John C. Underwood was born in 1809 in New York. He was a graduate of Hamilton College and began his teaching career in what is now West Virginia. One of his students was Thomas Jackson (later to be known as Stonewall).
After two years, he returned to New York to earn a legal degree. He returned to Virginia to practice law. He was a strong opponent of slavery and one of the first members of the Republican Party in Virginia. His life and that of his family were under constant threats of harm, so they moved back to New York.
Although no longer in Virginia, he continued to try to build support against slavery in the state, especially in the northwestern sections of what is now the northern panhandle of West Virginia. His activities also included the encouragement of Abraham Lincoln to run for office and support for John Brown’s raid.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, he made a recess appointment of Underwood for the eastern districts of Virginia. When the Second Confiscation Act was passed, Judge Underwood oversaw a number of cases in which the government was allowed to sell the property of people who supported the succession. He was unapologetic in his actions designed to destroy the slaveholding class. At times, he went beyond the original intent of the law in his zealousness.
When the Civil War was over, Judge Underwood was asked to preside over Virginia’s constitutional convention. The resulting contribution brought democracy to Virginia, set up a public school system, and allowed African American men the right to vote. While Judge Underwood also wanted the right to vote to be extended to women, he could not gain approval for this.
Later the constitution that Judge Underwood presided over was dissolved in favor of a new constitution. The new constitution had an openly expressed purpose of discrimination against African Americans.
Judge Underwood died in 1873. At the time of his death, he was reviled by many in Virginia. He was treated unfavorably in history books used in Virginia classrooms. It is not until recently that he is more positively thought of, especially by those who who want a more inclusive Virginia.
Hidden heroes are often out front of prevailing beliefs at the time. Judge Underwood was one of those. A popular question asked by those who advocate for justice is, “If not now, when?” For Judge Underwood when was now.
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“A carpetbagger who told Northerners false tales about the cruelty of Virginians toward Negroes…” – (a description of Judge Underwood in public school textbooks)