University of Mary Washington Chief of Staff and Professor of History and American Studies Jeff McClurken will be featured on the With Good Reason public radio show this Sunday, May 18. The episode, Reconstructing Danville, will air daily through Saturday, May 24.
The show examines an 1883 Danville race riot and the ripples it sent through the southern Virginia city for more than a century. Faculty from other universities speak about the incident and its aftermath – a white supremacist backlash that led to the disenfranchisement of black Virginians. McClurken, who began teaching at Mary Washington two decades ago, weighs in with his knowledge of William Thomas Sutherlin, a longtime Danville leader at the center of the saga.
“He was truly enmeshed in what we think of as the Southern plantation economy … ” McClurken told the show’s host Sarah McConnell. “He very much embraced the cause of the Confederacy.”
A former Confederate officer and slave owner, Sutherlin became involved in the tobacco, banking, railroad and cotton industries, and was among Danville’s richest and most influential residents, serving as the city’s mayor from 1855 to 1861, on the cusp of the Civil War. Sent as a delegate to an 1861 convention to determine whether Virginia should withdraw from the Union, McClurken explains, after the convention he shifted his viewpoint, ending up in support of secession.
After the war, Sutherlin maintained his wealth and status in Danville, helping to found a cotton mill that was among the world’s largest. “It was incredibly successful and it very much put Danville on the manufacturing map,” McClurken said on the show. “It effectively transforms the economy of Danville [from agricultural to industrial] for many years.”
Known for his wealth, Sutherlin was approached for cash gifts and loans by those who’d been hurt by the war, said McClurken, who poured through the petitions while writing his 2009 book, Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing Confederate Veteran Families in Virginia.
Sutherlin granted many of the requests, especially to Confederate veterans and their families, to advance his own political goals. He also led a skewed investigation into the 1883 Danville race riot, creating a story about an aggressive black mob that initiated it. The report and the riot led to the demise of a unique Virginia party called the Readjusters – whites and blacks working together to waive off war debt and invest money in schools, industry and railroads – that had risen to power in the late 1870s.
Now the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, Sutherlin’s home served for several days near the end of the war as living quarters for Jefferson Davis, earning Danville a reputation as the last capital of the Confederacy.
“It was a moment of confusion, it was a moment of anxiety for Confederates,” McClurken said on With Good Reason. “Danville is at the center of that, and even more specifically, William T. Sutherlin’s house is at the center of that.”
A 1994 Mary Washington graduate, McClurken earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Johns Hopkins University and began teaching at UMW in 1999. Also clerk of Mary Washington’s Board of Visitors, he has served as chair of the Department of History and American Studies, and of the President’s Technology Advisory Council; has worked as special assistant to the provost for teaching, technology and innovation; and been a member of UMW’s alumni board. McClurken won the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s 2014 Outstanding Faculty Award for teaching with technology and UMW’s 2012 J. Christopher “Topher” Bill faculty service award.
With Good Reason airs Sundays at 2 p.m. on Fredericksburg’s Radio IQ 88.3 Digital and at various times throughout the week on stations across Virginia and the United States. Check the website for show times.