Life Story: Janet Randolph (1848-1927)

This resource has been adapted from the New-York Historical Society’s Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow curriculum.

An image of Janet Randolph taken from a souvenir book commemorating the Jefferson Davis Memorial. She is wearing a long black gown.
Mrs. Norman V. Randolph

“Mrs. Norman V. Randolph,” A Souvenir Book of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Association and the Unveiling of the Monument, Richmond, Va., June 3rd, 1907. Richmond, Whittet & Shepperson, 1907. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Southern White Girl

Janet Weaver was born in Warrenton, a small town in northern Virginia. She was about two weeks shy of her 13th birthday when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began. Over the next four years, she saw the conflict come painfully close. Her beloved father joined the Confederate Army and died of typhoid fever. Her mother traveled to Pennsylvania to ask relatives for financial help but was arrested for spying and later jailed for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. Warrenton changed hands many times, and Janet grew accustomed to the sound of enemy soldiers on horseback, their sabers clattering just below the window of her room. Even worse, Union soldiers pulled up the simple wooden crosses that marked new Confederate graves—crosses Janet had helped to make—and used them for firewood.

When the Confederacy was defeated in 1865, 17-year-old Janet wrote to a friend, “Oh! The thought is sickening . . . that we should have to submit to the hated yankees, the very thought makes my blood run cold.”

The Lost Cause and the United Daughters

In 1880, Janet married Norman V. Randolph, a Confederate veteran and widower with two young children. They moved to Richmond, Virginia, where both took part in a wave of activities that glorified the Confederacy and helped to reinterpret the history of the Civil War in the South’s favor. The new version, known as the Lost Cause, was a false view of the past. But it gave white Southerners a narrative they could live with, one in which they had suffered terrible oppression during Reconstruction, were blameless for the war, and were justified in their post-Reconstruction actions, which included denying Black people their constitutional rights.

The mythology of the Lost Cause was accepted in the South and even in the North. But it was taken especially to heart in Richmond, which had been the capital of the Confederacy. In 1890, a soaring monument was erected to Robert E. Lee, who commanded Confederate forces throughout the war, and who was seen as godlike in the South. By then, plans were already underway for another Richmond monument, this one to honor Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Norman Randolph was named to the all-male association charged with making the monument a reality, and Janet was one of many Southern women who added their enthusiastic support.

Norman Randolph’s committee chose a site for the Davis Memorial on the boulevard that became known as Monument Avenue, a few blocks beyond the Lee Monument.
The cornerstone was laid in 1896, and a designer was selected. But after three years the committee had still not raised enough money to begin the work. In 1899, at Norman Randolph’s suggestion, the committee asked the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) to take over the fund-raising effort. The UDC had formed in 1894 as an association of female descendants of Confederate veterans. Janet started the Richmond chapter two years later. When the UDC began raising funds for the Davis Monument, she led the campaign.

The UDC was another representative of the Lost Cause. A national organization, it drew inspiration from Winnie Davis, daughter of Jefferson Davis and therefore the original “daughter of the Confederacy.” It was a mark of Southern pride to belong to the UDC and especially to serve as its Richmond chapter president, as Janet did until her death. Women held a special, idealized place in Southern thinking. When the Davis monument was designed, it included a statue of President Jefferson Davis surrounded by a partial circle of marble columns. But rising high above him, atop a pedestal, was a statue of Miss Confederacy, called the Vindicatrix, and said to represent the spirit of the South.

Janet took a leave from her work in late 1902, probably to care for her ill husband, who died the following March. From then on, she dressed in black, head to toe, as did many UDC widows. The lifelong mourning clothes worn by middle-aged and older women were a visual reminder of what they, and the South, had suffered. Collective, enduring grief underlay much of the Lost Cause.

Returning to work, Janet continued to seek donations from Southerners, especially the United Confederate Veterans. She told them firmly that contributing was their duty. It was hard to turn down an imposing widow seeking to honor the only man ever to serve as president of the Confederacy. Personal donations poured in, and the work went forward.

Days of Celebration

The unveiling and dedication of the Jefferson Davis monument was an elaborate five-day event, during which the United Confederate Veterans held their annual meeting. The city filled with gray-haired men wearing their faded military uniforms. On the first day, May 30, 1907, ceremonies began with the unveiling of a monument to J.E.B. Stuart, one of the South’s most revered fallen heroes. The next days were filled with parades, music, fireworks, entertainment, and prayer.

On the final day, June 3, the Grand Parade began just before noon. The governor of Virginia and Richmond’s mayor both spoke to a crowd of about 100,000 people. At two o’clock, the fabric that had kept the statue of Jefferson Davis hidden from public view was removed by members of Davis’s family. The inscription at the base of the statue acclaimed Jefferson Davis as the “Exponent of Constitutional Principles — Defender of the Rights of States.” It made no mention of slavery.

Janet proved her dedication to the Confederacy and its heroes year after year. But she opposed UDC plans to build mammy memorials in every state in the union. Janet favored other relief efforts. “No monument to them, if you please,” Janet wrote in a public 1910 letter, “until we have attended to [the] earthly wants” of poor Black children and “the old Negro.” Janet worked with Maggie Walker, one of the leaders of Richmond’s Black community, to provide services for the city’s African Americans. But she never spoke out against the denial of basic constitutional rights to Blacks during the long era of Jim Crow.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Janet’s childhood experiences before and during the Civil War carry through into her adult life?
  • What was the link between the Lost Cause and Southern beliefs about women? How did those beliefs contribute to Janet’s power?