EX PARTE VIRGINIA HISTORICAL MARKER

The Pittsylvania Historical Society is working to fund a state marker for the local courthouse to highlight a specific date and case.

Background on the Case

On March 1, 1880, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizens equal protection under the law, gave Congress the authority to require states to not exclude African Americans from juries.

What does that have to do with Pittsylvania County? Pittsylvania County Judge James D. Coles was one of 14 judges accused of violating the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875. He had refused to put the names of Black voters in the boxes from which names were randomly drawn for jury duty.

 

This wasn't a one-time issue. All of the accused judges, who represented 14 counties in total,  regularly refused to include Black voters as potential jurors. In February and March 1879, federal grand juries met in Danville and Lynchburg. They found enough evidence to indict all of the judges. 

Coles, however, claimed he was being held illegally, arguing that federal officials didn't have the authority to arrest, jail or even try him in this case. He asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant a writ of habeas corpus, to secure his release. James G. Field, Virginia's attorney general at the time, also intervened on Coles' behalf, asking the Supreme Court to step in. 

When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Field argued much the same as Coles. He said the federal grand jury had no authority to indict, arrest, or try Coles or any of the other judges because Congress had no authority under the Constitution to prevent states from excluding Black voters from jury pools. That decision, he argued, had always been left up to the states. 

The Supreme Court disagreed. The majority ruled that jury service was a right of citizenship and the 14th Amendment gave Congress the authority to prevent states from excluding Black residents from jury pools. 

Project #1

We're filing a request with the Commonwealth of Virginia and working to provide the funding to create and install the marker. According to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, markers cost $1,770. There's an additional cost for installation. 

Project #2

The Society also supports efforts by Preservation Virginia to establish a local historical marker program. The goal here is to better document and inform the public about historic sites and events in Pittsylvania County. PHS is also developing an Adopt-a-Marker program to pair volunteers with existing historic markers to help maintain existing signage.