A Government of Men Episode 23: Scurry Era
Published Thursday, September 13, 2012
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.
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
— Anatol France
The Scurry Era
On June 24, 1903, the Georgetown Times reported “The Murderer Escapes; Committed Suicide. John Brownfield Swallows Poison and is Dead. The Law Cheated Out of Its Just Deserts and All the Negroes Well-Pleased With the Results.” The accounting that followed this extended headline ended with an editorial opinion. It was that “the majesty of the law had not been vindicated.”
At the time this article was published, the official autopsy was yet to be conducted on the dead prisoner’s body. So the headline “John Brownfield Swallows Poison” was both premature and, as it turned out, wrong. The pathologist found no poisons and later said so in the autopsy report. The report did not (and, in truth, could not) answer the question of whether the dead man had taken his own life or had been killed by someone else — whether the death had been suicide or murder. Public opinion on that last question divided along racial lines.
On another point raised by the Times headline, Georgetown’s “Negroes” were not as “well-pleased” with Brownfield’s death as the newspaper opined. The entire episode destroyed any spirit of trust that had built up over the past quarter century of power sharing among Georgetown’s dominant black and minority white communities.
Instead, the “Negroes” suspected that the confrontation in the barbershop had been orchestrated by white supremacist bullies, albeit with unintended consequences.
To “Negroes,” the lesson from the tragedy was that white man’s justice was not color blind. Giving the ever growing racist hostility of whites in Georgetown, this realization raised a more fundamental concern among blacks.
Without the law, what protection would they have against growing white intimidation and the racial violence then spreading across the South? The unavoidable answer was simple. It was none.
One of slavery’s fundamentals had been that slaves, like farm animals, had no legal right of self defense. Emancipation was supposed to have changed that. “Property” became “people” under the law. People have legal rights. Those laws (and prosecutorial and/or judicial discretion in their enforcement) are supposed to be applied as equally.
If anything, the Brownfield trial and appeals showed how things had come full circle. Court rulings at all levels in that defendant’s case made plain that while, as a legal matter, people of color had obtained right of self defense, racially hostile prosecutors, judges and juries would pay that right no mind.
Signs in the Times
On Sept. 12, 1903, the Georgetown Times published a front page story under the headline “Anglo-Saxon Supreme.” It reported on a talk given by someone named John Temple Graves, a Georgian on the speaking circuit.
“He received an ovation after his effort, in which he discussed every phase of the negro problem. He stated that white supremacy was an unalterable fact; that the ballot of the negro was worthless whenever it was in the majority and the only remedy lay in a separation of races.
“The speech was eloquent and dramatic, as well as pointed and logical....
“Two opposite, unequal and antagonistic races were set side by side for government and destiny. One of these, by the record, is the strongest race on earth; the other by the record, is the weakest race on earth.
“The problem is one of irreconcilable elements....
“No statute can eradicate, no public opinion can remove, no armed force can overthrow the inherent, invincible, indestructible, and, if you will, the unscrupulous capacity of the Anglo-Saxon to race to rule.”
“Unscrupulous capacity” indeed.
In November of 1904, C.W. Scurry won election to the office of high sheriff of Georgetown County. His brother, Magistrate’s Constable J.C. Scurry, had been killed by a black man who resisted arrest.
It had taken several hours for J.C. to die, all anguished by the awareness that he was living his life’s final moments. Only morphine eased some of the physical pain as he slipped off into the Lord’s care.
C.W. Scurry had been at his younger brother’s side during this final ordeal. The wounded Constable had been brought to C.W.’s house after receiving first aid care.
The person who fired the fatal shot was being held in the jailhouse right across the street from C.W.’s house. A thousand or more angry people were gathered in the intersection outside. A full scale, quite violent armed race riot would have erupted but for the calm intervention of Mayor William D. Morgan.
The elder Scurry buried the younger one, but could not be reasonably expected to bury the complex human emotions arising from his little brother’s death. He would vent some of those feelings in a public explosion of contempt at Mayor Morgan’s last minute attempt to have Brownfield’s life spared on the day of final sentencing. He would do so while campaigning too.
A town divided against itself
The arrival of Atlantic Coast Lumber Company [ACLC] would spark a population and economic boom in Georgetown. As a result, there was a lot more money in town. Retail sales increased. The demand for housing did too. There was a great deal of new construction. Georgetown expanded to the west.
When it came to construction of new homes, ACLC products were readily available and used to build homes for that company’s newly arriving employees. Quality lumber was used constructing housing for white people on what today is referred to as the “West End” of town.
Back then, the west side of town was its newest part. It was home to “New Town” voters. Most of these folks were new arrivals moving to Georgetown as management, supervisory and skilled laborers at ACLC. They were all white. Extreme racism was part of the baggage many brought with them from elsewhere.
“Old Town” voters populated the part of town that today is under the dominion and control of the City of Georgetown’s Architectural Review Board. Like today, the area was home to the town’s haute garde. Many of the old homes there were constructed with high quality lumber from virgin stands of old cypress trees. Only modern composite building materials like HardiePlank are as durable.
Unlike the comfortable homes in the “New Town” or the “Old Town,” “Slab Town” homes were built mostly with the first cut or “slab” from tree trunks being squared before cutting lumber. These slabs were used to build homes for black people and/or the poor.
“Slab Town” occupied the fringes of town, but most especially the section of town from Front to Duke Street in one direction and Meeting Street to Winyah Bay in the other. At the time, the town dump was located in that area too, closer to what is today East Bay Park.
By 1903, folks living in “Slab Town” no longer counted. By one device or another, neither the opinions of men of this neighborhood on matters of public concern nor the votes they cast counted anymore.
In that regard, black males were relegated to the same political position as women of all shades or hues. They were disenfranchised.
A new top gun
C.W. Scurry’s emotions over the death of his brother found a partial outlet in the sheriff’s election of 1904. Although an active participant in the white supremacy movement, incumbent Sheriff J.J. McKeithen had lost much support among his fellows for allowing John to “cheat the gallows.”
The more extreme supremacists accused McKeithen of being afraid of having to confront the mob of angry blacks expected to storm the jail on the morning of the execution. Some accused him of murdering Brownfield rather than hang him. Many of those had wanted to shoot things out at the hanging. They supported a man who would have let them do just that. To them, that was the dead constable’s older brother, C.W. Scurry.
In addition to solid support among his fellow supremacists in town, Scurry had the sympathy and support of many whites with more moderate views on the subject of race. He had lost a brother in what was then the most traumatic local event in more than 25 years. They were neighbors and respected the Scurry family’s loss and feelings. In short, Scurry enjoyed wide support in both “Old Town” and “New Town.” Looking back on the politics of those times, he was, in fact, unbeatable.
By the time C.W. was elected, the power sharing agreement between the races — the “fusion agreement” — was as dead and forgotten as those buried in Potter’s Field. No one paid much heed to God’s answer to the first question humanity’s common ancestor Cain had asked when God inquired into the sibling’s whereabouts.
Cain responded with a rhetorical question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked with an attitude of callous indifference.
God replied: “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
Like that of Abel, the blood of those buried in Potter’s Field continues to cry out to passers-by who will listen.
The main argument made by white supremacists had been that blacks had proven themselves unfit to government during South Carolina’s Reconstruction. Reconstruction government had been plagued by cronyism, kickbacks, self-dealing and other forms of corruption.
Whatever its failings, South Carolina’s Reconstruction government had one spectacular accomplishment. It created America’s first free public education system. Failures of that system since have not been brought about by students or teachers. They result from, over decades, white dominated legislatures and school boards not doing a very good job of nurturing quality education for all the state’s children, not just that of white children.
“Niggardly” is defined in Webster’s Dictionary. It has nothing to do with race. It has to do with character. It means “reluctant to give or spend; stingy; miserly; meanly or ungenerously small or scanty. Syn; penurious, miserly, mean, tight, avaricious, mercenary, illiberal, close. The word very accurately describes education funding under the lily-white White Lightening governments of the turn of the century and thereafter.
Returning to the point: After Federal troops were withdrawn from South Carolina, white control over state government was restored, reputedly because white men were more capable than black men when it came to watching the store. As time passed, white leadership did not match its Bible Belt persona. Mark Sanford. Thomas Ravenel. Operation Lost Trust. ABSCAM. And so on, and on, and ....
At the conclusion of its March 1906 term, the Georgetown County Grand Jury reported that “It has been brought to the attention of the Grand Jury that there are several places of bad repute and lawlessness kept and going on in the county. We recommend that steps be taken by the proper authorities to have this evil remedied. The more definite information in our possession will be handed to the Solicitor at this term of court.”
There had been voices against similar establishments of such “bad repute” in Georgetown before. In 1903, for example, the Times editorialized against their continued presence. Nothing happened. A new morality had come to town along with “New Town’s” new arrivals. As explained by one gentleman [and quite possibly satisfied customer] taking issue with the Times editorial, everyone had to remember that:
“...there are two sides to every story, and this is no exception. That society should be protected; peace and good morals upheld, and the law enforced, no good citizen will deny; but why not strike at bigger game first? Why select the frail, weak and defenseless offenders as the first targets for your crusade against crime?
“You speak of the weak men who are being enticed to desert their homes and neglect their families, and cry out with righteous indignation against these ‘ladies of pleasure’ who are leading them astray to ‘dens and palaces of vice.’ Do not these same ‘weak men’ belong to the class whose treachery and perfidy drove these ‘ladies of pleasure’ to the dens and palaces of vice? Who are the victims? And if they tax their despoilers for money with which to purchase beautiful and costly costumes, is it not a just levy?
“Driven from their homes, with reputations ruined forever; cast out of society and forever barred from all that makes life desirable — what have these women to live for; what makes life endurable, except the intoxicating excitement that drowns thought?
“You speak of driving them out. Where would yes drive them, Mr. Editor? To hell? Or would you purge your own society by unloading the vice within your gates upon your neighbors? Have you anything to offer that would purify and cleanse the lives of these poor unfortunate victims of man’s heartless and damnable treachery.
“If so, for the sake of God and humanity, hold out one ray of hope to rescue them from the terrible lives to which desperation has driven them.”
This logic apparently had lasting effect. Brothels would operate openly in Georgetown County for the next half century or so, reputedly in a symbiotic relationship with the highest levels of government and law enforcement. As one very wise old Georgetonian observed “The best way to trap a politician is to bait the trap with [anatomical expletive omitted].” The comment helps explain how so many officials from all levels of government came under the sway of Georgetown’s high sheriffs over the decades, one favor, wink and nod at a time. But once again, this jumps ahead in the story of Georgetown’s history.
In June of 1906, the Georgetown County Grand Jury met and, among other things, examined jail records. It wrote that “we find that ex-Sheriff J.J. McKeithen collected from the County what is known as turn-key fee as follows from May 1, 1902 to ...December 14, 1904” [the sum of] “$830.50.” The Grand Jury’s report went on to say “This amount we believe to have been collected unlawfully from the County by J.J. McKeithen then Sheriff of said County, and we request that the property County officers will take the necessary steps to recover this amount.”
McKeithen’s name does not thereafter appear in Sessions Docket books kept at the courthouse.
On May 23, 1911, Sheriff Scurry’s son Leroy was arrested for disorderly conduct. The arrest warrant said that Leroy “did resist a lawful arrest by striking and fighting an officer of the said city, duly authorized to make arrest, and refused to submit to said arrest.” Trial testimony indicated that while Sheriff Scurry was out of town, Leroy’s behavior had been sufficiently “ridiculous” that Mrs. Doar had to lock up her cow, leaving readers the rest to the imagination of those who later read court records.
The city chief of police and the sheriff’s son Leroy argued about earlier events. The argument occurred right in front of the (now old) court house. Young Scurry called the chief of police a liar. The chief got out of his buggy, tethered his horse and responded angrily. The two men scuffled. It is unclear who resorted to violence first. The chief ended up arresting Leroy for disorderly conduct.
As a legal matter, the case raises the identical issues as in the case of State v. Brownfield, but without the gun. First, was the arrest lawful or not? Next, if it was not lawful, could force be used to resist it (up to and including deadly force) as provided by South Carolina law? In the first decade or so of the 20th Century, the answer was yes if the resister was white and no if he was not in Georgetown County, South Carolina.
In reversing Leroy’s conviction for disorderly conduct, the South Carolina Supreme Court reasoned that when “[a] police officer who goes out of the course of his duty, and speaks so abusively of a citizen, in his presence, as to elicit language in reply which is no more disorderly, either in substance or in manner, than the language of the officer provoking it, is not justified in arresting, without warrant, the citizen for disorderly conduct in using the abusive language.”
Equal justice under law, but with some animals being more equal than others.1
1George Orwell, Animal Farm.
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.