( 0 Votes )

In September 1867, Fluvanna residents crowded around the County Courthouse to choose a representative for the proposed Constitutional Convention in Richmond.

Two years after the end of the Civil War, much of the South lived under military occupation with limited self-governance. In the spring of 1867, Congress decreed that former Confederate states could rejoin the Union by holding racially-integrated constitution conventions and passing new constitutions guaranteeing the rights of freedmen.

Fluvannians met that September day to select a representative. Among the candidates assembled at the courthouse was James D. Barrett, a 34-year-old carpenter and shoemaker who lived near Palmyra.
Barrett had spent most of his life as a slave, and he had grabbed his newly-granted freedom with gusto. By 1867 he was gaining a reputation as a gifted speaker among local black churches. He had also become a political organizer, helping the local branch of the Northern-based Union League educate new freedmen and register them to vote.

Barrett made an eloquent speech asking for support, but the nomination initially went to County Clerk Abraham Shepherd, a white conservative. Undaunted, Barrett announced that he was still a candidate.

The vote to hold a convention marked the first time in Virginia history that black men were allowed to cast their ballots in a statewide election. Barrett turned out his base and won election by more than 50 votes. Fluvanna County voted overwhelmingly in favor of the convention almost exclusively along racial lines: 857 free blacks voted in favor of it, 686 whites voted against it. 

During the months the convention sat in Richmond, Barrett gained a reputation as a quiet but respected presence. As one of 24 African American members, he voted against measures designed to disenfranchise him and his fellow freedmen, but he also voted against measures designed to punish former Confederates. The new constitution was signed on April 17, 1868 – seven years to the day Virginia had seceded from the Union.

Barrett didn’t seek office after 1868 but stayed active in Fluvanna County until his death in 1903. Settling with his wife and children near Fork Union, he helped found the Thessalonia Baptist Church in 1868, donating a piece of property as the church’s permanent home. He served as pastor at Thessalonia and later at Byrd Grove Baptist Church. He also established the Barrett Humane Society, a fund that church members could draw on in times of need.

He died in 1903 at the age of 70 and was buried in the graveyard of Thessalonia Baptist, a true pioneer of local politics.