(Note: Project last updated March 2019)
In a January 1874 speech, Congressman Richard Harvey Cain of South Carolina proclaimed “all we ask is equal laws, equal legislation and equal rights.” Cain’s eloquent phrase summarized his response to an attack on a civil rights bill by a white congressman from North Carolina. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was achieved in part because of the advocacy of black Congressmen like Cain. Elected to Congress in 1872, Cain was one of six black Congressmen who represented South Carolina during Reconstruction. While these Congressmen were significant figures in the era, they were but a small fraction of the African American lawmakers in South Carolina. From the beginning of Reconstruction in 1868 until its end in 1877 over 250 African American men were elected to public office in the state. The story of Reconstruction is well documented by historians, but the general public knows little about the era. The period immediately following Reconstruction is even more shrouded. The end of Reconstruction and the re-emergence of white Democratic domination did not end the role of blacks in public office in the state. Between 1877 and 1895 in South Carolina, three African Americans were elected to Congress and about 50 others were elected to various state offices. Over the last 25 years of the 19th Century white politicians worked assiduously to prevent African Americans from serving in public life in the state. By 1902 these white racists had succeeded. After that year, no African American was elected to any state office until 1969, when two black lawyers were elected municipal judges serving respectively in Charleston and Columbia. An African American did not return to the United States Congress from the state until 1992. With his election in 1992, James Clyburn became the first African American sent to the House of Representatives from South Carolina in the 20th Century. Over the period from 1868 to today, over 400 African Americans have served as congressmen, legislators, constitutional convention delegates, and judges in South Carolina. Many of these individuals have largely vanished into history.
The chief impetus for this website was a conference entitled “19th Century African American congressmen, Legislators and Judges in South Carolina” held in the fall of 2007. The School of Law and the African American Historical Alliance decided to hold this conference to continue the process of uncovering the lives of the congressmen and some judges who served the state during the 19th century. The chief invitees to this conference were a group of scholars from across the state and region. These scholars have researched and written about many of these unknown South Carolina lawmakers and were in many respects the experts on their subjects. Participating in this program were Richard Gergel, Attorney at Law and author who delivered a paper entitled, “Jonathan Jasper Wright: The Early Years in South Carolina;” Professor Bernard E. Powers of the Department of History at the College of Charleston, who spoke on “Congressmen and Churchman: Richard H. Cain;” and Professor Lewis Burke of the School of Law presented the paper “William Whipper and Robert Brown Elliott: Legislators, Lawyers, and Orators.” This panel was moderated by Dr. Dorothy Pratt, of the University of South Carolina Department of History. A second panel was moderated by Dr. Bobby Donaldson of U.S.C.’s History Department. There were also three historians on this panel: Dr. John Marszalek, Retired Professor of History at Mississippi State University, who spoke about his book A Black Congressman in the Age of Jim Crow: South Carolina’s George Washington Murray(1). Dr. Andrew Billingsley, Professor, Department of Sociology and African-American Studies at the University of South Carolina, delivered remarks on his book about Robert Smalls, Yearning to Breathe Free(2). Dr. William Hine, Professor of History, at South Carolina State University, discussed his research on “Thomas E. Miller: Congressman, Lawyer, and Educator.”
While all of the participants in the panels could not contribute written works for this website, we were fortunate to have Dr. John Marszalek write a sketch of George Washington Murray. Another scholar, Elizabeth Robeson, contributed a sketch of Nathaniel J. Frederick. Dr. Michael Mounter prepared a bibliography for the website that tries to include all of the scholarly literature on South Carolina’s African American leaders. The compiler of this site has also written essays on William Whipper, Francis L. Cardozo, Robert Brown Elliott, and short sketches of the other officials. However, the essays on all of the U.S. Congressmen are based on the official sketches published by the Government Printing Office in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
This website will try to resurrect the identity of these men and women. Included here will be the names of all the African American men and women elected to the South Carolina legislature, to the state’s constitutional conventions, to the statewide constitutional offices, and to Congress. Also listed are some judges. Because of research limitations, the site will include those judges elected by the South Carolina General Assembly, probate judges who are locally elected, and federal judges appointed by the President of the United States. Generally, local officials such as clerks of court, county, and municipal officials are not included simply because of our inability to identify all of these individuals. Many of these local officials have contributed much to civil rights in the state, and the website does include a few of these county officials who were trailblazers or who had a significant impact. In addition to public officials, the website will include a list of all identified African American lawyers admitted to the bar in South Carolina from 1868 to 1968. This list ends in 1968 because of the difficulty of identifying all individual lawyers after 1968. Lawyers are included because so many of them were advocates for civil rights beginning in the earliest days of Reconstruction. In fact, during the Jim Crow era when no blacks could be elected to any office in the state, black lawyers were the last line in the defense of ever diminishing civil rights for blacks.
In addition to the lists of officials, judges, and lawyers this webpage will also include some photographs and biographical sketches. These images and sketches are few in number because of the decision to only include the most significant individuals. However, it is very difficult to decide who the most significant African Americans public officials have been. For example, two lawyers who never held public office are included in the biographical sketches: Jacob Moorer and Nathaniel J. Frederick were members of the bar between 1896 and 1938, an era during which no African American served in any official state lawmaking positions. These two lawyers were probably the most dedicated advocates for equal rights in the state during the height of the Jim Crow era. But other individuals could arguably be included. Therefore, this website will be an on-going project. New biographical sketches and photographs will be added. In fact, submissions and suggestions are most welcome.
In compiling these lists, photographs, and biographical sketches, we did not start from scratch. The first comprehensive list of black officials in South Carolina was compiled by Thomas Holt and included in his work Black over White published in 1977. But other significant work on Reconstruction in South Carolina has been thoroughly recorded and examined by historians. Eric Foner’s Reconstruction is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject(3). In Freedom’s Lawmakers, Foner identifies over 1,400 southern black officials from the Reconstruction era, making it an invaluable tool for any student of civil rights(4). For the student of South Carolina history, Joel Williamson’s After Slavery was one of the first modern treatments of the period(5). In addition, the struggle of African Americans to serve as state leaders during Reconstruction was carefully documented by Thomas Holt in Black over White, and serves as the foundation for much of this project(6). George Brown Tindall’s South Carolina Negroes 1877–1900 completed the story of the 19th century, but no one has attempted to continue the narrative through the 20th century(7). One of the first hurdles for any student wanting to write about these men is the fact that their names are not recorded in one place. In the 1990’s I began researching the story of African Americans and the law in South Carolina. My first efforts identified the eleven African American men who attended U.S.C. School of Law during Reconstruction. Subsequently, Professor James L. Underwood and I edited a volume entitled At Freedom’s Door that included the works of a number of individuals researching and writing about Reconstruction in the state(8). In 2004, Belinda Gergel and I edited Matthew J. Perry which focused on Judge Perry, but also included an essay by William Hine and myself about African American lawyers and the graduates of S.C. State University School of Law(9). My latest work has concentrated on South Carolina‘s African American lawyers and resulted in the publication in 2017 of my book All for Civil Rights: African American Lawyers in South Carolina 1868–1968. In this book I identify 167 men and 3 women, and document their civil rights work.
This website would not be possible without the help of innumerable individuals and organizations. First, the University of South Carolina School of Law not only hosts this site but has provided most of the funding for the research. Appreciation must also be expressed for the financial support of the African American Historical Alliance, and the Humanities Council of South Carolina. The research efforts of law students Shanaya L. Thompson, Catherine Johnson, Amanda Turner, Allison Bullard, and Hamp Markel were critical to making this project possible. Law School staff Jennifer Hile and Tobias Brasier cannot be thanked enough.