The Jim Crow Constitution of 1895
By Peg Eastman
Benjamin Ryan Tillman. Image in the public domain.
As noted in the June column, the South Carolina Constitution of 1868 was a remarkable document. African American males, comprising 60 percent of the voting population, were given equal protections under the law. It created counties, retired the parish electoral system and abolished property ownership as a qualification for office holding. It did away with debtors’ prison and made provisions for the deaf and blind. (Disfranchisement was limited to murder, robbery and dueling.) It created a State Board of Education and required maintenance of the state university and the creation of a normal school for teachers and an agricultural college. It gave women the right to control their property and to divorce.
According to historian Nic Butler, “It was the most democratic and equitable of the seven constitutions in the history of this state. The men who labored for 53 days to frame that document were fueled by generations of prayers and fervent hopes for a society that respected the rights of all people.” While hailed by the Republicans, conservative newspaper editorials decried African Americans being given full citizenship.
The newly dominant Republican party lost no time in implementing programs. Costs for legitimate expenditures such as a public school system spiraled, and corruption was rampart. For instance, in 1870–1871, the state’s financial board printed and sold a million dollars of state bonds, numbered one to 1,000, but the board printed two sets numbered one to 1,000. The board kept no records, and the malfeasance was discovered only when a New York investment firm acquired two bonds with the same number.
Tensions between Republicans and conservative Democrats erupted into violent conflicts. White resentment manifested in organizations like paramilitary rifle clubs and the Ku Klux Klan. In spite of occupation by Federal troops, as early as 1868 Republican legislators, such as Solomon Dill, Benjamin Franklin Randolph and James Martin, had been assassinated.
In 1876, former Confederate general Wade Hampton agreed to run for governor, portraying himself as a moderate who made appeals for black support. At times the campaign was violent with abuses by both parties. The election returns were clearly fraudulent on both sides, and both Hampton and the Republican incumbent, Daniel H. Chamberlain, claimed to be elected governor, causing representatives from both parties to form rival state legislatures.
The disputed election caused South Carolina’s Electoral College votes in the 1876 presidential election to be disputed, along with electoral votes from other states, totaling 20 in all. The Democratic Party candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote against the Republican Party candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, but tabulation of the Electoral College votes was hampered by the 20 disputed votes.
Hayes was awarded the 20 electoral votes by a bipartisan election commission. The commission’s decision had to be approved by Congress. Southern Democrats held up the process until Hayes agreed to their demands, including the removal of Federal troops from the South. This was the Compromise of 1877, also known as the Corrupt Bargain. In accord with the Compromise, Hayes withdrew Federal troops from Columbia, leaving Chamberlain with no support against Hampton’s Red Shirts. Chamberlain resigned in April 1877, thus ending Reconstruction in South Carolina.
Hampton, as a member of the planter elite, had developed a paternalistic attitude toward blacks people. He said that “respectable” black men should be allowed to vote and appointed black men to minor offices. Many of Hampton’s white supporters, however, were less tolerant. After Hampton resigned as governor in 1879 to become a United States senator, efforts began to restrict black voting. In 1882, the Eight Box Law was passed, requiring a separate ballot box for each of eight elective offices. The boxes were labeled, thus causing an illiterate voter to be easily confused.
It was an uneasy time, and by the mid-1880s there was dissention within the Democratic Party. The most vocal critic was Benjamin Ryan Tillman, who believed that state corruption could only be ended and the farmers’ grievances addressed by creating an all-white electorate.
Tillman had joined the Confederate army at 17 and shortly thereafter lost his right eye due to a cranial tumor. After the war, he gained notoriety as being part the Ku Klux Klan and a ringleader in the infamous 1876 Hamburg Massacre.
Prone to violence, it did not take long for Tillman to became dissatisfied with the conservative political elite he helped put in office. He blamed them for the impoverished conditions of Upstate farmers and called for a reform in South Carolina’s agricultural education. In 1886, the Farmers Association was formed, and Tillman mounted an aggressive campaign to oust the “Bourbon” Democrats, whom he denounced as “broken-down” and “incompetent” aristocrats who “worship the past.” He ridiculed South Carolina College and called The Citadel “a military dude factory.”
Tillman’s inflammatory rhetoric and growing political power worked. By 1885, he demanded a new state constitution. Supported by Upcountry farmers and millworkers, Tillman secured the Democratic nomination and was elected governor in 1890. Once in office, he lost no time replacing Bourbon Democrats with his own appointees. Arguably the most powerful man in the state by the end of two gubernatorial terms, Tillman secured a referendum for a Constitutional Convention in the 1894 general election. The referendum passed — but not without accusations of fraud.
When the convention delegates met in the chamber of the State House of Representatives in 1895, there were 112 Tillmanites, 42 Conservatives and six Republicans (five black men from Beaufort and one from Georgetown) among the delegates. Tillman’s intentions at the convention clearly indicated the outcome. “How did we recover our liberty? By fraud and violence. We tried to overcome the thirty thousand majority by honest methods, which was a mathematical impossibility.”
The Tillmanite majority added a poll tax and literacy test to prevent a coalition of remaining black voters and disaffected whites from challenging Democratic Party rule in South Carolina. Women’s suffrage advocates lobbied unsuccessfully for the right to vote but were granted property rights, although delegates rejected Tillman’s proposal to legalize divorce. The new constitution provided funding for primary education and established a system of liquor control in the state, known as the Dispensary. To strip the Lowcountry of its power, each county’s legislative delegation was given the ability to be its local government, approving the county budget.
Among the black delegates who raised their voices against disenfranchisement was Robert Smalls. Born a slave in South Carolina, Smalls became a congressman during Reconstruction and the leading political figure in the county. His eloquent words, still available in the national archives, were prophetic:
“Mr. President, this convention has been called for no other purpose than the disfranchisement of the negro. Be careful, and bear in mind that the elections which are to take place early next month in very many of the states are watching the action of this convention, especially on the suffrage question. Remember that the negro was not brought here of his own accord.”
Smalls recounted the history of the first African slaves arriving in Virginia in 1619. “It was then that the seed of slavery was planted in the land. So you see we did not come here of our own accord; we were brought here … and we have been here ever since.”
Smalls continued, “Since reconstruction times 53,000 negroes have been killed in the South, and not more than three white men have been convicted and hung for these crimes. I want you to be mindful of the fact that the good people of the north are watching this convention upon this subject. I hope you will make a constitution that will stand the test. I hope that we may be able to say when our work is done that we have made as good a Constitution as the one we are doing away with. …
“I appeal to the gentleman from Edgefield to realize that he is not making a law for one set of men. Some morning you may wake up to find that the bone and sinew of your country is gone. The negro is needed in the cotton fields and in the Lowcountry rice fields, and if you impose too hard conditions upon the negro in this state there will be nothing else for him to do but to leave. What then will you do about your phosphate works? No one but a negro can work them; the mines that pay the interest on your state debt. I tell you the negro is the bone and sinew of your country and you cannot do without him. I do not believe you want to get rid of the negro, else why did you impose a high tax on immigration agents who might come here to get him to leave?”
Another vocal black delegate was free-born attorney and former U.S. congressman, Thomas Ezekiel Miller, who was featured in the February 2021 Mercury. At the Constitutional Convention, he was an advocate of universal suffrage and defended the black legislators during Reconstruction, identifying that many white legislators relied on black votes for their election. He pointed out that a poll tax would also disfranchise poor white voters and was one of a small minority to vote for women’s suffrage. He also challenged the “Lost Cause,” narrative, stating: “The majority of you blame the poor Negro for the humility inflicted upon you during that conflict, but he had nothing to do with it. It was your love of power and your supreme arrogance that brought it upon yourselves. You are too feeble to settle up with the government for that grudge. This hatred has been centered on the Negro; and he is the innocent sufferer of your spleen.”
In spite of the dissent, delegates ratified the Constitution on December 4, 1895, eliminating the achievements of the 1868 Constitution.
On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation under the guise of “separate but equal” was legal. Jim Crow laws in the South would not begin to be changed until the 1960s.
My appreciation to Bob Stockton for contributing to this article. We are collaborating on a book entitled Broad Street, Charleston’s Historical Nexus of Power, to be published by Evening Post Books. Anyone with a good Broad Street story is invited to contact email@example.com.