Conventional wisdom holds that the subject of race in the South is an inflexible, immutable issue, separate and distinct as regards blacks and whites. Just as importantly, it always has been, according to popular notion.
A couple of cursory examples:
- Southern blacks today are overwhelmingly seen as being aligned with the Democratic Party, while a solid majority of Southern whites are Republicans; and
- If you visit a so-called “black church” or a “white church” you’ll rarely find many people of the opposite race on hand.
But as selectively segregated as some institutions may appear to be today, there’s no doubt that race relations have thawed considerably in the region over the past 40 years. Obviously, Jim Crow didn’t do a whole lot to bring people of different backgrounds together prior to that, nor was it designed to.
However, one occasionally stumbles across a glimpse of a past that shows that not everything was as neatly delineated between the two races as today’s stereotypical view of yesteryear might have us believe.
If one looks hard enough, there are examples that show the South, like any part of the United States, was and is an infinitely more complex region than today’s television pundits and political opportunists would have us believe.
Case in point: Earlier this month while rambling through the South Carolina Upstate, I came across New Enoree Baptist Church, located in rural Newberry County, about six miles northeast of the town of Newberry.
The church itself was founded in 1868, apparently by ex-slaves who’d attended Enoree Baptist Church, one mile to the south, but who left after the War Between the States.
New Enoree Baptist’s graveyard begins along the south side of the church and runs up the gradually sloping hillside to a tree line some 300 feet away, with tombstones dating back to Reconstruction.
There are hundreds of graves scattered across the incline, but two caught my attention.
The first belonged to Jesse Burnside (see above photo). His stone didn’t list a date of birth, but did state that he died on Sept. 7, 1918, at the age of 78. The interesting part was what etched underneath the above information: “He was a servant of the Confederate soldiers in the war.”
There is considerable controversy today as to what role blacks played in the Confederate military during the Civil War. There are those who wildly inflate the numbers and even insist that some blacks fought alongside their white Confederate counterparts during the 1861-65 conflict.
On the other hand, there are those who insist that very few blacks played any role at all in the service of the Confederacy beyond what was entailed in being a slave.
Incomplete records have made it difficult to determine exactly what role blacks played in the service of the South, though it is indisputable that they were involved to some degree in many different areas.
Among other things, records shows that in 1923 the state of South Carolina paid pensions to 328 blacks for their service in the War Between the States, even if that role was not always clearly defined in the pension documents.
What’s interesting in the case of Burnside is that he, or his family, would choose to have his service in the war memorialized on his gravestone. Remember, by 1918 blacks had been pretty much completely disenfranchised by the state’s whites for nearly a full generation, and were second-class citizens in every sense of the term.
Of course, the possibility exists that someone other than a Burnside family member or Burnside himself paid for the stone, perhaps someone whom he had served during the war.
The other tombstone that caught my attention was one belonging to Wade Hampton Stephens (right).
Stephens was born in August 1877, just about nine months after the pivotal election that brought Gen. Wade Hampton into the South Carolina governor’s office and helped bring Reconstruction in the Palmetto State to a close.
Today, many would be surprised to find that a black child was named after a famed Confederate cavalry commander and Democratic governor who helped “redeem” the state from the clutches of Federal occupation.
However, in the lead-up to the 1876 election, Hampton and his famed Red Shirts had more than a few blacks among their ranks, as many people of both races jumped at the chance to rid the state of what they considered a corrupt Republican administration, even if they often resorted to extra-legal measures, as did their Republican opponents.
Hampton, who became known as the “Savior of South Carolina,” was a beloved figured to many in the state and it’s not hard to see why his name would be a popular choice, particularly around the time of the 1876 election.
It’s feasible that Wade Hampton Stephens’ father himself was a Red Shirt, possibly one of the men of whom Edmund Drago wrote about in his 1999 book Hurrah for Hampton! Black Red Shirts in South Carolina During Reconstruction.
Wade Hampton Stephens outlived Burnside by nearly three years, dying on June 25, 1921. He was 43.