1898 Wilmington Race Riot

Related Post-Reconstruction Histories:

Other racial conflicts occured in the South that either influenced Wilmington, or erupted because similar racial antagonisms existed. The corruption of Republican-dominated political regimes could usually be found as the basis of the conflicts.

Excerpted from Chapter 20, “Post-Reconstruction, 1876-1900”
The History of Georgetown County, South Carolina
George C. Rogers, Jr.
1970 University of South Carolina Press
Pages 481-484

Although there had been little violence in Georgetown since Reconstruction, there was always tension that could erupt into violence. The eruption occurred on Saturday, September 29, 1900. In suppressing this eruption the dominant local white element also put an end to the policy of fusion. On that Saturday, Deputy Sheriff J.C. Scurry had called on John Brownfield, a Negro barber, in his shop to collect the poll tax. Brownfield shot Scurry, who died shortly thereafter. Brownfield was apprehended by a Negro policeman and lodged in the local jail. When rumours spread among the Negroes that the whites intended to lynch Brownfield, they gathered on Sunday to the number of 1000 and walked through the streets shouting “Save John”, threatening at the same time to burn down the town if any harm befell him.

The coloured women, armed with hoes and rice hooks were particularly menacing. Mayor W.D. Morgan, with Colonel J.R. Sparkman and Alderman Jonathan Baxter tried to calm the Negroes and urged them to disperse. Captain S.M.Ward and the Georgetown Rifle Guards were held in readiness in the Armoury but were not used. Some thought the failure to show force on Sunday permitted the repetition of a large gathering on Monday which was as threatening as that of the day before. The Mayor issued a proclamation commanding all to stay at home and consulted with the Negro leaders; Alderman Baxter, School Commissioner Herriot, William Woodbury and J.L. Mitchell. He also met with a group of the “best citizens”, referred to in the dispatches as an advisory board consisting of Colonel J.R. Sparkman, Major B.A. Munnerlyn, Captain S.M. Ward, S.S Fraser, J.B. Steele, H.H. Gardner, G.R. Congdon, L.S. Ehrich, Senator LeGrand G. Walker, Alderman Mark Moses, and F.G. Tarbox. The latter group unanimously urged the Mayor to wire the Governor for four companies and a Gatling gun. They wanted an overwhelming display of force to produce a moral effect upon the local Negroes. The Governor promptly issued orders to the Sumter Light Infantry to proceed to Georgetown and placed three companies in Charleston under the orders of the Mayor of Georgetown. The Sumter company arrived that evening and was met by the Georgetown Rifle Guards under Captain Ward and the Hampton Imperial Guards, a cavalry group of Sampit, under Captain B.O. Bourne.
The next morning Major Schachte arrived from Charleston on the train via Lanes with Hotchkiss and Gatling guns. A parade was planned for 11 o’clock on Tuesday morning to show “that the white man was in the saddle.”

After the parade a Mayor’s court tried six women and three men as ringleaders of the movement, and they were sentenced to pay fines or serve on the chain gangs. The main point made on that October 2 was that the white population of Georgetown could depend on overt support from the white population of the rest of the State. Fusion was dead.

In spite of the fusion, there had always been a feeling among most of the whites that the white man alone should rule. This feeling reappeared again and again in the letters of the Georgetown doctor and druggist Thomas Pearce Bailey (1832-1904). A letter of August 22, 1878 indicated that Bailey was a great admirer of General Gary’s “straightoutism”, that is, the whites should not cooperate with the Negroes in political movements. “The late course of the Radical Convention is so disgusting that I think the coalition party are surely convinced by this time, that it is all colour line, and there is no hope except in uncompromising Democratic principles….” On July 29th, 1880, upon Jefferson Davis’s reappearance in public life he commented: “our cause is lost but the principles for which we fought must reassert themselves at some future day…are we not about to realize these utterances?” They were realized ultimately, but in 1900, not in 1880. In 1889, Dr. J.R. Sparkman wrote down his views on the “Negro question.” He was quite convinced that the civilizing tendencies of slavery had been stripped away and that the Negro was reverting to his natural barbarous state. This was a pessimistic mood permeating that group which had believed most in paternalism. With such sentiments as those of Bailey and of Sparkman being nurtured by the new imperialism of the 1890’s, it is amazing that fusion lasted so long. In the end of course, it was the rest of the State that restored white rule to Georgetown as Bailey had predicted.

When the national Republican party in 1904 endorsed a plank urging a reduction in representation in Congress when discrimination against Negroes occurred (that is, to enforce the second section of the 14th Amendment), the State turned more ardently to the Democratic party. The national Democratic convention of the same year adopted the following plank: “The race question has brought countless woes to this country. The calm wisdom of the American people should see to it that it brings no more. To revive the dead and hateful race and sectional animosities in any part of our common country means confusion, destruction of business and the reopening of wounds now happily healed. North, South, East and West have but recently stood together in the line of battle from the walls of Peking to the hills of Santiago, and as sharers of a common glory and common destiny we should share fraternally the common burdens.” Thus the politics of a solid South Carolina emerged.


Governor Wade Hampton

Wade Hampton and the Negro
The Road Not Taken
Hampton M. Jarrell
1949, University of South Carolina Press

Chapter One, Prelude To Negro Supremacy

The extreme phase of the revolution that put the Negro in political control of South Carolina for nearly a decade did not immediately follow the close of the Civil War. For about two years after Lee's surrender the plan of reconstruction devised by President Lincoln and implemented by President Johnson determined the political complexion of the state. This was the brief period during which moderate Northern sentiment was a dominant factor in the South, though from the start the intent of the President was effectively thwarted by an extremist faction in Congress that was called Radical Republican.

In its essence the Presidential policy for reconstruction was to let each Southern state work out its own destiny under presidential supervision. Each state would become again a working part of the nation as soon as it organized a government loyal to the national Constitution and adopted a state constitution acceptable to the President. Regarding "war criminals" too, the President's purpose was one of reconciliation rather than retribution.

As for the Negroes, the Presidential policy provided for the protection of their newly gained freedom, but did not grant them the right to vote. The existence of large Negro majorities in some Southern states, particularly in South Carolina, made this issue of Negro suffrage a crucial one, for to give an unrestricted ballot to the blacks, not five per cent of whom could read and almost none of whom could read and almost none of whom had even the least political experience, would impose a heavy burden on a society already shaken by war and defeat.
The President's position on suffrage, moreover, had at first the backing of the mass of Northern people of both parties. Even Oliver P. Morton, who was later to be a rabid leader of the Radical Republicans, found it "impossible to conceive of instantly admitting this mass of ignorance to the ballot."
On the other hand, the question of Negro suffrage was equally crucial to the ambitions of many radical leaders. If the Southern states could be made and kept Radical Republican, Radical control of the nation, they thought, would be perpetuated. As Thad Stevens put it, the restoration of Southern states to the union would be considered only when the federal Constitution had been so amended as "to secure the perpetual ascendancy" of Radical Republicanism. The enfranchisement of Negroes in the South was an absolute prerequisite. Not the least of the many ironies of Reconstruction---the very term is ironic---is the fact that within ten years Steven's policy had created the solid Democratic South.

Thus, while President Johnson was trying to bind up the wounds of civil strife, powerful forces within his own party were at work against him both in the South and in the North. During the spring of 1865 Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase of the Supreme Court toured the South, assuring the Negroes that they would soon have the vote and winning Negro support for the Radicals. At the same time representatives of the Union League were herding blacks by the thousands into political clubs with impressive ceremonies including an oath to always vote Republican. Moreover, agents of the Treasury and of the Freedmen's Bureau, along with various other political adventurers, all later to be known as carpetbaggers, were diligent in the good cause and in feathering their own future political nests.

(Note 1: John W. DeForest, novelist, army officer, Republican, and official of the Freedmen's Bureau, recorded his observations in South Carolina during 1866 and 1867. Of such officials he said, "One wonders that the South did not rebel anew when one considers the miserable vermin who were sent down there as government officials." Croushore and Potter (eds.), "A Union Officer in the Reconstruction", New Haven, 1948, p. 44.)

(Note 2: DeForest served as an official of the Freedmen's Bureau in charge of a district in the Piedmont section, or Up-country of South Carolina for fifteen months from October 1, 1866. Although his district was one least touched by war, he states, "In Naples and Syria I have seen more beggarly communities than I found in the South, but never one more bankrupt."
Ibid., p. 199)

In the North too, the Radical extremists were stoking their fires and bringing the old abolition fervor and the sectional hatreds of the war to a boiling point. "Waving the bloody shirt," as this propaganda technique was called, became the mainstay of the Radicals, who founded their power on continued hatred and suspicion towards the white South---and the fires that they kindled have not yet entirely cooled. Perhaps President Lincoln could have withstood this clamorous pressure of Northern extremists, but President Johnson could not. The moderate Northern policy towards the Negro was never given a fair chance.

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It seems likely that nothing South Carolina could have done would have prevented the Radical drive for control. What was done, however---the hard and fast definition of a separate status in the community for the Negro---provided adequate material for both righteous and unrighteous indignation north of the Mason and Dixon line.
The problem that the legislators did understand, the social and economic needs of the freedmen, was treated with more decisiveness than tact. A clear-cut distinction between white and black was a part of the accepted folkways of the state, and legal distinctions on the basis of color that shocked some Northerners (it could not have been many, as most if not all northern states had legal, emigration and social restrictions placed upon blacks. Ed.) were accepted as a matter of course by both races in South Carolina. At any rate, the new laws made this distinction with utmost frankness. Then, as now, much northern indignation was aroused, not so much by what Southerners did about the Negro, which differed little from northern practices in many communities, but by the public avowal of legal distinctions on the basis of race.

Besides the general question of racial distinctions, there were many special problems relating to the newly freed labor. Whatever may have been the cause, it was a sad fact that Negroes had their own well-recognized attitudes toward work, toward truth, and toward private property. Testimony on this point is abundant and typical results of first-hand experience may be found in comments from the private correspondence of some of the New England abolitionists who in 1862 had come to the sea islands of South Carolina to help care for the abandoned slaves and to produce cotton on the abandoned plantations, thus admirably combining service with profit.

One writes in December of 1865, "There is a universal feeling of dissatisfaction, not to say disgust, with our colored brethren here at the present time on account of the extraordinary development of some of their well-known characteristics. They are stealing cotton at a fearful rate… We none of us feel secure against these depredations." (Elizabeth W. Pearson, "Letters From Port Royal", Boston 1906, p. 322) Another notes, "Dr. Oliver and Captain Ward, who have bought Pine Grove have taken the usual disgust for the people. They have got it bad; say they would not have bought here had they imagined half the reality…I say the same when I say anything about it. (Ibid., p.328) Another comments, "We had a call from Dennett (a correspondent of "The Nation") on his Southern tour a few weeks ago. He said he was disappointed in not getting better reports of the Negroes here on these islands for he had been looking forward to this place. Feeling sure he should find something good to offset the many evil reports he had heard of them all the way down through the country."

One of the leaders, "an older man, a teacher, a person of great loveliness of character and justice of mind, " writes on October 9, 1865, "I have no reason to complain of my people for any extraordinary delinquencies, for they have worked as well as well shall probably ever be able to get these Negroes to work; but I have frequently had occasion to be vexed at their slow, shiftless habits and at their general stupidity."
It is a very great trial to any Northern man to have to deal with such a set of people, and I am satisfied that if Northerners emigrate to the South and undertake agriculture or anything else here, they will be compelled to import white laborers." By December though, we learn that this same gentleman's cotton had been stolen, that he would be "glad to get away from this "Sodom", that "he is too good a man to be worn out by the barbarians of this latitude," and that the correspondent of The Nation thinks him "very much demoralized on the Negro question."
These are the comments of the best (those who "stuck" for several years) of "a party of men and women who were almost without exception inspired purely by the desire to help those who had been slaves."
(Note: Indeed, writing many years later, Governor Chamberlain, the last and best of the carpetbag governors asserted, "I find myself forced by my experience and observation to say that (we should undo) what we have heretofore done for the Negro since his emancipation, namely, the inspiring in him the hope or dream of sharing with the white race a social or political equality; for whoever will lay aside wishes and fancies and look at realities will see these things are impossible." Quoted by Henry T. Thompson, "Ousting The Carpetbagger From South Carolina", Columbia, 1926, p.175)

Most people in the North could not imagine "half of the reality," though they knew exactly what ought to be done. But members of the first state convention and legislature knew the facts. They formulated strict laws to check vagrancy, to keep the laborer on the farm until a crop was harvested, and to prevent petty theft, particularly the theft of crops. The Radical press dubbed these laws the "Black Codes" and screamed that slavery was being re-instituted.

(Note: Conditions in the Low-country indicating need for something like the "Black Codes" are described by Henry Ravenel from information given by his half-brother, Rene (August 23, 1865): "He gives a deplorable account of the condition of affairs in the country (around St. Johns). Robberies are of daily occurrence. Ebough, Markly and Esterling and others are buying all the cotton the Negroes can steal and carry to them. Everybody is losing cotto, cattle, hogs and sheep. William had his cotton removed into his dwelling house at Woodlawn, and it has been stolen. But little provisions will be made, not enough to serve the Negroes but a small portion of next year. The planters will only make from their share of the crop enough for their own support, and of course will not be able to engage laborers next year for want of provisions. The prospect is that they will barely get a support, and even that will be stolen from the field or the barns as soon as it is ready for harvest." (Childs, op. cit., pp250, 256.)

"The Negroes seem indisposed to work in the country, and are flocking to the towns and cities. Where they have been under contract during the past season, they have in most cases disregarded their contracts, and have made but little provision for the coming year…there must be stringent laws to control the Negroes, and require them to fulfill their contracts of labor on the farms. No one will venture to engage in agricultural operations without some guarantee that his labor is to be controlled and continued under penalties and forfeitures. Without these, there would be certainty of loss." (See also ibid., pp258, 262ff.)

As a matter of fact, the vagrancy laws were no more severe than those in many Northern states (Massachusetts for example) and the general tenor of the code was sincerely believed to be in the best interests of the Negro as well as the white community.
The "Black Code," had it been continued, would, with a few modifications have provided a much-needed period of transition from slavery to citizenship. The course that was followed under Radical Reconstruction, on the other hand, left a child-like and undisciplined people without checks or controls, and confirmed them in many of those ways of thought and action that are still the curse of the race.

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A more typical Radical reaction to (Wade) Hampton's efforts to achieve racial harmony in the state is seen in a cartoon in Harper's Weekly, where Hampton is shown on his knees, polishing the shoes of a well-dressed Negro. The Radical accusation that white leaders did not attempt to achieve racial harmony was not advanced until Reconstruction was a palpable failure. Then the blame was placed on the shoulders of those perennial whipping boys, the ante-bellum leaders.

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