in the early 1850s.

  • It is important to note that the Jaspers were free blacks in Virginia before the Civil War. But even as free blacks they faced numerous obstacles. They could not own a gun, obtain an education, vote, conduct business freely, or worship in religious services unless supervised by whites. Also they might be captured by slave traders and sold back into slavery.

  • The Jaspers wanted to stay in Virginia near friends and family, so in 1853 and 1858 they chose to register as free blacks in Fairfax County to prove their freedom. This meant they could travel and gain employment without too much fear of being mistaken for a slave.

  • In 1860 William Jasper purchased 13 acres of land near the Hayfield Plantation. It is likely that he put together the $200 to pay a white farmer and slave owner for the land from his work as a farmer.

  • The Jaspers probably did not stay on their newly acquired property during the Civil War—and it is also likely that what they had on this land, including buildings, animals and crops, was trampled by Confederate and Union soldiers during the war. After the war, the Jaspers returned to their farm.



Major Understanding




Students will:

  1. Identify some of the problems Virginians faced during the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War

  2. Recognize how the national government supported African Americans during Reconstruction

  3. Appreciate how African Americans in Virginia exercised their newly won rights

  4. Identify and interpret primary source documents

  5. Determine cause and effect relationships

  6. Sequence events in Virginia history

  7. Interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives.

  8. Write a story that incorporates historical specifics, including primary sources.



Standards of Learning:


VS.1 The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis including the ability to:

a) identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary source documents to understand events in history

b) determine cause and effect relationships

f) sequence events in Virginia history

g)interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives


VS.8 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the reconstruction of Virginia following the Civil War by:

a) identifying the effects of Reconstruction on life in Virginia.