1853 Courthouse
1853 Courthouse

Historical Sites


1853 Courthouse

Pittsylvania County’s Courthouse is located on the east side of Main Street in Chatham. The two-story, stretcher-bond brick edifice was erected from plans of L.A. Shumaker. Built in 1853, the building combines elements from the Classical Revival and Italianate styles. Alterations include the enlargement of the clerk’s office in 1898, the addition of space for court-related offices in 1927, and a rear addition for Commonwealth’s Attorney’s offices in 1968. In more recent years, a courthouse annex was attached.

The facade (west) is distinguished by a pedimented Greek Revival portico which has Doric columns on square piers and a Doric entablature with triglyphs and guttae. The tympanum is finished with formal shiplap siding. The portico shelters a restored double-door side entrance that features a louvred transom and a stone lintel with turned corner blocks.

Two auxiliary entrances flank the portico on the ground level; an original single-door side entrance is found on the south elevation. Fenestration on the façade’s first story consists of 6/6 hung-sash windows in three-part architraves. The side elevations have 6/6 hung-sash windows topped by lintels with turned corner blocks. Larger openings similarly executed are found on the second story.

The building is topped by a cupola which, according to documentation, was added as the building was nearing completion in August 1853 to house a bell. The cupola is divided into two stages: the lower one containing the clock, the second the belfry. The belfry has an Italianate bracketed cornice and a railing with turned balusters.

The building’s ground floor is divided into offices. The main floor contains the courtroom of the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court flanked by court-related rooms. The courtroom has elaborate Italinate plasterwork which consists of a paneled ceiling, a large circular ceiling medallion, and a three-part cornice. The cornice has engaged balls, acanthus leaves, and a plain band.

The ceiling’s corners are distinguished by floral compositions, similar to that found around the center medallion. The principal doors and windows are framed by symmetrical architrave trim with turned corner blocks. The judge’s bench is separated from the auditorium by a balustrade with vase-turned balusters.

The Colonial Revival aedicule and paneling behind the bench date to ca. 1947. The auditorium benches date to the present century. Portraits of past judges and distinguished county residents line the walls of the courtroom.

The Courthouse annex has courtrooms for Pittsylvania County General District Court and Pittsylvania County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and offices which support these courtrooms. The Pittsylvania County Clerk’s Office on the ground floor maintains records back to 1747.

An iron fence separates the courthouse from the sidewalk. The fence was mentioned specifically in the building specifications of 1853 and was erected to extend along Main Street. The size of the fence has been much reduced. The traditional Civil War statue stands to the north of the courthouse. The presence of Chatham’s commercial development around the building contributes to its urban setting, which is somewhat relieved by the trees that grow along the fence.

Ex parte Virginia

The Pittsylvania County Courthouse is significant in the constitutional history of the United States because it was the site, in 1878, where black citizens were denied the right to serve as grand and petit jurors. This action by Judge J.D. Coles, then serving in the courthouse, resulted in the case of Ex parte Virginia, which demonstrated that as a result of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Federal government had a qualified, but potentially effective, power to protect the rights of American citizens. This case qualified the courthouse to be listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.

In the years after the Civil War, reform minded Republicans sought to insure that the newly freed slaves enjoyed the same measure of equality and opportunity that white Americans enjoyed. Through their control of the Congress, the Republican Party initiated programs designed to accomplish these ends.

In 1865 and 1866, Congress funded the Freedman’s Bureau to feed, clothe, and protect ex-slaves and passed civil rights acts to outlaw varied forms of segregation. In addition, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) to outlaw slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) to extend federal citizenship to blacks, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) to protect the black man’s right to vote. Congress backed up these efforts with the passage of a comprehensive Civil Rights Act in 1875.

In spite of these efforts, the tide of events was running against the effort to secure full civil equality for the ex-slaves. In state after state in the South, the conservative white leadership of the Democratic Party regained control of the political machinery, and through a process of legislation and intimidation, eliminated black participation in the political process and instituted a policy of racial segregation.

In the years after 1873, the Supreme Court continued to narrowly interpret the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Acts and southern states seized opportunities to deprive black citizens of their basic civil rights.

After 1877, support for civil rights from the Congressional and Executive Branches of government waned and black Americans turned to the courts to fight for and secure their civil rights. The key to this effort to secure full civil and political rights for black Americans rested squarely on the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which stated, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Ex parte Virginia resulted from an action in 1878, when Judge J.D. Coles excluded black citizens from serving as grand and petit jurors in Pittsylvania County. At the time of this action Judge Coles had his offices in the Pittsylvania County Courthouse and it was then and there that the exclusion of black citizens from jury duty took place.

As a result of this action, Judge Coles was arrested and charged with a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. After his arrest, Judge Coles filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking that he be released from custody and that all charges be dropped on the grounds that his arrest and imprisonment were not warranted by the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Judge Coles also maintained that his arrest violated his personal rights and his judicial rights as an officer of the State of Virginia.

In this case, the Court held that Judge J.D. Coles’ action was a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and denied his petition for release.

Ex parte Virginia represents one of the few victories for blacks in the federal courts in the generation after 1865. Ex parte Virginia showed that the federal government had a qualified, but potentially effective, power to protect the rights of American citizens. Ex parte Virginia represented the promise of the future.

(Description of the Pittsylvania County Courthouse was taken from the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission Staff, National Register of Historic Places, Inventory—nomination form in Pittsylvania County Courthouse, Richmond, Virginia, Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, 1981, p.2).