In 1868, he declared that “The governments of the States and their union were made for the white man, and I will oppose all attempts to give political power, suffrage, or office to the colored men…the colored people should be satisfied and content with their present position, but for them to demand and grasp at more, would be unwise, imprudent and dangerous.” He would soon change his mind after the Fifteenth Amendment passed which granted Black men the right to vote.
The former Confederates were bitterly opposed to Caldwell, who was first elected Mayor in 1869. Caldwell would be forced to defend the legitimacy of his election multiple times as he was also the voter Registrar of Greenbrier County. In April 1870, his election was declared illegal and he was forced to concede the office to former Mayor Oliver P. Hoover until a vote could be held. However, the political landscape had shifted dramatically with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The Republican and Democratic Party both sought the vote of the 147 eligible Black men in Greenbrier County. The Democratic meeting on April 16, held by Robert F. Dennis and Alexander F. Mathews, was likely not a success. In this meeting, the Democrats declared that Black people should “not denounce slavery [as] it was your best earthly friend” echoing the idea that Black Americans benefited from the “civilizing” influence of slavery. They threatened that if Black men vote for the Republicans “we will then see that you are our enemies…and you will suffer by it.” Despite this threat, Black men in Greenbrier County voted for the Republican candidates who supported their civil rights.
On June 4, 1870, Joseph F. Caldwell was elected Mayor and three Black men, Jaben Holmes, Jordan Davis, and Stephen Gardner were elected as Trustees. Holmes, Davis, and Gardner were wealthy, educated, leaders of the Black community in Lewisburg and were chosen by that community for political office. Jaben Holmes, free before the Civil War, was a successful barber in Lewisburg. He was the wealthiest of all three men at the age of fifty. Jordan Davis was a successful brick mason who lived in Lewisburg with his wife and daughter. Stephen Gardner was fifty-three years old when he was elected Trustee and lived with his wife Fanny in Lewisburg.  Gardner was a farmer and, according to family lore, bred and sold horses.
After the June election, the backlash against Black voters was swift and harsh. One newspaper article declared that “now, these, same colored men are utterly dependent upon Conservatives and Democrats for the bread that goes into their months, and the clothing that goes on their backs. The white people have always treated the colored people with kindness and respect...And this is their return; the very first opportunity that is presented, these colored men force old Joe Caldwell on us as Mayor. It was a cool, deliberate and premediated outrage.”
Former Mayor Hoover charged that the election was illegal for three reasons: Caldwell was not a freeholder (an eligible man who could hold office), the Black voters were not legal because they had not taken the preliminary steps for registration required by law, and third that the law requires for the Mayor to be a fit and proper man and that Caldwell was “notoriously unfit and notoriously improper.” This act was a blatant attempt to disenfranchise Black voters and a refusal to accept that the election was legitimate. The former politically powerful Confederates were furious that Black voters were allowed to vote while they could not.
On July 30, 1870, Circuit Judge McWhorter ruled in their favor again and declared that Caldwell was not the legal Mayor of Lewisburg. Hoover was restored to the position. Two weeks later, on August 13, 1870, Caldwell was arrested by Hoover, who also happened to be the Deputy United States Marshall. Caldwell, who also served as Registrar of Lewisburg, was accused by two men, Bedford Johnson and Dr. J. L. Nelson, who declared that Caldwell denied their voter registration. The men took the loyalty oath that they had not aided the Confederacy, but Caldwell believed that they were lying and had committed perjury. Hoover went to Caldwell’s house to arrest him, but Caldwell refused to go with him. Hoover then gathered “a number of citizens to aid him” and forced entry. Caldwell eventually yielded before the incited mob.
At a special election on August 20, Caldwell was elected Mayor again and Jordan Davis, Stephen Gardner, and James Cox (a white career political who refused the position two months earlier) became Trustees. Jaben Holmes was nominated as a Republican Delegate for Greenbrier County for the State Convention at Parkersburg and the Congressional Convention at Charleston. This position may have been why he was not elected Trustee again. Despite the second legitimate election, Hoover and other white citizens continued to challenge the election.
After the special election, The Greenbrier Independent again lashed out against Black voters and their Republican supporters. The article declared that the Republicans “showed their…dirty, unwashed and uncleanable hands. On that day they met in the Court-house of the county, in full social and political fellowship with the blackest of black negroes…Having done this, these white Radicals went home…to the embraces of their white wives and white children. Surely, those white wives and white children did not know…or their embraces would have been rejected. Many of these men have daughters—fair-skinned, innocent, marriageable daughters, who are, doubtless, ignorant of the fact that their fathers have taken the first step for furnishing them with negro-admirers and suitors…white woman of greenbrier! You, at least, are yet pure and undefiled by the contamination of negro associations. How do you like the appearance of things?”
The case over the Mayor was not decided that year and both men and their Trustees continued to claim to be legitimate into 1871. The Greenbrier Independent declared that a “town of one thousand inhabitants is governed by two or three white men [illegible] sixty negroes, none of them paying any tax—not even a poll tax—while all property holders are gagged, is an outrage.” In fact, many of the Black residents of Lewisburg owned property in town and paid their taxes. In February, Caldwell’s trouble continued when he was accused of stealing money from the town of Lewisburg. There was not a court case so this accusation seemed to be speculation.
Then on March 4, 1871, a new levy was ordered by the Board of Trustees. The article did not mention the purpose of the tax. On the same day, The Greenbrier Independent posted this notice: “We, the undersigned, acting Trustees for the Corporation of Lewisburg, are not pleased with the recent actions of Dr. J. F. Caldwell, who was to be the present Mayor. We, therefore, present our resignation and decline to act with him, and will not endorse any order or summons sent by him in the name of the Corporation of Lewisburg. Jordan Davis; Stephen Gardner.” Gardner and Davis resigned in protest because of the levy. However, it is undeniable that they would have faced resentment and danger from their daring to hold political office over white men. The most widely read newspaper, The Greenbrier Independent, made clear the widespread anger towards Black voters. With the resignation of Stephen Gardner and Jordan Davis, there would not be another Black Trustee (later renamed City Council Member) until the election of Paul Cooley in 1970.
Only Stephen Gardner remained in politics after resigning as Trustee. He was appointed as a State Delegate of the Republican State Convention in 1876. Reconstruction marked a brief moment where the Federal Government was committed to interracial democracy and civil rights for all men. Unfortunately, in 1876, Reconstruction failed and the rise of the Jim Crow era began.
In 1875, The Greenbrier Independent made a report on civil rights in Lewisburg. The article stated that the Black population “are orderly and quiet, and behave themselves in a becoming manner…The exception applies, principally, to those who are stragglers from their old homes and who would be worthless, lazy, thievish and good-for-nothings…There are numbers, however, who are old residenters, who respect themselves, are industrious and laborious and who know and feel their true position.” Despite the claim that its Black citizens know their subservient place in the social hierarchy, the Black community continued to advocate for their political rights and equality. Two years later, the paper took note of a meeting of the Black voters of Lewisburg.
The City Council remained out of reach until 1970, exactly one hundred years later, when Paul Cooley was elected. Cooley was the first Black Lewisburg City Council Member since Holmes, Davis, and Gardner.
In 2003, Beverly White was elected as the first Black Woman Lewisburg City Council Member and after sixteen years of serving the city, she was elected as Lewisburg’s first Black Mayor in 2019. Arron Seams, also a Black City Council Member, was appointed to fill a vacancy and soundly defended his seat in 2019. He is one of the youngest people ever elected. Holmes, Gardner, and Davis’ success and brief political power represent how Reconstruction was a moment of Black progress before widespread backlash and oppression overpowered the nation leading to the Jim Crow era. Though a brief moment in history, their fight for political power is represented in today’s Lewisburg City Council.
 1850 U.S. Census, Greenbrier County, Virginia, slave schedule, Not Stated, p.41, slave owner Joseph G Caldwell, digital image, http://ancestry.com.
 J. R. Cole, History of Greenbrier County, (Lewisburg, WV: J. R. Cole, 1917), 16; Minutes of the Board of Trustees of the Town of Lewisburg, 1849 to 1871, Greenbrier Historical Society, Lewisburg, West Virginia, 221-265.
 “A Card,” The Greenbrier Independent, August 29, 1868.
 Minutes of the Board of Trustees of the Town of Lewisburg, 1849 to 1871, Greenbrier Historical Society, Lewisburg, West Virginia, 249.
 “A Flash in the Pan,” The Greenbrier Independent, April 30, 1870.
 “Colored Meetings, The Greenbrier Independent, April 23, 1870.
 Minutes of the Board of Trustees of the Town of Lewisburg, 1849 to 1871, Greenbrier Historical Society, Lewisburg, West Virginia, 255.
 Registry of Free People of Color: Greenbrier Co., (West) Virginia, 1846-1864, (Lewisburg, WV: Greenbrier County Historical Society, 2006).
 1870 U.S. Census, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, population schedule, Lewisburg, p.15, dwelling 94, Fabian Holmes, digital image, http://ancestry.com.
 1870 U.S. Census, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, population schedule, Lewisburg, p.19, dwelling 119, Pordan Davis, digital image, http://ancestry.com.
 1870 U.S. Census, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, population schedule, Lewisburg, p.18, dwelling 120, Stephen Gardner, digital image, http://ancestry.com.
 Edith E. Perkins Matthews, Perkins and Early Related Families African Americans: Part 1, (Edith E. Perkins, 1995), 71.
 “What They Have Done,” The Greenbrier Independent, June 11, 1870
 “Town Elections,” The Greenbrier Independent, June 11, 1870.
 “Old Joe Not Mayor,” The Greenbrier Independent, July 30, 1870.
 “J. F. Caldwell Arrested,” The Greenbrier Independent, August 13, 1870.
 “Resisting the Law,” The Greenbrier Independent, August 13, 1870.
 “The Radicals in Council—the Negroes and Bitter-Enders Rule—Outsiders Excluded—The Ku-Klux Out-Done,” The Greenbrier Independent, June 18, 1870.
 The Greenbrier Independent, September 10, 1870.
 “Then and Now,” The Greenbrier Independent, August 30, 1870.
 “A Special Election for Lewisburg,” The Greenbrier Independent, January 28, 1871.
 “To Joseph F. Caldwell,” The Greenbrier Independent, February 4, 1871; “J F. Caldwell’s Exhibits,” The Greenbrier Independent, February 25, 1871.
 “A Practical Question,” The Greenbrier Independent, March 4, 1871.
 “Another Muddle!” The Greenbrier Independent, March 4, 1871.
 The Greenbrier Independent, June 24, 1876.
 “Civil Rights in Lewisburg,” The Greenbrier Independent, March 13, 1875
 “Capital Meeting,” The Greenbrier Independent, July 21, 1877.
Who We Are
At the Greenbrier Historical Society (GHS), we pride ourselves on telling an inclusive and diverse narrative of our beloved Greenbrier Valley. Founded in 1963, GHS has spent the last 57 years serving the West Virginia counties of Greenbrier, Monroe, Summers, and Pocahontas. The Greenbrier Historical Society owns and manages three regional properties; the North House, used as our headquarters and offices, the Barracks, used to house our First Settler Escape Room experience, and the Blue Sulphur Springs Pavilion which is currently undergoing structural renovations.