EDITOR’S NOTE: This article may include historical materials that could contain offensive language or negative stereotypes. Such materials must be viewed in the context of the relevant time period. The Georgetown Times does not endorse the views expressed in such materials.
By Tom Rubillo
Bust to boom to bust
Back-to-back hurricanes in 1893 dealt the final, fatal blow to rice production in Georgetown County, Those storms killed hundreds of people. Storm surges washed away dikes surrounding rice paddies. Salt left after flood waters retreated rendered the soil near useless for profitable cultivation. An important part of the area’s economy collapsed. A great deal of suffering and want followed.
Because of port improvements spearheaded by Georgetown’s greatest citizen, Mayor William D. Morgan, recovery from the effects of combined natural disasters followed quickly. Easy access to the sea and abundant natural resources attracted new investment, so as the old plantation system faded, a rising and increasingly prosperous middle class began to take its place. The names of both old money and new can be found on area gravestones.
In addition to being an effective chief executive for the City of Georgetown, Morgan was something of a salesman for the community too. He devoted a great deal of his attention to promotion of the area’s strengths - its modem port, emerging rail connections, beautiful environment, abundant natural resources. His efforts paid off. Georgetown’s place on the map became more noticeable to large investors. The coup de whatever resulting from all of this being that, in 1898, the Atlantic Coast Lumber Company opened a huge saw mill on the Sampit river. The new enterprise created so much work that just about anyone looking for a small paycheck for hard work could earn one.
The whole undertaking proved to be a great success. By the dawn of the 20th century, local lumber exports were measured in the millions. of board feet. Port improvements also accommodated export of large quantities of farm and other forest products. A factory upstream (and upwind) from town on the Sampit river ground millions of pounds of whatever species fell into fishermen’s nets, dried it out and bagged it for export as animal feed and fertilizer. Distilleries were producing and shipping out barrels of turpentine, pitch and other refined products.
In this economic environment, most people no longer had ‘to steal to have something to eat, at least in and around the towns of Georgetown and the newly emerging town of Andrews. Just about everybody in the more densely populated parts of the county had some food on the table, a “ few clothes to wear, a roof over their heads, a school for their children, and a church in which to worship. Some had a great deal more than others. With a few notable exceptions, the dividing line between the haves and the have nots matched skin tones.
By the time the national Prohibition of alcohol went into effect in 1920, the local economy seemed rock solid to those sharing in its bounty. Agriculture was strong. Fisheries feasted. Investment and industry were growing. Labor was cheap. To those prospering from the unbridled capitalism of the day, these were happy days.
Those facts, plus ambitious plans to connect Georgetown to the rest of the world with bridges spanning surrounding rivers, led an economic development expert of those times to predict a burst of investment and a rosy future for the community in June of 1929.
As is often the case, the expert’s prognostication proved wrong. By year’s end, insider trading and manipulation financial markets had caused the stock market to crash. Financial panic followed as people lined up to withdraw their money from the banks. Having loaned out most of that money, banks could not meet the cash demands of depositors fast enough. Many had to lock their doors as protection against angry customers. Banks began to fail, at first only a few, but then one after another.
There being no federal deposit insurance in those days, the failure banks meant the loss of life savings for many. Farmers lost seed money for the next year’s crop. Local merchants struggled to stay open, not always with success.
Without banks to lend money, it became impossible to get a conventional mortgage. That caused the real estate market to wither. Prices there crashed. Only the very wealthy could afford to pay cash. Many took advantage of this opportunity, a few safely sheltering (and laundering) lucre acquired by manipulating capital markets in this way. The bigger the booty, the bigger the barony.
The crash of the real estate market caused new construction to come to a halt. Demand for lumber practically vanished. Lumberjacks stopped cutting. Sawyers stopped sawing. Longshoremen stopped loading. More and more local workers were laid off as the months passed.
Without work (there was no unemployment insurance back then), rents and mortgages went unpaid, grocery bills went unpaid, the demands for payment of the grocers’ creditors could not be met. Hunger became a daily reality for many. So did homelessness. So did hopelessness. Things spiraled downhill from there, both locally and nationally.
FDR — it’s not a four letter word
Some politicians these days complain a good deal about so-called “entitlements,” spitting out the word as if it were a profanity. Much of what they complain about has to do with the Social Security System. It has its origins in the Great Depression.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as President of the United States, he went right to work creating what today are called “stimulus” programs. For example, he spearheaded the effort to create a system of “Social Security.” Working with a reasonably cooperative Congress, he proposed legislation creating what is, in practical reality, a giant government insurance company.
The basic idea was to collect money from working people and employers and hold it in trust. The money would be used to provide modest pensions for the elderly and miserly stipends to the infirm so that neither group would starve in large enough numbers to be politically embarrassing or troublesome like they had during the Russian Revolution just a decade or so before. Roosevelt was trying to keep a lid on things.
The third, and separate, division of the big government insurance company funded a system of unemployment insurance to be run by the States. Premiums are collected from employers as a part of doing business. When paid out, they help laid off workers keep their heads above water while looking for a new job. They also provide a safety net for industry, helping smooth out dips in consumer spending, caused by unemployment. (All businesses need paying customers.) These effects help stabilize the economy when times turn tough.
Over the years since its creation, this big government insurance company has worked very well. It can continue to do so if properly funded and its trustees prove to be trustworthy. Therein, as the expression goes, lies the rub.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
In any event, Atlantic Coast Lumber Company finally closed its doors for good in 1932. With its principal industry gone, Georgetown nearly died. Those able to get up and go got up and left, only to find unemployment, hunger and homelessness wherever they went. Writing about the closing of Atlantic Coast Lumber Company, University of South Carolina historian George C. Rogers, Jr. described the event as “the greatest blow to the people of the county since the defeat in 1865.”
In addition to creating the Social Security system, the Roosevelt Administration’s stimulus package included emergency work projects. Most projects involved public infrastructure improvements. Those created a lot of work and left America with a lasting legacy of national parks, scenic highways, bridges, roads, rural electrification, and lots of other public improvements.
Georgetown received its first federal bailout of $19,000.00 for the month of October of 1933. When it did some 4,200 people showed up looking for work digging ditches, patching roads and the like. “The people wanted something to eat and a little something to wear and actually struggled with each other for implements with which to work” USC History Professor George C. Rogers, Jr. reported in his local history book.
Feeding the family
One of the families facing hunger in those days was that of Albert King. The King family had lived on what today is part of Arcadia plantation since ante-bellum times. They had a small house. Cash being scarce in those days, they survived as best they could, hunting, fishing, gardening, bartering and sharing.
Albert King was described in a letter to the Georgetown Times printed on August 20, 1937 as “a mild, quiet man, gently and kind to his family and friends, white and black, and useful in the community in his trade as a carpenter. He was a peaceable man, never to my knowledge having taken part in any fight or quarrel in all the years I have known it.” The letter was signed “Old Timer.” It was written in response to the events of a week earlier.
On August 13, 1937, Albert King left his cabin with a rifle and rucksack. He was hoping to shoot a few squirrels for supper. He ended up dead, shot through the chest with buckshot fired by a plantation watchman.
An official Coroner’s Inquest was convened. As provided by law, the Coroner got to hand pick his jury, appoint its foreman, and control all the evidence presented. The jury was all white. The watchman who killed King was white. King was black.
Written statements were taken from three witnesses — the watchman, a local doctor and the sheriff.
The watchman swore that he was patrolling the woods on Arcadia and came upon fresh footprints. Suspecting someone was poaching, he hid.
It was late in the afternoon. A half hour or so passed. Then “Albert King came tipping through the swamp very slow. When he got up even with me, I got up and walked towards him, and when he saw me he threw up his rifle and said ‘Don’t come up to me.’”
The watchman told King to put the rifle down. King lowered it, but held on to it. The watchman then told King that he was under arrest.
“About that time he jumped on me,” the watchman said.
The two men wrestled. The watchman said that King swung his rifle, but hit a tree with it, bending the barrel. King was then described as losing his grip on the weapon and it flying off. No weapon was later found.
King was said then to have lunged at the watchman. Recoiling, the watchman stumbled. “I fell on my back and he jumped on top of me. I kicked him off with my feet and as I did I shot him while I was laying on the ground flat on my back,” he said.
King fell to the ground. The watchman went to town for the sheriff, leaving King alone and bleeding.
The sound of the gun brought Albert’s brother to the scene. The watchman had left by the time the brother arrived. Albert was taken to the doctor in town.
The sheriff returned to the scene of the shooting. The sheriff testified at the Coroner’s Inquest that the incident had taken place just behind the King family cabin, not near fresh tracks somewhere in the woods. This discrepancy is not explained further in courthouse records.
The doctor said that Albert King had been blasted by a shotgun at close range. The large entry wound tore a hole just below and to the left of Albert’s navel. Pellets could be felt under the skin of his back, the doctor said. On arrival, King’s breathing was shallow and his pulse faint, like someone bleeding to death.
The doctor said that the shotgun pellets went straight through the dead man’s guts in a straight line, front to back, a trajectory not entirely consistent with one expected when the shooter is on his back on the ground firing at someone standing over him. This discrepancy is not discussed in the official record.
In his letter to the Georgetown Times, the “Old Timer” acknowledges that Albert King may have been poaching, “as are many white boys and men in Georgetown County.” He went on to write “But poaching is not a crime that calls for death, especially when poaching means food for hungry mouths.”
“There is nobody now to care for his sorrowing widow and nine young children except one son old enough to work and a devoted brother who has a large family of his own to support.
“A good colored man has passed on.
“In these days the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ seems of little concern. And to us, decedents of the planters and slave owners, and the other residents of Waccamaw, an outrage of this kind is both new and strange,” the “Old Timer” concluded.
The hand picked, all white Coroner’s jury decided otherwise. They held that Albert King “came to his death by gun shot wounds inflicted by [the watchman] in defense of his own life.”
Justice, Georgetown County style, circa 1937.
Copy of Inquest Report
August 13th. 1937
Inquest held this 13th. of August 1937 at the Sheriff Office in Georgetown County, South Carolina, over the dead body of Albert King, Colored, age about 37, of the Lower Waccamaw Section of Georgetown County.
The Following served as Jurors:-
R. M. Ford, (Foreman)
Charlie Harrelson, Jr.
Carl B. McDaniel,
H. G. Beaty,
W. P. Foxworth,
W. A. Owens.
The Jury was charged and sworn. They viewed the body and heard the witnesses: They brought in the following verdict:
“That the said Albert King came to his death by gun shot wounds inflicted by C. L. Bessinger in defense of his own life”.
The following were Witnesses:-
P. E. Assey, M. D.
H. B. Bruorton, Sheriff,
C. L. Bessinger.
The Body was turned over to the Brother of Albert King and the death certificate was forwarded to the Registrar at Waccamaw in
Tom Rubillo used to practice law, but is now retired. He has held public office, taught government, ethics and law at area colleges and has published several books. The episodes written in connection with this project will be, at its conclusion, available in one volume, or at least that is his best laid plan.
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