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Alonzo Ransier: South Carolina’s first black lt. governor

By Damon L. Fordham



It is not widely known today that there were a large number of black politicians during the post Civil-War period known as the Reconstruction era who are now largely forgotten. Among them was Alonzo Jacob Ransier, who served as lieutenant governor of South Carolina from 1870 to 1872.


Ransier was born to a free family in Charleston on January 3, 1834. It is believed that his parents were Haitians who escaped that country’s revolution in the 1790s. He received an education in Charleston’s underground schools for black free children, which encouraged his gift for eloquent writing and speaking. After the end of slavery, Ransier joined with a number of both free blacks and former slaves who wrote a document demanding their rights in the new post-slavery society.


The age immediately after slavery from 1865 to 1877 was known as the Reconstruction era in the Southern states. During this period, the 14thq Amendment, giving blacks their rights as citizens of the United States, was passed in 1868. In January of that year, 76 blacks and 43 whites met in Charleston to rewrite the state’s Constitution to provide equal and educational rights to S.C.’s citizens. Ransier was among those who supported his fellow black delegate Robert Smalls’ call for public education, as he blamed the state’s causes and losses during the Civil War to the “gross ignorance of the masses.” Later that year, Ransier learned of the assassination of his fellow black delegate Benjamin Randolph by the Ku Klux Klan in Abbeville, S.C. and wrote this stirring eulogy in the Charleston Courier of October 22, 1868.


I share with you the feeling of indignation which uncontrolled would lead me to seek vengeance by retaliation. But bear and forbear. The day of our political deliverance is at hand. Let not these outrages intimidate you or lead you to measures of retaliation by which possibly the innocent may suffer along with the guilty.


Two years later, after the 15th Amendment allowed African Americans the right to vote, Ransier was elected to serve as the first black lieutenant governor of S.C. (Oscar Dunn was elected as the first black in America to serve in this position in Louisiana in 1868.) In a period known for political dishonesty, Ransier was respected even by his opponents. In 1872, he gave up this position to serve as a congressman from S.C., and another black man named Richard H. Gleaves succeeded Ransier as the lieutenant governor.


In 1875, a civil rights bill was placed before congress to outlaw discrimination in public places based on race. Ransier argued for an amendment in this bill calling for racially integrated schools, stating in a speech, “Let the doors of the public school house be thrown open to us alike, if you mean to give these people equal rights at all, or to protect them in the exercise of the rights and privileges attaching to all freemen and citizens of our country.”


The bill passed, but it allowed churches, cemeteries, and schools to remain segregated by race. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that even without these amendments, the civil rights bill was unconstitutional, which paved the way for segregation to become the law of the land.


Unfortunately, violence by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Shirts along with political compromises led to the end of Reconstruction and the removal of blacks from Southern politics until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. After Ransier left office, he came to a particularly sad ending. The educator Booker T. Washington recalled in his autobiography Up from Slavery watching a black man in Charleston hauling bricks while his co-workers mockingly shouted, “Hurry up governor.” When Washington asked why the man was referred to as “governor,” another man answered that the brick-hauler had once been the state’s lieutenant governor.


Ransier died in 1882, and his legacy was forgotten for many years. On September 27, 1998, a historical marker was placed at his former home on 33 Pitt Street in downtown Charleston. His granddaughter Lillian Ransier Wright told the Charleston News and Courier of June 19, 1990, “To do such things when there was so much prejudice was incredible. It should be taught to children now that they have so many more opportunities.”


Damon L. Fordham, MA, is an adjunct professor of history at The Citadel. He is also the author of four books, including the current “1895 Segregation Fight in South Carolina” and conducts the “Lost Stories of Black Charleston” walking tour out of Buxton Books. He is available for public lectures and hosts the YouTube channel “The American Storyteller.”

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