The court’s actions landed in the heart of the American South, where states in recent years have implemented significant changes in voting laws. Decades ago, they also followed a foundational case in the former capital of the Confederacy that presaged today’s vote-dilution battles — and transformed a majority-Black city for good.
In the 1960s, Richmond was plagued by a suffering economy, rotting infrastructure and widespread poverty, prompting the city to begin a years-long campaign to widen its boundaries. On Jan. 1, 1970, it annexed nearly 23 square miles of bordering Chesterfield County. Forty-seven thousand people became Richmond residents overnight, 45,700 of them White.
Many Richmond activists at the time claimed the redrawing of borders had an insidious motive, part of a large-scale effort to crimp the power of African Americans at the polls and keep them out of office. Attorneys for the city later acknowledged the annexation may have been racially motivated. But they maintained that, even so, the effect wasn’t unconstitutional.
“What that did in one fell swoop was to shift the demographic of the city,” said Thomas Coates, III, a longtime Richmond lawyer.
Years of subsequent lawsuits, appeals, allegations of secret Whites-only meetings and election injunctions morphed intothe Supreme Court case ofCity of Richmond v. United States. It became one of the Voting Rights Act’s earliest tests of geography and equity.
In the years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the VRA, getting voters of color to the polls was dangerous business, especially in the South. Civil rights activists who fought to register Black voters faced beatings, jail time and, in Selma, Ala., police tear gas. The VRA outlawed racial discrimination in voting, outlining that states could not limit voters’ rights based on their race.
The redrawing of municipal borders, including the annexation of neighboring areas, isn’t inherently racist nor sinister; often, it’s how cities grow. Brooklyn and Queens, for instance, didn’t become part of New York City until 1898, 245 years after the city was chartered.
But civil rights historians say Richmond’s annexation of Chesterfield County was different, a moment steeped in the particular brand of racism that was then characteristic of the former Confederate capital: polite, sugarcoated and rooted in a fear of Black power. It was “racism with a velvet glove,” Rutledge Dennis, a professor of sociology at George Mason University, said, who was teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University at the time of the case. Dennis and his colleague John Moeser spent several years in the 1970s conducting a detailed study on the annexation.
Richmond had long servedas a hub for the South’s slave trade, and by the mid-20th century, old money still ran the city and much of Virginia. Whites wanted to keep it that way.
“After all, Richmond was the Queen of the Confederacy,” Dennis said. “Richmond was special. And, for many Whites, that specialness did not include having Blacks attain political power.”
Throughout the 1960s, as attorney Cabell Venable later claimed,White Richmond officials held secret meetings to strategize on increasing the city’s White population. Philip J. Bagley Jr., the city’s mayor from 1968 to 1970, had participated in those meetings, Venable said.
“The entire discussion from the very beginning was ‘We need White people,’” Venable alleged. “To quote the mayor who headed up the negotiations, ‘As long as I am the mayor of the city of Richmond, quote, the n—— won’t take over this town.’”
Bagley, who died in 1996, denied making such comments at the time. But Frederick Dietsch, a Chesterfield County representative, told Dennis’s team that the mayor had made similar comments in a meeting, using the same slur. “We need 44,000 White bodies,” Dietsch recalled Bagley saying.
Curtis Holt Sr., a Black local activist, quickly latched on to the annexation dispute.
Holt had a history of fighting the city. He had sued the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to delay evictions from public housing. He had organized the tenants of his public housing complex. In 1970, he made one of multiple failed bids for city council, and he pegged his loss on the Chesterfield annexation, which he asserted had diluted the Black vote.
The activist began his campaign to sue the city for violating the Voting Rights Act in 1971, but local civil rights lawyers and branches of the NAACP “all turned him down,” Dennis said, or gave him the runaround. “He was Curtis Holt. He was known to be an agitator of sorts,” Dennis said.
Holt thumbed the phone book, calling one law firm at a time and collecting rejections. By the time he reachedthe G’s,multiple firms had suggested he call Venable, a young Richmond lawyer eager to make a name for himself. Venable agreed to represent him at no cost. Coates,fresh out of the Army, worked with Venable at the time and was struck by Holt’s determination.
“He says, ‘I haven’t got a penny to my name, and you boys obviously don’t have any money either, and this suit is going to be an expensive suit to pursue,’” Coates, now 79, recounted.
Coates had come from a White, well-off Richmond family, and in an interview he compared mid-century Richmond to apartheid South Africa. By joining Holt’s case, Coates was facing down that racial hierarchy in which he’d grown up. He recalls runninginto one of the senior attorneys representing the city in the hallway of Richmond’s federal courthouse.
“He says, ‘You know you all can’t possibly win this case. It’s just not possible,’” Coates said. “And I said, ‘Me and my colleagues, we are so wet behind the ears and so legally ignorant, we are too young and dumb to understand that we cannot win this case. That is what is going to allow us to actually prevail one day in this case: the fact that we can’t hear you guys.’”
In February 1971, Holt filed the lawsuit, but Venable couldn’t convince the district court judge that race was part of the annexation equation. Holt’s team lost but quickly appealed.
The accusation that the annexation was racially motivated, and the shuffle between courtroom denials and appeals, shook Richmond politics. By order of the Department of Justice, Richmond ceased city council elections between 1972 and 1976. During that time, the city’s first Black woman, Willie Dell, was appointed to a council seat.
The annexation case made it to the Supreme Court in April 1975. By then, Coates remembers logging close to 2,000 hours on it.
At the center of the Supreme Court’s arguments, in assessing whether Richmond had violated the Voting Rights Act, the attorneys and justices dissected two key factors: whether the absorption of Chesterfield County had the purpose of discriminating against Black voters, and whether it had that effect.
That June, despite the evidence that the annexation fundamentally shifted Richmond’s demographics, and despite depositions attesting to city leaders’ racism,the court ruled 5-3 in favor of the city. Justice Lewis Powell, of Richmond, recused himself.
“We do not agree with the District Court that the annexation, as finely conceived, had the effect of denying the right to vote,” Justice Byron White said in announcing the court’s opinion. “We are also sufficiently unsure that it had such a purpose.”
The court acknowledged the annexation “enhance[d] the power of the White majority to exclude Negroes,” but it said that exclusion would be alleviated by implementing a ward system. That system, still in effect in Richmond, led to the 1977election of its first Black-majority city council — which then elected the city’s first Black mayor.
“Voters in this old Confederate capital elected Blacks to a majority of City Council seats Tuesday, ousting an entrenched power structure of white business and financial leaders who had governed Richmond, in one form or another, for nearly 30 years,” The Post wrote at the time.