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
“In this country of all others it behooves us to show an example to the world, not by wards only, but by deeds, that we have faith in the doctrine that each man should be treated on his own worth as a man, without regard to his creed or his race.”
— President Theodore Roosevelt
Thirty years before the fall
The last quarter of the 19th Century was a period of dramatic change in Georgetown In his book, The Aftermath of Glory, South Carolina author James Henry Rice, Jr. described the local situation this way:
“The war left Georgetown prostrate and under domination of former slaves. During the thirty-odd years after the war it was a fight for existence. Then, in the late ‘Nineties’ of the past [20th ] century, there came a flurry, a mighty flurry, one result of which was to restore white control
“During that year the Atlantic Coast Lumber Company made Georgetown headquarters. It was one of the largest lumber plants in existence when it four great mills were in operation, and its payrolls carried thousands of names …
“The company, formed in Norfolk, Virginia, by the late E. B. Freeman, who fought under General Forrest, as a sixteen-year old boy, and was one of the knightliest of men, was led to South Carolina by a letter sent to Mr. Freeman from Scranton by a man with a pile of lumber to sell. His inspector, on reaching Scranton, wired his chief to come South at once and he did. Getting a brake, with two mules, they drove through the country to Rhems. There at first they were mistaken for spies, as the Lake City postmaster, a negro, recently had been shot full of holes as a mild protest [sic] against putting a negro in charge. President Theodore Roosevelt promptly had thereupon abolished the office and ordered a rigid investigation. Hence the suspicions as the Freeman party. At Georgetown he secured an old mill site, went back North, raised more money and [then] put men in the woods; taking options on timber land. Mr. Freeman put his office clerk, the late R. L Montague, in charge of operations and the company began.
“The white population of Georgetown was swelled, pass all reckoning; real estate values soared; Georgetown was on a first class boom.
“The year before, life had been gentle, sweet, without care. A dead river port, like a dead seaport town, is the finest of all places to live in. In all such towns, especially in Georgetown, with vast natural resources, most of them untapped, quiet commercial activity is going on all the while. Considerable trade came from the rivers, far more from the naval stores, during their brief day of glory and not a little from lumber, even before the entry of the big mills.”
Mutual respect = social peace
How Georgetown made the transition from a place “prostrate and under domination of former slaves” as first characterized and a place where “life had been gentle, sweet, without care” before arrival of Atlantic Coast Lumber Co. is not explained by the author. The answer to that question, from available historical sources, seems straightforward enough.
After the riot between field hands then still living in the countryside and former house servants living in town (the subject of an earlier episode in this series), a bi-racial Committee on Safety was quickly assembled. It was tasked with promoting racial harmony in Georgetown. Its members were selected from among Georgetown’s most respected citizens, black and white. Members of the Committee included, for example, William D. Morgan (later Georgetown’s first and best mayor). It also included James Brownfield and Stephney Johnson, two prominent black men whose names, along with Morgan’s, will appear in events detailed in a future episode.
One consequence of the work of these men had been a successful “fusion agreement.” Under the terms of the accord, whites retained control of law enforcement, the judiciary and a majority of county commissioners and blacks controlled a majority of the county’s seats in the Legislature, had a voice on the county’s governing body and control over public education. (Digressing briefly, the creation of the nation’s earliest system of free, public education was a shining achievement of the period of South Carolina’s Republican “Reconstruction” government.)
The plain truth of the matter is that it was the good faith and neighborliness demonstrated by the overwhelming majority of pre-Atlantic Coast Lumber Company Georgetonians of all hues resulted in an era of relative peace and prosperity. Mutual respect — the Golden Rule — worked. It always does. It is a Divine formula for social peace. Sadly, the same cannot be said for surrounding communities.
Fears in the countryside
Unlike Georgetown’s citizens, mutual suspicion and fear between people persisted in nearby communities. One of numerous examples can be found in the opening paragraphs of this episode.
In his book The Aftermath of Glory, James Henry Rice, Jr. made passing reference to a “negro who had been shot full of holes as a mild protest to putting a negro in charge” of nearby Lake City post office. That brief mention reveals two things about community relations nearby: One is an obvious indifference of the author to the commission of acts of violence against people of color. The other is the callous and violent state of race relations among those living in surrounding communities. That same attitude was commonly shared among many whites during those times.
In his book, South Carolina Negroes. 1877-1900 (USC Press, 1952), George Brown Tindall described race relations in the State as follows:
“Intimidation had been since Reconstruction an accepted means of eliminating the political influence of Negroes. Intimidation was usually sufficient to achieve the ends of whites, and since Negroes show little interest in fighting fire with fire, there were few incidents in the state after 1876 that could be defined as riots, and almost none that were of major consequence. In 1880 one Negro had been killed and thirteen wounded in an election riot at Johnson’s; and Lancaster saw an outbreak of violence is 1882 in which several Negroes were killed as the aftermath of a Greenback rally. A race riot which threatened in Bishopville in 1890 was prevented by the timely arrival of militia; and in a threatened riot in Georgetown in 1900 the citizens were calmed by the intervention of Negro county and town officials …
“Yet two outbreaks in 1898 demonstrated that the shift in white public opinion on the matter of violence was only in the first stages of a painfully slow metamorphosis. In February, 1898, a brutal murder showed the lengths to which some whites were prepared to go to prevent Negro officeholding. Early that year, Frazier B. Baker, a Negro Republican of Florence, was appointed postmaster of Lake City, a small community in Williamsburg County. Complaints were quickly made against Baker because he was a Negro and because he was not a resident of the county. Many whites, rather than deal with Baker, took their mail to Scranton, a small community nearby. A petition was circulated among the people of the town requesting the Postmaster General to remove him. Then incidents commenced. An attempt was made to set the post office afire and shots were fired into Baker’s home. On February 21, a mob of three to four hundred gathered outside Baker’s home and set it on fire. As the members of the family tried to escape, they were shot down. Baker was killed inside the house and his body remained in the burning building. As his wife tried to escape she was shot through the arm. A baby of twelve months that she was carrying was killed, and three other children were wounded …”
This was the incident that South Carolina chronicler James Henry Rice, Jr. reported were a “mild protest” against black office holding.
About a year later, eleven men were put on trial in federal court for violation of civil rights (murder) as a result of the violence in Lake City. Two defendants testified for the State. Three more defendants were freed on directed verdicts for lack of any evidence connecting them to the deaths. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the other defendants, but it was later reported in the Charleston News and Courier, variously between April 11-23, 1899 that there had been only five members in favor of conviction. This sort of outcome — one acquitting whites who killed blacks — became very common in the years that followed. In fact, the first white man whose name was found in available court records during research for this episode who was convicted of killing a black man occurred in the past decade. It was the guilty verdict announced in State of South Carolina v. Jody Ward. Mr. Ward is requesting a new trial.
Separate but equal
Georgetown aside, the last 30 years of the 19th Century was one of great racial turmoil all across America. A white supremacy movement had grown out of post-war violence of white vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan or their fellow travelers.
Centuries of harsh oppression had just ended. It was replaced by extreme poverty, want and disease for many. At the same time, those who still had a little something (or a lot of something) feared everything would be taken from them. Making matters even more uncertain, political power had changed hands several times during the intervening years — from old Bourbon Democrats to a military occupation to Reconstruction Republicanism only to end up back in the hands of South Carolina’s Bourbons. Once back in power, these relatively few wealthy white men did everything they could to suppress the political, economic and social integration of persons of 1/8th or more African descent into the mainstream of society despite the fact that these “colored” people still represented a majority of South Carolinians.
Fear, left unchecked, produces repressive policies and laws accompanied by strict, authoritarian enforcement of them. One of these evil products of the last quarter of the 19th Century was the “separate but equal doctrine.” The notion underlying this “doctrine” was that there should be a strict separation between the races in all public places.
This segregation was supposed to be “separate but equal,” with the government providing equivalent public facilities for each of two principal racial groups, namely, people who were “white” and those who were “colored.” Racial purity laws labeled anyone who had more than 1/8th American Indian, African or Asian blood to be “colored.” That’s one great-grandparent of African descent. (Racial purity laws of Germany’s Nazi era separating “Aryans” from “undesirables” were modeled on then existing segregation laws of many States.)
“Separate but equal” quickly degenerated into a cruel mockery of any notion of fairness or good faith. As just one of thousands of examples, Georgetown native son (and former slave) Dr. William A. Sinclair reports in his book, The Aftermath of Slavery, that funds budgeted for so-called “equal” schools were allocated with 16 percent going to “colored” schools and the remaining 84 percent going to “white” schools.
Equal Justice Under Law. Inscription over the entrance to the United States Supreme Court.
Homer Plessy was an octoroon. One day while riding a train, he was ejected from the all-white seating by the train’s conductor. He was charged with violating a new “separate but equal” law. His conviction was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The conviction was upheld, cementing the “separate but equal” doctrine solidly into American law until overturned in 1956 in Brown v. Board of Education.
Writing for the Plessy court’s majority, Justice Henry Brown applied a lawyer’s logic to justify racial segregation.
“A statute which implies merely legal distinction between the whites and colored races — a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color — had no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude.
“The object of the [14th] Amendment to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things its could not have been intended to abolish the distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either … If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.”
While insisting that no badge or indicia of inferiority was intended by segregation laws, Justice Brown nonetheless noted what happens when someone is forced by the conductor to set in the “wrong place.” “If he be a white man and assigned to the colored coach, he may have his action for damages against the company for being deprived of his so-called property [his reputation as a white man]. Upon the other hand, if he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property [his reputation has not been harmed} since his not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.”
Like everyone else, Judges and Justices can be wrong, even when they speak for a majority of their fellows. Donning a robe, by itself, does nothing to improve character, increase intelligence, wisdom or a sense of either justice or mercy. Only constant treatment (or in this case judgment) of others as one wishes to be treated or judged one’s self does that. From his written opinion, it is clear that Justice Brown did not want to be treated like a person of color. More than any other individual in America, he and those who joined in his opinion are responsible for the decades of segregation and violence that followed. May God have mercy on their souls.
In a strong, historic and prophetic dissent, Justice John M. Harlan wrote:
“There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.
“In respect to civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is peer to the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved …
“In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case [upholding the Fugitive Slave Act in the years immediately prior to the Civil War credited as a major accelerator of the war].
“Sixty million whites are in no danger from the presence here of eight million blacks. The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.
“What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation …
“State enactments regulating the enjoyment upon the basis of race, and cunningly devised to defeat legitimate results of the war under the pretense of recognizing equality of rights [commonly called “Jim Crow laws”] can have no other result than to render permanent peace impossible and to keep alive a conflict of races, the continuance of which must do harm to all concerned.”
Harlan would be proven right by the events of the next nearly one hundred years.
The fall from grace
Georgetown’s fall from the grace of brotherly love was occasioned and accompanied by the arrival of Atlantic Coast Lumber Company. The company provided much needed employment. It did so by hiring black workers to do the heavy lifting. Then, like now, the hardest labor was compensated by the lowest pay. The company employed whites in higher paying skilled, supervisory and other professional or management positions. Because of the sparsity of local talent, the company had to import large numbers of whites from other areas, both near and far. As their numbers grew, this influx of outsiders caused a steady shift in the local political and social scene.
Following the lead of company doctor Olin Sawyer, like-minded whites formed a White Supremacy Club. Like large numbers of ACL’s white employees, Sawyer had not grown up in Georgetown where people had learned to live in peace with one another. He, like the other newcomers, came from communities with more rigid views about skin color. The when, how and why of this transition will be the subject of the next episode. Meanwhile, Georgetown’s own Dr. William A. Sinclair wrote:
“It is of prime importance to note that the existing blighting evils [of racial violence elsewhere throughout the South] which are an infliction to be the white and colored people are not inherent in either people, but have their roots in the essential barbarism of the slave system.”
He went on to advise that “… in recomposing the relations between the races there are two elemental truths which will count mightily in an honorable, a righteous, and lasting settlement.
“The first of these is, that the while people, deep down in their hearts, do not hate the colored people. As paradoxical as it may sound, they really love them. They would not exchange them for any class of laborers in the wide world.
“The second is this: The colored people do not hate the whites; on the contrary, they cherish genuine friends and affection for them. The races are not as far apart as it may seem.
“The excessive bitterness, rank intolerance and contempt, and the extreme and violent forms of prejudice displayed toward the whole colored race are not an expression of the true heart of the whites. They are rather due to the artificial conditions and influences purposely created by the Bourbons, the pernicious and mischievous leaders, to strengthen and aggrandize their political power and establish an oligarchy. The entailments of slavery made it possible for them to inflame the whites beyond reason and drive the mass of them in to stark madness on the race question …”
It was these “Jim-Crowites” along with “the whole brood of those who fatten on public office or public patronage by preaching hatred and strife between the races … who are the worst enemies the Southern people have to fear.”
Sinclair did not just complain about race-bating politicians. He provided a formula to “undo” the work of these men. “[R]epeal of all proscriptive laws; the enactment of impartial suffrage and acknowledgment of the right of its rewards to office based on good citizenship and merit; the protection of life, liberty and property; the due punishment of all criminals according to law and not color, the protection of the laborer and the elimination of all forms of peonage; the overthrow of mob-rule and the guarantee of equal rights before the law for all, white and colored alike.”
Government’s fulfillment of these responsibilities “should become the self-imposed task of the best and decent elements of the South. Thus could they bring peace to the nation, and reconciliation between the races; and thus could they vindicate the honor of the South and emancipate its name from shame.”
Good advice. Too bad it wasn’t followed. Many whites heeded Dr. Sawyer and his ilk instead.
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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