PolitiFact VA: Is Sears Wrong On First Republican Convention Claim?
Winsome Sears, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, says she wants to convince African-Americans to return “to our roots” in the Republican Party.
“The very first Republican convention after the Civil War was held in Virginia in a Black church,” she said during a May 13 interview on Fox News. There was a picture of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, on the bookcase behind her.
Her historical claim was new to us, and we decided to fact check it.
Sears is the first Black woman to be nominated by either party for statewide office in Virginia. She’s a Jamaican immigrant, small business owner and former Marine who served one term in the House of Delegates from 2002-2004. She won the nod for lieutenant governor at the state Republican convention held on May 8. Democrats will choose their nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in a June 8 primary.
We asked Sears’ campaign twice for the source of her claim that the first GOP convention after the Civil War was held in a Black church in Virginia, but did not hear back.
We found several references and old newspaper stories about a “Mass Convention of the Union Republican Party of Virginia” that met at the First African Baptist Church in Richmond on April 17, 1867.
After the Civil War, many Northerners, Blacks and Southern reformers were unhappy with the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson. Other than enforcing the abolition of slavery, Johnson essentially gave the white Southern establishment free reign to run their states.
Radical Republicans from the North won firm control of Congress in 1866. Early the next year, Congress passed and overrode Johnson’s veto of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 that divided the South into five military districts. To be readmitted to the Union, each state was required to hold a convention to draft a new constitution ratifying the 14th Amendment, which gave voting rights to all men. All males, regardless of color - not including former Confederate leaders - were to be allowed to participate in the proceedings.
The Union Republican Party held its statewide meeting in Richmond in April 1867 to prepare for Virginia’s constitutional convention, which convened nearly eight months later. Of the 210 delegates who attended the meeting, 160 were Black, according to “Virginia: The New Dominion,” an authoritative history of the state published in 1971.
The Republicans elected a statewide leadership committee and passed a platform calling for:
- Compliance with the federal Reconstruction Acts;
- Publicly-funded schools with equal (albeit segregated) education;
- Equal legal protections;
- Fairer tax and lending laws, and
- Internal improvements.
The Daily Dispatch newspaper in Richmond covered the convention with respect and ridicule, occasionally crediting Black delegates for making intelligent arguments, but more often belittling their statements and quoting them in dialect.
The delegates stated in a resolution that their meeting was the “first time in the history of Virginia” that the Union Republicans assembled as a convention to consider the Reconstruction Act.
But was it the very first Republican convention held anywhere after the Civil War, as Sears says?
The answer is no.
North Carolina Republicans held a state convention in Raleigh on March 27, 1867 - three weeks before their Virginia brethren. “The state became the first in the South to hold a Republican convention,” according to an April 2011 article in the North Carolina Historical Review.
The convention officially established the North Carolina Republican Party and was attended by 148 delegates, about half of them Black, according to the book “Blacks, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags,” by historians Richard L. Hume and Jerry B. Gough of Washington State University.
In the North, Ohio Republicans held a state convention in June 1865 - about two months after the war ended - to nominate a candidate for governor. In 1866, there were at least four statewide Republican conventions - held in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Maine and Rhode Island.
Sears said, “The very first Republican convention after the Civil War was held in Virginia in a Black church.”
The Union Republican Party of Virginia held a state convention at the First African Baptist Church in Richmond on April 17, 1867. Records show Republicans in at least six states - one in the South and five in the North - held post-Civil War conventions before Virginia.
So, we rate Sears’ statement False.
Editor’s Note, June 17, 2021: As noted in this fact check, Sears’ campaign did not respond to two requests we made for the source of her claim that the first GOP convention after the Civil War was held in a Black church in Virginia. After the fact check was published, Sears’ campaign told us her claim was based on an historical marker outside the First African Baptist Church in Richmond that says, “In 1865, the site hosted the first Republican State Convention held in Virginia.”
We contacted Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, which researches and posts historical markers and, after investigation, it told us the sign is incorrect. The church hosted Virginia’s first post-Civil War Republican convention in 1867, as we reported. By that time, at least six other states had held Republican conventions since the war ended. “We may need to consider a revision to the marker,” Randall Jones, public information director for the department, said.
This updated information does not change our False rating on Sears’ claim.
Winsome Sears, Fox News interview, May 13, 2021 (2:36 mark).
Virginius Dabney, “Virginia: The New Dominion,” published 1971.
University of Richmond, “Unconditional Union Convention,” May 18, 1866.
Interview with Gregg Kimball, Director of Public Services and Outreach at The Library Of Virginia, May 24, 2021.
Richard Hume and Jerry Gough, “Blacks, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags,” published 2008.
Library of Congress, Daily Dispatch editions, April 17-20, 1867.
North Carolina Historical Review, "’Civil Government Was Crumbling Around Me’": The Kirk-Holden War of 1870,” April 2011.
The History Engine, “The Formation of the Republican Party in North Carolina,” accessed March 24, 2021.
Raftman’s Journal, “Union State Convention,” March 14, 1866.
Marshall County Republican, Editorial, March 22, 1866.
Civil War Research Machine at Dickinson College, “Maine Republicans nominate Little Round Top hero Joshua Chamberlain for state governor,” accessed May 24, 2021.
Civil War Research Machine at Dickinson College, “Rhode Island Republicans nominate Union General Ambrose Burnside for governor,” accessed May 4, 2021.
Ohio Historical Society, “Jacob D. Cox,” accessed May 24, 2021.
Richard H. Abbott, “Ohio’s Civil War Governors,” published in 1962.