What Were Some of the Responses of the Black Community in South Carolina During the Period of Reconstruction to the Many Challenges they Encountered in Securing their Civil Rights
The period of reconstruction in South Carolina (1865-1870) was not only geared towards establishing a stable government, but also towards accommodating and providing assistance to the newly emancipated Black community. Yet, through this period, white supremacy continued to reign and racial tensions between Blacks and whites dramatically increased. Many whites seemed to ignore the fact that Blacks were no longer slaves; they disregarded the federal amendments that were designed to protect the constitutional liberties of the Blacks, and they did everything in their power to prevent Black advancement and to retain white dominance. Through all this, Blacks continued to fight for their civil liberties as free men and women, and in South Carolina, more than any other Southern state, many succeeded in politically rising to the challenge of white supremacy. In light of this, what were some of the responses of the Black Community in South Carolina during the period of reconstruction (1865-1870) to the many challenges they encountered in securing their civil rights?
Even though the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery, many of the whites in South Carolina refused to treat the Blacks as free people. They knew that it was impossible to keep Blacks as slaves. Therefore, in order to maintain power over the Black community and to prevent Black advancement, they replaced slave codes with “Black Codes.” These newly established codes “imposed severe limitations on their [Blacks] freedom” (Smith 44). They were designed to treat or define the Blacks as inferior and to regulate them to a secondary and subordinate position in society. The Black Codes restricted blacks from obtaining certain jobs, receiving a fair and just trial, and becoming educated citizens.
Under the Black Codes “white power was then exerted cruelly and persistently” (“The Races” 4). According to Smith, “South Carolina’s Black Codes required blacks to purchase an expensive license in order to work certain jobs…[and] the [white] masters of a black apprentice were permitted to ‘inflict moderate chastisement… and to recapture him if he depart from his service’” (45). Paradoxically, there was nothing moderate about this chastisement since if Blacks disobeyed their master, they were severely beaten. Moreover, in many cases, their wages were so low that they were unable to freely escape such cruelty. In light of this, it is quiet evident that the Black Codes, similar to slave codes, bound ex-slaves to their white employers. The codes disregarded the rights of the free-slaves and treated the Blacks as freed men who were, according to Jean Jacques Rousseau, “everywhere in chains.”
In addition, the ex-slaves were restricted or constantly prevented from owning land, a situation which totally undermined their independence and made them even more dependent on their white masters or landowners. Land ownership defined, to an extent, a person’s status. Blacks believed that landownership meant more money and even more freedom from white domination (Wormser 9). It was a way of making sufficient use of their resources to create and maintain a personal niche in a racially segregated society.
However, many Blacks in South Carolina found it extremely difficult to achieve this goal because, in order to make a decent living and because of the burden of the Black Codes, they were forced to subject themselves to the sharecropping and tenantry systems. Blacks, who had insufficient money or no license to purchase land, had to rent or work a piece of land that was owned by their white masters or landlords in exchange for crops or wages (Wormser 8). However, individuals argue that under both systems, “Blacks frequently were overcharged for what they purchased and underpaid for crops they produced” (Smith 76). Moreover, they became indebted to their white masters, and their dreams of owning their own land looked hopeless.
Importantly, whites in South Carolina resented the activities and goals of the Freedman’s Bureau – which Congress established to protect, educate, and assist the newly emancipated Blacks. Also, many whites were against the passing of the 15th Amendment because, regardless of race or color, it gave every man the right to vote. Many believed that giving inferior Blacks the right to gain a good education and the right to vote was an outright insult to white supremacy. This led to the formation of a secret white terrorist group known as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This group tried everything in its power, including extreme and inhumane violence, to prevent blacks from voting and from enjoying the benefits of being a free people. Its members were determined to preserve and secure the supremacy of the white race; for this reason, they lynched, assaulted, frightened, killed, and antagonized Blacks throughout South Carolina (Smith 123).
After emancipation, a new form of racial discrimination emerged: separation. Individuals argued that separation was another way of preventing Blacks in South Carolina from advancing or receiving the same privileges as the whites. Many whites held the belief that separation of the races was necessary to not only maintain peace and so called “white purity” but, like the belief of the KKK, to uphold white superiority. “‘Don’t imagine that I allow my children to be with Negros out of my presence,’ wrote the mistress of a low country plantation in 1868” (Williamson 275). Separation of the races in South Carolina made Blacks feel worthless and gave some little hope for attaining social or political advancement. Separation made them come to know nothing more than menial jobs, racist bosses, separate and filthy public facilities, and low expectations. Overall, it should be noted that “separation constantly [reminded] the Negro that he lived in a world in which the white man was dominant, and in which the non-white was steadfastly denied access to the higher caste” (Williamson 276).
However, through all this, did Blacks simply give up the fight? Did they remain ignorant and illiterate? Did they continue to allow the whites to treat them as mere puppets? The answer to these questions is “No!” Blacks did not remain passive; they did not allow their freedom, hopes, and dreams to be tarnished by racial insults and inhumane violence. Despite the many obstacles they encountered, Blacks worked tirelessly to secure their new-found freedom. They organized various meetings, wrote petitions to the State Legislature, and played an active role in the political system in order to gain and secure the civil liberties that they felt they deserved as a free people.
As mentioned before, many Blacks realized that, despite the fact that the 13th Amendment officially and legally made them free men and women, they were still being treated like slaves and not as free citizens. “Without any rational cause or provocation on our part… we … have been virtually… excluded from… the rights of citizenship, which you cheerfully accord to strangers, but deny to us who have been born and reared in your midst, who were faithful while your greatest trials were upon you, and have done nothing since to merit your disapprobation” (Smith 89). Freemen in South Carolina humbly asked for the right to be treated as citizens of a country that was their birthplace. Many also believed that they had done nothing wrong, but freely worked for centuries under harsh and inhuman conditions, and did not deserve such negative and discriminatory treatment from the white community. Furthermore, many became cognizant of the fact that the federal and state governments were doing very little to assist the Black community, and discrimination and racial violence were getting worse each day.
As a result, between 1865 and 1868, Blacks presented many petitions before the state legislature. Each petition made it quite clear that racial tensions could only improve if there was some level of mutual respect and cooperation among members of the Black and white communities. Furthermore, the petitions reflected Black sincerity, and each humbly asked for the right to be treated as free citizens who not only wanted to be given a voice in the political arena, but a people who strongly desired that their civil liberties as free men and women be preserved and respected. For example, a section of one of the petitions drafted by the Blacks in 1865 at Charleston, South Carolina asserted: “The petition of the … colored citizens of the State of South Carolina respectfully prays that your honorable body, in remodeling the Constitution of the State, will take care that no clause shall be exerted in it which will debar any man from exercising the rights and privileges of citizenship because of the color of his skin” (Aptheker 93-94).
Although it took numerous petitions and constant persuasion from the Black community, the government finally, on July 9th, 1868, succumbed to the pleas of the Blacks by passing the 14th Amendment. This amendment brought a sense of relief and happiness to the Black community who had worked nearly three years to convince the South Carolinian government that in order to maintain some consensus in a divided society, it was imperative to formulate certain laws to legitimize their status as not only free men but as citizens. Section I of the 14th Amendment clearly asserted, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall… deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” (Thirteenth to Fifteenth). This amendment brought back faith to the Black Community; it led the Blacks to the realization that they possessed the power to fight for their civil rights, and it gave them the courage to continue on the journey, despite its distance, to a new life of prosperity and acceptance.
As mentioned before, the Black Codes were one of the greatest obstacles that the Blacks in South Carolina faced in attempting to secure their civil rights. These codes not only restricted Blacks from owning their own lands. The codes treated them unfairly under the justice system because, despite the fact that they were allowed to bring cases to court, in many instances they were not properly represented or granted a just sentence. In light of this, the Freedmen’s Bureau intervened and “established courts to adjudicate disputes among blacks and between blacks and whites;… bureau agents acted as advocates for the blacks in state courts and sought racial equality in judicial proceedings, especially the acceptance of black testimony against whites” (Lieberman 422). Overall, even though the Bureau’s life in South Carolina was short-lived; it did, to a great extent, help to protect Black civil rights and even lighten some of their economic burdens.
Importantly, 1868 was a remarkable year in South Carolina since for the first time “freemen [of African origin] had a majority in South Carolina’s Constitutional Convention” (Smith 94). This Convention was designed to make certain ratifications and changes to South Carolina’s Constitution that would benefit both the Black and white communities. Freemen such as Thomas E. Miller, Joseph Rainey, Reverend Richard H. Cain, and Robert B. Elliot were highly intelligent Black men who played an active role in the Convention and used their political voice to fight against racial insults, segregation, and illiteracy. They also fought persistently for the protection of the civil rights of the Black community. John Hosmer and Joseph Fineman state, “Joseph Rainey and Robert B. Elliot of South Carolina [were like] fiery militants who battled at all cost to obtain equality for Blacks” (105).
On top of this, the determination and persuasion of these Black political leaders resulted in changes to South Carolina’s Constitution that were, in many cases, favorable to the Black community. In South Carolina, many Blacks had to pay a poll tax in order to render their votes, and since many Blacks were poor and severely underpaid, they were unable to pay the poll tax which thus prevented them from voting. For this reason, in the 1868 Constitutional Convention, “Elliot moved to amend [a section of South Carolina’s Constitution] so that the failure to pay the poll tax should never deprive any person of the right of suffrage” (Taylor 393).
In many ways, the Black members of the Constitutional Convention also helped to lay the foundation for the passing of the 15th Amendment which, despite certain constraints, gave Black men the right to vote. Section I of this constitutional amendment stated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any other state on account of race, color, or pervious condition of servitude” (Thirteenth). The 15th Amendment helped to “destroy the ‘Black Codes’ and other legislation prejudicial to their (Blacks) interests which the white people of [South Carolina] had passed to revitalize slavery” (Gordon 55). Furthermore, this amendment allowed free Black men to elect more intellectual Black leaders to justly represent their interests in South Carolina’s government. In light of this, Joel Williamson drew his readers’ attention to the fact that “Joseph H. Rainey, soon to serve four terms in Congress upon suffrage of his racial brothers, declared … in 1870 that distinctions of color had been, to a great extent, destroyed by the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment to our National Constitution – laystone to the arch of our political structure…” (338).
Before emancipation, Blacks were not allowed to receive a formal education; instead, in a few cases, they were informally taught how to do basic reading and writing so as to undertake simple business matters for their white masters (Gordon 4). However, since the majority of the men in South Carolina’s Constitutional Convention (during the reconstruction era) were of African origin, there was a general consensus to give each individual a right to a good education regardless of their color. They expressed the need, now that Blacks were freemen, to gain a clearer understanding of the world they lived in, and they needed, like the legendary Bob Marley once said, to “emancipate themselves from mental slavery” – mental bondage, illiteracy, and ignorance. As a result of this, in the 1868 Constitutional Convention, the committee on education, which included five Blacks and three whites for the first time in history, formulated a constitutional clause that declared that “public schools shall be free and open to all children and youths of the state without regard to race or color” (Tyack and Lowe 246). The Black community was truly enthusiastic about this clause and showed “a most admirable and praiseworthy interest in the schools provided for them” (“Education” 4).
Nicolas Worth poetically asserted, “Prone in the road he lay. Wounded and sore bestead: Priests, Levites passed that way and turned aside the head. They were not hardened men in human service slack: His need was great: but then, His face you see, was black” (Gordon 80). This stanza grabbed my attention since it uniquely illustrated that many whites failed to help the Black community. Despite the fact that Blacks were now freemen, many whites still felt that Blacks were merely “free slaves” who were ignorant and of little benefit to the society. In closing, after examining the reconstruction period, I must applaud the Blacks in South Carolina for working relentlessly to secure their civil rights and to fight against white supremacy and discriminatory laws. In essence, unlike Blacks in other southern states, the South Carolinian Black political leaders painted a truly distinct and extraordinary picture of Black determination, Black intelligence, and Black achievements.
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Gordon, Asa. Sketches of Negro Life and History in South Carolina. 2nd ed. Colombia: U of South Carolina P, 1929.
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Taylor, A. A. “The Convention of 1868.” The Journal of Negro History 9.4 (1924): 381-408. JSTOR. City U of New York, York College Lib. 1 May 2007.
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