The bigot, the five-day governor and the much-needed reformer


One hundred years ago this month, Lt. Gov. Charles A. Smith began the shortest reign in South Carolina gubernatorial history, a five-day stretch as the Palmetto State’s chief executive that ran from Jan. 14-19, 1915.

Smith’s brief tenure as governor came about as the result of the actions of one of the more reprehensible South Carolinians to hold office in the state’s nearly 350-year history: Coleman Livingston “Cole” Blease.

Blease, a self-proclaimed pro-lynching, anti-black education politician cut from the same cloth as Pitchfork Ben Tillman, earned election to the state’s highest office through his ability “to play on race, religion and class prejudices,” appealing especially to South Carolina’s farmers and mill workers, according to Ernest Lander’s work, “A History of South Carolina 1865-1960.”

The state was anything but a hotbed of progressivism in the early 20th century, but Blease acquired such a bad reputation that he was said to represent the worst aspects of Jim Crow and Ben Tillman. For example, Blease is said to have once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden in Columbia.

In their book “Columbia: History of a Southern Capital,” Lynn Salsi and Margaret Sims identified some of Blease’s more “endearing” legacies:

Despite the need for reform, he fought regulation of safety, public health and education. He also pardoned a record number of criminals, some say more than 1,500. His vetoes included hand-written messages using profane language, the wrote.

Worse yet was his treatment of blacks.

In his 1911 inauguration address, Blease stated, “I am opposed to white people’s taxes being used to educate negroes.” He later added that he was opposed to white convicts being placed in the same labor camps as black convicts, adding that he believed that “a governor would be justified in granting a pardon to a white man who is thus treated, …”

In the same address, he urged the re-institution of public executions, particularly those of blacks.

“I respectfully recommend that you amend the present law so as to make executions for the crime of rape, or assault with intent to ravish, public, as I believe this will bring about more satisfactory results – allowing others, and particularly those of the younger generation of that race from which most of these culprits come, to have a full view of the punishments meted out.”

New York Times headlines on story about Cole Blease pardoning numerous prisoners, often for spurious reasons.

New York Times’ headlines on story about Cole Blease pardoning numerous prisoners, often for spurious reasons, and threatening Columbia officials for ticketing his chauffeur.

Blease added, “The pure-blooded Caucasian will always defend the virtue of our women, no matter what the cost. If rape is committed, death must follow.”

And while blacks were his primary target, Blease also said the he would pardon any man or mob who killed a doctor who had given a physical examination to a young girl, Salsi and Sims added.

In the 1914 election, Richard I. Manning III ran unopposed for governor, having won the Democratic primary, touting a progressive platform that ran counter to pretty much everything Blease represented.

On Jan. 14, 1915, rather than personally hand over the reins of power to Manning, Blease petulantly resigned five days before the latter was to be inaugurated.

Blease is said to have used red ink to resign rather than relinquish the office to a man “whose philosophy I despise.”

As a result, Smith served the remainder of Blease’s term, performing largely ceremonial duties.

Smith, appears to have been a much more respectable individual than the man he followed. A graduate from Wake Forest College, he was involved in a variety of successful business ventures, becoming president of several companies, including two banks.

Smith was elected mayor of Timmonsville, SC, in 1903 and continued in that position until he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1908.

In 1910, he was elected lieutenant governor, serving under Blease, and was re-elected to the position two years later. He ran for governor in 1914, but lost in the primary.

Smith, who also served as a trustee of Furman University and Greenville Women’s College and as president of the South Carolina Baptist Association, died in Baltimore in 1916.

Manning, who would serve two terms as governor, helped to enact legislation that shortened working hours for laborers, raised the minimum age for child labor and improved education for both races.

Blease, unfortunately, wasn’t done with public office. He was elected to the US Senate in 1924, thanks in no small part to a anti-Catholic smear campaign he ran against James Byrnes, a future US Secretary of State and Supreme Court justice.

Blease managed to disgrace the US Senate, as well. In 1928, he proposed the last and most strict anti-miscegenation amendment to the US Constitution, requiring that Congress set a punishment for interracial couples attempting to get married, and for people officiating at interracial marriages. The proposal went nowhere.

The following year, to protest the fact that First Lady Lou Hoover had invited Jessie De Priest, the wife of Illinois congressman Oscar De Priest and a black woman, to tea at the White House, Blease proposed a resolution asking the chief executive “to respect the White House.”

Blease then, stunningly, on the floor of the Senate read the poem, “Niggers in the White House.”

Following immediate protests from senators Walter Edge (R-NJ) and Hiram Bingham (R-Conn.), the racist verse was excluded from the Congressional Record.

Blease withdrew the resolution, but said he did so “because it gave offense to his friend, Senator Bingham, and not because it might give any offense to the Negro race.”

Blease served a single term in the Senate before losing to Byrnes in the Democratic primary in 1930.

Blease died in 1942 and is buried in a family plot in the largest cemetery in Newberry, SC. His grave is unadorned, and rightfully so.

(Top: Cole Blease, while governor of South Carolina.)

12 thoughts on “The bigot, the five-day governor and the much-needed reformer

  1. Wow, CBC. I struggle to understand the institutionalized racism that still plagues parts of this world (this is not to say that we are all saints, up here in the Great White North- we still have too many instances inequality to claim otherwise) and examples like this one… Thank you for shedding some light on why we HAVE to keep talking about the persistence of ideologies that perpetuate inequity and injustice.

    • I will say this: Individuals such as Ben Tillman and Cole Blease didn’t arise in a vacuum. They were, sadly, a product of their time, and were popularly elected (understanding that there were considerable constraints on who could and could not vote).

      I think one needs to consider the grinding poverty that many people in the South, black and white, experienced in the Jim Crow era to better understand the pervasive racism. I’m of the belief that at least part of the white bigotry that existed was the result of poor whites needing to feel superior to someone, and blacks were a convenient target. Of course, many middle- and upper-class whites were quite content to let poor whites do the dirty work of keeping blacks “in their place.”

      While racism still exists today, and likely will exists as long as mankind is around, I am heartened by the strides that have been made over the past century. We may not be perfect, but we really have come a long way, fortunately.

      Thank you for taking the time comment, Cole.

      • I agree- we HAVE come a long way in the last 100 or so years- and hopefully that progress will continue. I shudder when there is backsliding, though…

        Just yesterday I had lunch with a friend and the concept of white privilege came up. We both agree that we are solidly aware of our privilege- moderated though it might be by other various intersectionalities- and that we always have been. Having grown up in a multicultural urban environment, it’s difficult NOT to be aware of the privilege- even if the term itself mightn’t have been used until recently.

        Still, we had to acknowledge that our experience is unique- relatively speaking- and relative to significant chunks of this county (and others, as well). The things we take for granted- and, oftentimes, embrace- can be seen as threatening. Which is why education and engagement are so veryvery important.

        Thank YOU for the thought-provoking post. Might lead me to write a little something…

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