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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Reconstruction

Black Churches and Politics

Another aspect of South Carolina politics often misunderstood is the relationship between black churches and political action. This, too, had its roots in Reconstruction. In the passage below, Hector Moreau, a former slave turned political activist, tries to explain it to Jonathan, who sees politics as a matter to be handled by education. The setting is upper South Carolina in 1870.


   Hector, too, had listened carefully when Robert Smalls outlined what Jonathan could do within the schools to make sure  new black citizens became effective voters. He realized that black churches could perform much the same role. Under his direction, the small African-American church he had helped to establish in Aiken became a center for adult education and for the effective exercise of voting rights. 
   When the Grenvilles returned to the Aiken farm for the summer, Hector was eager to meet with Jonathan again and discuss what he had accomplished.  
   “Our little AME church has become the center of the black community,” he began. “I suggested we start a kind of political club to keep our members informed of what the Republican Party was doing.  The idea went over well, and it soon became a group that also offered social events. Wednesday night suppers proved popular and greatly increased our attendance. And now the gathering also provides assurance that members will help one another in times of crisis such as illness or the death of family members.”
   “That sounds like an interesting progression. I wish my school classes on voting were that effective.”
   “I think the real key is that the lines that separate religion from political action have begun to blur. Our people see voting as one of the obligations they owe to one another and to their faith. What begins as a political rally can turn seamlessly into a revival meeting, and our worship services frequently end with a call to political action. ”
   Once again, Jonathan was not prepared to follow Hector’s lead. “But the United States was founded on the principle of separation of church and state. It sounds to me as if you may be treading dangerous ground by combining the two.”
   “It’s who we are, Jonathan. In the minds of my people, political action is a religious duty.  I can’t even imagine how you can separate the two.”


Read more in Yankee Reconstructed -- available through Valentine's Day in Kindle Book Store for only ninety-nine cents.

South Carolina's Post-Civil War Constitution

This is particularly for those of you who are following the up-coming South Carolina primaries.  This excerpt from "Yankee Reconstructed" comes from Chapter 16.  In it Jonathan Grenville has just returned home from hearing the reading of the newly adopted South Carolina state constitution on April 18, 1868. He is describing the major provisions to his wife, Susan:

   "The new constitution completely supports the U. S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It establishes three branches of government for both the state and local political organizations. It provides universal male suffrage — and don’t wrinkle your nose at me. You know how big a concession that is. It’s much more important to give blacks the vote than to let women have their say right now.”
   “So say you from your side of the house!”
   “I won’t argue that point with you. I’m much too excited by the rest of the provisions — equality regardless of race, both in matters of privilege and of punishments, welfare for the poor and disabled, state-run orphanages and mental hospitals, but no more debtors’ prisons, and no more property qualifications to hold office.” 
   Jonathan leaped to his feet, as if the chair were suddenly too small to hold him and his enthusiasm. “But the best part, Susan, the best part is the provision for state-supported education! Benjamin Randolph really did it! There will be boards of education at both state and local levels, and every local district will be required to provide at least one free school open to all students, black and white.” 
   “Paid for by . . . ?”
   “Both a property tax and a poll tax.”
   “A poll tax? Won’t that disenfranchise a whole lot of people, particularly ex-slaves?”
   “No. It’s a tax on each individual, but the law specifically says that no man can lose his right to vote if he cannot or does not pay the poll tax. And it goes even further. Each state-supported school is required to stay open for six months of every year, and all children between the ages of six and sixteen are required to complete 24 months of instruction. Oh, and there’s no separation of races, either. Every school must be open to all, regardless of skin color. And the provisions disallow any religious control or doctrinal instruction, too. So much for the missionaries who have taken over some of the schools, like the one Dr. Porter financed for black children. Just imagine what that means.” 
   “It sounds like a much-needed change, Jonathan. But how will there be enough teachers for all those schools?"
   “They’ll be in short supply for a while, but this new constitution even provides for that. It calls for a state supported university within five years, along with an agricultural college and a normal school for teachers. It’s one of the most forward-thinking documents I’ve ever heard of.”

Unfortunately, Jonathan's optimism was short-lived.  He spent ten years helping to organize and develop schools that served the needs of black children in Charleston.  But by 1878, white supremacists had managed to gain control of South Carolina's government:

  " In South Carolina, both parties claimed to have won the race for the governorship. Hampton showed a winning margin of about 1100 votes across the state, but Republicans argued that the black vote had been suppressed by the illegal activities of the Red Shirts, particularly in the Upcountry. For nearly six months, Governor Chamberlain refused to vacate the governor’s office, and could not be forcibly removed because of a twenty-four-hour-a-day guard posted by federal troops. When President Hayes completed the withdrawal of all federal troops in 1877, Chamberlain fled the state, leaving South Carolina in the clever hands of Wade Hampton, who had, indeed, “waded to victory,” just as one of his campaign slogans had promised.
   “That’s it.” Jonathan proclaimed. “Ten years of work destroyed. Thousands of blacks disenfranchised. Madmen in charge of the insane asylum.”
   “What will you do?” Susan asked.
   “Hampton has promised to support public education, not that I believe him, and he can’t break that promise immediately. Besides, our schools are already open. We’ve paid the leases for our buildings and our supplies and books are in stock. Most of our teachers are funded by private corporations. We should be fine for the rest of this year. But after that? No one knows. I fear that public schools for Negroes will have disappeared before the next election.”

The First Ku Klux Klan (1865 - 1873)



 
Here are some crucial dates that may help readers make sense of the early Ku Klux Klan organization as it appears in “Yankee Reconstructed.”
 
Winter 1865 –1866:  The Ku Klux Klan was organized in Pulaski, TN, by a group of six  Confederate veterans. Its original intent was as a purely social organization or a secret fraternity. Its name was taken from the Greek word for “circle” combined with the Scottish idea of “clan.”  Its early members wore masks of various sorts to conceal their real identities.
 
Summer, 1867: They held a convention in Nashville. The presiding officer was Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was given the title of the “Grand Wizard.” This meeting defined the role of the organization as “The Invisible Empire of the South.”
 
1868: During the presidential election of 1868, Klan members unanimously supported the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, who favored a return to white supremacy.  They, along with other such quasi-military organizations, began a campaign of violence to keep black Republicans from voting for Ulysses S. Grant. Their goals included the destruction of congressional acts of Reconstruction and the re-establishment of white supremacy.  Their methods included intimidation, beatings, lynchings, and murder. They failed to win the election, but they had effectively become the terrorist branch of the Democratic party.

1869: The organization began to spread throughout the southern states, attracting former Confederate soldiers, judges, cotton magnates, and others who wished for a return to the pre-war old South. Grant’s administration reacted by supporting the 15th Amendment, which gave the vote to black men in every state, and the First Reconstruction Act of 1867, which placed harsher restrictions on the South and closely regulated the formation of their new governments.

1870-1871: The Republican-dominated Congress passed the Enforcement Acts, which made it a crime for anyone to attempt to prevent a black man from registering to vote, casting his vote, holding an elected office, or serving on a jury.
 
1871: Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which gave the federal government the power to act against terrorist organizations. Under its provisions, several thousand Klansmen were arrested and tried. Although it proved to be hard to get convictions, the publicity effectively put a stop to many of the Klan activities and scared off those who did not want their membership revealed.
 
1872. Congress declared the KKK Act unconstitutional, but by then the organization was effectively destroyed.  Their goals remained unchanged, but they would find new ways to bring them about.
 
1915: William J. Simmons, a former Methodist preacher, organized a new Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia as a patriotic, fraternal society. This new Klan directed its activity against not just blacks, but immigrants, Jews, and Roman Catholics.  It is this second organization that most people think of today, when they hear the term Ku Klux Klan.
 

What Was Charleston Like in 1865?

Here's an example of the kinds of insights I'm getting from the Reconstruction course I'm taking.  This is an illustration taken from a contemporary (1868) book about the fall of Charleston:























The accompanying description is even grimmer:


Taken from “Leaving Charleston on the City Being Bombarded,” image from J.T. Trowbridge, A Picture of the Desolated States, 1865-1868 (Hartford, Conn.: L. Stebbins, 1868).

Look at the tone of the accompanying text: "crushed fragments," "monotonous gloom," "a roost for buzzards," "deserted and solitary."

These are the words of a white male, visiting a city that he sees as having been attacked by War, Famine, Pestilence, and Fire. How terribly sad it is.

But is it the truth? Maybe. But is it the whole truth? Maybe not. 

Consider this interpretation of the surrender of Charleston from the black point of view.

The original document  (Resolutions adopted by a meeting of the colored citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, March 29, 1865. Alexander Gumby Collection of Negroiana, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University)is faded and difficult to read, but here is a transcription:

"At a meeting of the colored citizens of Charleston, So.Ca. held at Zion’s Presbyterian church March 29th 1865 the following preamble and resolutions was unanimously adopted.

Whereas it is fitting that an expression should be given to the sentiments of deep seated grattitude that pervade our breasts, be it.

Resolved 1st That by the timely arrival of the army of the U.S. of A. in the city of Charleston on the 18th Feb. 1865, Our city was saved from a vast conflagration, Our homes from Devastation, and our persons from those indignities, that they would have been subjected to.

Resolved 2d that our thanks are due and are hereby freely tendered to the District Commander Brig. Gen. Hatch, and through him, to the Officers and Soldiers under his command, for the protection that they have so readily and so impartialy, bestowed since their occupation of this city.

Resolved 3d That to Admiral Dahlgreen U.S.N. we do hereby return our most sincere thanks, for the noble manner in which he cared for and administered to the wants our people at Georgetown, So.Ca. and be he assured that the same shall ever be held in grateful remembrance by us.

Resolved 4th That to His Excellency (the President of the U.S. of A. Abraham Lincoln) we return our most sincere thanks and never dying gratitude, for the noble and patriotic manner in which he promulgated the doctrines of Republicanism, and for his consistency in not only promising but invariably conforming his actions thereto and we shall ever be pleased to acknowledge and hail him as the champion of the rights of freemen.

Resolved 5th That a copy of these resolutions be transmitted to Brig. Gen. Hatch, Admiral Dahlgreen, His excellency the President of the U.S. of A. an that they be published in the Charleston courier.

Moses B. Camplin - Chairman

Lesson Learned: Truth is in the eye of the beholder.

The View from the Back of the Classroom

"Are we going to get a new book soon?" It's an often-repeated question, one that delights an author: (My readers want more!) and terrifies her: (Oh, no, I'm still stuck in chapter 15!) Right now the "stuck" part is really bothering me. I'm not usually subject to writer's block. But as many of you know, my husband died in January, and I'm finding it almost impossible to move past my own grief to think about the imaginary problems of my book characters.

To counteract the problem, I've told you all about those characters, but I can't make them come alive for me yet. So I'm trying now to focus on some of the issues and problems that will face them as the story moves forward. The period of Reconstruction is not a well-known or well-understood one.  I remember the term from history classes, but little of the details. I know the lurid crises that arise -- the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchings, the street riots -- but not a whole lot about the underlying causes. So what does an old teacher do in a situation like that?  She turns to the experts and takes a class.

No, really! Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, there are thousands of college-level classes available on the internet, and I recently stumbled upon one called "The Civil War and Reconstruction - 1865-1890," taught by a renowned historian, Eric Foner, of Columbia University. His lectures are broken down into small segments (10-15 minutes) with breaks for a quick one-question quiz, a look at accompanying illustrations, or examination of primary source documents. Longer, 5-question quizzes wrap up each major topic.


I'm learning a lot, although obviously not enough. My quiz scores (for the sake of complete transparency) have been 90, 80, and 100 -- not bad but an embarrassing B+ in my own grade book. Despite that, I'm really enjoying the experience. In one of today's segments, Dr. Foner mentioned a Northern general and abolitionist who worked with the Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina. Anyone want to guess? Raise your hands. Yes! General Rufus Saxton (complete with photograph) jumped out at me, straight from the pages of "The Road to Frogmore." Maybe I know more about this stuff than I thought.

Hang around and I'll share some of my other discoveries with you as the course progresses.