The Twentieth Century: Cities, Cars, and Civil Rights
With a past that includes Jamestown, the American Revolution, and the Civil War, it’s easy to forget the most recent century in Virginia’s history, the twentieth. Yet looking back it could be said that Virginians’ lives changed more during those hundred years than in the three preceding centuries. Technological revolutions, increased urbanization, and advances in civil rights created the commonwealth we know today, and because most of us lived through some part of it, the twentieth century becomes the point at which the past begins to look familiar.
By 1900, cities were slowly growing, yet most Virginians still led rural lives and relied on agriculture for their livelihood. As the century unfolded, however, former sharecroppers and small farmers began migrating to such places as Danville to work in the textile industry or Richmond to participate in its booming tobacco economy. By 1920, the population of Newport News had skyrocketed as its Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company became the largest employer in the state. That same year also marked the first time that the U.S. census listed more Americans living in cities and towns than the countryside, although it would take until 1950 for that statistic to hold true in Virginia.
Urbanization was facilitated by improvements to railroad and streetcar systems, but neither was as influential as the newest form of transportation, the automobile. In 1910 there were 2,705 motor vehicles registered in Virginia; by 1916 that number exceeded 37,000. Dirt roads that turned to mud when it rained were suitable for horses, but by 1921, when the Auto Club of America advised travelers driving from New York to Florida to bypass the state of Virginia, it was obvious that something needed to be done. Like the new services required in cities, such as waste removal and police protection, paving Virginia’s roads raised a question increasingly asked in the twentieth century. Who pays for what? Efforts led by state senator Harry F. Byrd defeated a 1922 highway bond referendum ensuring that Virginia’s road construction would be financed through taxes and licensing fees at a slow but debt-free pace.
The urban landscape also provided greater opportunities for women and minorities during a time of systematic inequality. Virginia’s 1901-2 Constitution created Jim Crow laws, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, which prevented most African Americans and many poor whites from voting. Though women had gained suffrage with the 19th Amendment in 1920, very few exercised the right in Virginia, which operated under a single party system and had one of the lowest percentages of voter participation in the nation. Although a state slow to social change, Virginia became a key legal battleground in the civil rights movement, when a case from Prince Edward County became one of the five that made up the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled segregated education unconstitutional. The Federal Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts passed in the 1960s brought even greater change, breaking up old political monopolies and creating a Virginia in which people could begin to be judged on merit rather than the color of their skin.
The pace of change has only accelerated in the twenty-first century. The dusty roads and small towns of Northern Virginia have morphed into giant suburbs, and less than 1 percent of Virginians still make a living as farmers. Yet, today we are undergoing changes that are similar and no less profound than the ones experienced by Virginians 100 years ago. Just as electrification created a new mass media and forms of entertainment then, digitization and the internet are shrinking the world today and spreading information faster and faster. The rate at which things become obsolete is striking. While leading students on tours through our Story of Virginia exhibition, I’m often amused when speaking with some children who don’t know what “film” for a camera is or that the “pointy thing” that makes a record play is called a needle. Perhaps in another hundred years we’ll have an iPod and cell phone on display for the curiosity of a future century of Virginians.
Chris Van Tassell is the Education Program Coordinator at the Virginia Historical Society.