This article supplements Reconstruction, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Reconstruction.
Adapted from “South Carolina’s Black Elected Officials During Reconstruction” by Eric Foner, originally published in At Freedom’s Door edited by Lewis W. Burke and James L.
Underwood. Published by University of South Carolina Press.
The advent of African Americans in positions of political leadership and political power in this country was a remarkable transformation. Just a few years after the end of slavery, hundreds of black men throughout the South occupied positions of real political power at all levels. In some ways it was amazing that a former slave could be assessing property for taxation purposes on the local level, and that a black man, Jonathan Jasper Wright, sat on the Supreme
Court of South Carolina. Before the Civil War, only a handful of states in the North even allowed blacks to vote, and I have only been able to find two black Americans who held any public office then, in the whole country: Macon Allen, the first black lawyer in American history, held a justice of the peace position in Massachusetts in the 1850s, and John Langston, later a congressman from Virginia, held a minor position in Ohio.
By 1877, when Reconstruction ended, my estimate is that about 2,000 black men held some official position. There were other important figures—political organizers, newspaper editors—but these were people who actually held public office.
In South Carolina, some black men continued to hold one office or another until around the turn of the century. Then, it pretty much ended. The next significant group of black officials emerged in the North in the 1920s and ’30s as a result of black migration and the beginnings of black political power there, but it was not until after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that America again saw the rise of African American officeholding in any significant numbers in the South.
To the critics of Reconstruction, the fact that black men were in office was one of the great horrors of that period. The Democratic press called these legislatures and constitutional conventions “menageries” and “monkey houses.” They ridiculed former slaves who thought themselves competent to frame a code of laws. They said that these officials were ignorant, illiterate, propertyless, and that they lacked education and the economic wherewithal to take part intelligently in government. James S. Pike, a northern journalist who came to South Carolina and wrote the famous book about African American legislators called The Prostrate State in the 1870s, said after visiting the state legislature, “It is impossible not to recognize the immense proportion of ignorance and vice that permeates this body.”
Some opponents of Reconstruction tried to erase black officials from the historical record altogether. In Georgia, after the Democrats regained control of Georgia’s government, Alexander Abrams, who compiled the legislative manual each year, announced that he was going to omit black lawmakers from the biographical sketches. He wrote, “I am not going to include these Black legislators because it would be absurd to record the lives of men who were but yesterday our slaves and whose past careers embrace such occupations as boot blacking, shaving, table waiting, and the like.” A quote like this reveals the combination of racism and class prejudice that went into the opposition to Reconstruction. It wasn’t just that these men were black, but that they were poor, that seemed to mark them as being somehow ineligible to be part of the public world.
Historical accounts echoed these charges. They were also perpetuated in cultural representations. In the film Birth of a Nation, for example, there is a scene in the South Carolina Legislature with black members taking off their shoes and putting their bare feet up on the table to show how ridiculous and incompetent they supposedly were. Gone with the Wind has similar scenes.
Historians all through the century distorted the historical record. For example, E. Merton Coulter wrote that of the 37 black men who served in the Georgia Constitutional Convention in 1868, “most of them could not read and write.” But according to the 1870 manuscript census, the great majority of them were not illiterate. Scholars of South Carolina history also repeated a charge which the Democratic Party leveled at the black delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1868. The Democratic Party issued a document in 1868 saying that of the 71 black delegates, only 14 were on the tax list. But the manuscript census reveals again that that was just not true. Most of them did own property. Thirty-one of them owned more than a thousand dollars’ worth of property, which in those days was a fairly substantial sum.
There were historians who challenged these myths. The first ones were black historians writing in the Journal of Negro History. Some of them were survivors of Reconstruction, like John R. Lynch. Some of them were the early generation of scholars like W. B. DuBois or Luther P. Jackson.
Today, we know a great deal more about these black officials than ever before. Of the 1,510 black officeholders during the period about whom I have written (there were undoubtedly a few hundred others whom historians have not yet identified), 315 were from South Carolina (South Carolina had the largest black population, at least in percentage terms—about 57 to 58 percent of the population of the state was African American in Reconstruction). These 315 served in every kind of position—at the federal level, the state level, and the local level. Six black men served in Congress from South Carolina during Reconstruction. There were also U.S. tax assessors, pension agents, postmasters, customs officials.
In South Carolina, about 72 African Americans, according to my calculation, served in the Constitutional Convention of 1868. During the course of Reconstruction, 210 African Americans served in the lower house of the state legislature and 29 in the state senate—a very hefty representation. And South Carolina is the only state that had a black majority in the legislature during Reconstruction. At the top of the state level, there were two black lieutenant governors, the treasurer, and secretary of state. Then there were numerous local officials ranging from justice of the peace, sheriff, and school board officials.
What was the status of these men before the Civil War—were they free or slave? South Carolina had a substantial free black population, mostly centered around Charleston before the war, and many of these people were well-educated and skilled workers of one kind or another, and thus well-positioned to move into upper-level posts of political power during Reconstruction. But of those whose status I could find, 88 had been free before the Civil War and 131 had been slaves—meaning that even in South Carolina, a majority of black officeholders had been slaves before the Civil War.
The period produced a number of notable black leaders. One well-known congressman, Robert Brown Elliott, was a brilliant political organizer. BElliot came He worked in Boston and then he came to South Carolina. He became an editor of the South Carolina Leader, a short-lived black newspaper, and he established a law practice. According to his law partner, Daniel A. Straker, “Elliott knew the political condition of every nook and corner of the state. He knew every important person in every county, village, or town. He knew the history of the entire State as it related to politics.” Some think, said another newspaper, that “he is the ablest Negro intellectually in the South.” He served in a number of offices—he was in the constitutional convention, state legislature, county commissioner in Barnwell County, Board of Regents of State Asylums, and he served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, starting in 1870. Elliott also served as Speaker of the House in the South Carolina legislature, from 1874–76.
Elliott was most famous for two speeches in Congress. In 1870, he spoke on the Ku Klux Klan bill and talked about the depredations of the Klan in a very pointed remark: “Every Southern gentlemen should blush with shame at this pitiless and cowardly persecution of the Negro. It is the custom of democratic journals to stigmatize the Negroes of the South as being barbarous. But gentlemen, tell me, who is the barbarian here?”
Elliott ran for the U.S. Senate in 1872. His opponent was a white northerner called, ironically, Honest John Patterson. Patterson distributed bribes to the legislature—he offered Elliott $15,000 to withdraw from the race. Elliott refused, though he was rather poor, and the bribe was a lot of money at the time.
Elliott lost the election. After Reconstruction, he, like so many others, found it hard to make a living. There was not much financial wherewithal being a black lawyer in South Carolina, and the prospect of political office was gone after Reconstruction was over. He eventually got a job with the Treasury Department, moved to New Orleans, tried to practice law there, and died in the early 1880s penniless. The end of Reconstruction closed off opportunities for a whole generation of talented and ambitious black men.
Perhaps the most famous of all the South Carolina congressmen was Robert Smalls, who was a slave raised in Beaufort County and well-known for stealing a Confederate ship, the Planter, on which he worked as a pilot during the war. He dressed himself up as the captain and under the cover of night, piloted the ship out of the harbor and surrendered it to U.S. naval forces. He became a hero. He joined the navy and was later placed in command of the Planter. After the war, he came back to the Sea Islands and set up a very long-lived political machine. He was about the closest thing to a long-term political boss that Reconstruction produced. He served in many local offices in South Carolina and then in the Congress long after the end of Reconstruction. He served in the 1880s in Congress from the Low Country and then as collector of customs at Beaufort until 1913. Why 1913? Because that was the year Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as president. Once in office, Wilson instituted rigid segregation in federal offices in Washington and cleaned out all of the remaining black patronage officials.
There was also Benjamin Boseman, was likely the first black American to practice medicine and to be licensed to practice medicine in the state of South Carolina. Boseman grew up in Troy, New York, and had been one of the very few black physicians in the North, having studied at the Medical School of Maine. He worked in the Union army as a surgeon during the Civil War, and he came to South Carolina and established a medical practice in Charleston in September 1865. He was later elected to the house of representatives and also served as the postmaster of Charleston—a very lucrative position.
More obscure black office holders are just as deserving of commemoration, such as Benjamin Randolph, a native of Kentucky, a minister, and a chaplain in the Union army who came to South Carolina with the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1868 he became the head of the state Republican Party, and served in the Constitutional Convention of 1868. While campaigning in 1868 for the Republicans, he was assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan in Abbeville County, an example of the dangers these people faced and the courage it took to stand up for what they believed.
We should remember these men and many, many others. Some of them were very successful and some of them less so. Some of them were very heroic and some were very radical. But, for all of them, I like to quote James Greene, a former slave who became a legislator in Alabama and said, “When I was a slave, I didn’t know anything except to obey my master. But the tocsin of freedom sounded and I walked out like a man and shouldered my responsibilities.” That’s how we should remember these people. They walked out of slavery and tried to shoulder their responsibilities.