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South Carolina African Americans – Major Events in Reconstruction Politics


Also see African-Americans - Reconstruction - 1865-1900 Main Page



Written by Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation

Free at last, but not for long

After the Civil War, white South Carolinians moved quickly to eliminate black people's newfound freedom. They wanted to return blacks, in effect, to their prewar status as slaves. Thus for most African-Americans, the days of celebration were few. Within months of the Confederacy's defeat, South Carolina had adopted a new constitution. This constitution was riddled with Black Codes, or what later became known as the laws of Jim Crow.

Freedom lost: The Constitution of 1865

In the summer of 1865 President Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded Lincoln, ordered that lands under federal control be returned to their previous white owners. Many African-Americans found themselves forcibly evicted from lands they had been told were theirs forever. They had no choice but to work as laborers on white-owned plantations. There was a deep sense of betrayal which lasted throughout Reconstruction and beyond.

In addition, South Carolina's constitution of 1865 failed to grant African-Americans the right to vote, and it retained racial qualifications for the legislature. The tone of the 1865 Constitution was set by Governor B.F. Perry:
To extend this universal suffrage to the "freedmen" in their present ignorant and degraded condition, would be little less than folly and madness ... [because] this is a white man's government, and intended for white men only.
This constitution created the climate necessary for the enactment of Black Codes in South Carolina. These laws sought to recapture the power of the white master over African-Americans, thus denying them social and political equality. For example, the Black Codes mandated that
  • "No person of color shall migrate into and reside in this state, unless, within twenty days after his arrival within the same, he shall enter into a bond with two freeholders as sureties"

  • "Servants shall not be absent from the premises without the permission of the master"

  • Servants must assist their masters "in the defense of his own person, family, premises, or property"

  • No person of color could become an artisan, mechanic, or shopkeeper unless he obtained a license from the judge of the district court – a license that could cost $100 or more.

Freedom Regained: The Constitution of 1868

At the national level, President Johnson vetoed two bills – one extending the life of the Freedmen's Bureau and one (called the Civil Rights Bill of 1866) spelling out the rights any citizen of the United States was to enjoy, without regard to race. Fortunately both bills were passed over Johnson's vetoes. Moreover, Congress approved the Fourteenth Amendment, which broadened the federal government's power to protect the rights of American citizens. While this amendment included many provisions, the most important was that it made the federal government – not the individual states – the protector of citizens' rights.

In 1867 Congress also passed, again over Johnson's veto, the Reconstruction Acts, which divided the South into five military districts and called for the creation of new governments which allowed blacks the right to vote. Only after the new governments ratified the Fourteenth Amendment would the Southern states be readmitted to the Union.

In South Carolina, the development of a new constitution in 1868 was an extraordinary departure from the past. Blacks comprised 71 to 76 of the 124 members. An observer from the New York Times commented:
The colored men in the Convention possess by long odds the largest share of mental calibre. They are all the best debaters; some of them are peculiarly apt in raising and sustaining points of order; there is a homely but strong grasp of common sense in what they say, and although the mistakes made are frequent and ludicrous, the South Carolinians are not slow to acknowledge that their destinies really appear to be safer in the hands of these unlettered Ethiopians than they would be if confided to the more unscrupulous care of the white men in the body.
The resulting 1868 South Carolina constitution
  • established a balanced, tripartite form of government for the first time in South Carolina's history

  • established comprehensive local governments, replacing the patchwork of specialized commissions which handled everything from roads to welfare

  • created a detailed Declaration of Rights which mandated political equality regardless of race

  • mandated state-wide public education for the first time

  • established a welfare program for the poor, aged, and disabled that was channeled through county governments

  • removed the requirement of owning property in order to vote.

Whites Regain Control

The 1868 constitution was also different (from both earlier documents and the later constitution of 1895) in that it was submitted to the people of the state for ratification. Sadly, this constitution – and its progressive approach – were doomed by both internal and external events.

Internally, white South Carolinians could not accept the idea of former slaves voting, holding office, and enjoying equality before the law. The black legislature of South Carolina was called a menagerie and a monkey house. Planter William Gregorie commented, "I think the time will come, if we ever have a white man's civil government again, when [there] will be more slaves than [there] ever were."

James S. Pike, a journalist who came to South Carolina in the 1870s and wrote The Prostrate State, said, "It is impossible not to recognize the immense proportion of ignorance and vice the permeates this body [the legislature]."

A vast body of lies were developed concerning these blacks, and these lies continue in modern scholarship. For example, the Democratic Party issued a broadside in 1868 claiming that of the 71 black delegates to the 1868 Constitutional Convention, only 14 were on the tax list. But if you go to the manuscript census, you find that 31 of them owned more than $1,000 in property – a substantial sum for that period.

The Election of 1876

By 1873 the entire country had plunged into a severe economic depression. This distracted Congress, furthered the anger of Southerners, and caused the Northern public to retreat from Reconstruction. Violence in South Carolina increased, flaunting the belief that there was little to fear from Washington. In 1876 Wade Hampton, one of the state's most popular Confederate veterans (at least among whites), was nominated for governor. Hampton's supporters, sporting red shirts, formed "rifle" and "gun" clubs and disrupted Republican gatherings. They also drove freedmen from their homes and made it known that they intended to carry the election no matter what. One planter remarked that they would win even "if we have to wade in blood knee-deep."

Not only did Hampton win, but these events also effected the Tilden-Hayes presidential election. This election was so close that it was decided by Congress – in favor of the Republican Hayes. However, in order to ensure inauguration, the Bargain of 1877 was struck whereby Hayes would recognize Democratic control of the Southern states and would also remove the last of the federal troops.

Consequently Reconstruction ended in the South. Republicans did not even offer a candidate for governor in 1878. Moreover, the federal government stood silently by as Southern states passed laws stripping African-Americans of their rights, including their right to vote.

Freedom Lost Again: The Constitution of 1895

In 1882 South Carolina's new white legislature passed a law requiring voters to place ballots for each category of office in a separate box – eight in all – with the provision that any ballots placed in an incorrect box would be disqualified. Registration books were kept open for only a short time each month and reregistration was required every time a voter moved – even if the movement was within the same precinct.

By 1894 the law also required potential voters registering for the first time to provide detailed personal information, as well as affidavits from two reputable citizens attesting to the applicant's good character. The South Carolina Constitution of 1895 completed the disenfranchisement by requiring a literacy test, by disqualifying voters for crimes that blacks were stereotypically expected to commit, and by requiring the payment of a poll tax six months prior to the election.

The Constitution of 1895 also created state-sanctioned segregation. Article 2, Section 7, stated that "Separate schools shall be provided for children of white and colored races, and no child of either race shall ever be permitted to attend a school provided for children of the other race."

This document also banned interracial marriage, defined as "marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eighth or more of Negro blood."

The Hampton legislature also swept away laws that raised taxes that provided benefits to blacks. Funding was cut to the state hospital and asylum. The law allowing poll taxes to be used to fund public education was repealed, virtually eliminating public education. Furthermore, laws were passed making oral contracts binding, even without witnesses, which favored the plantation owner in disputes with blacks. A law was even passed that gave planters the right to hold laborers who were indebted to them on their plantations until the laborers worked off their debt.

South Carolina White Viewpoint

In 1900 "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, then a US Senator from South Carolina, made this speech on the floor of the United States Congress:
As white men we are not sorry for it, and we do not propose to apologize for anything we have done in connection with it. We took the government away from them in 1876 .... We did not disfranchise the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina today as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got. As to his "rights" – I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern the white man, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores.

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