There is no doubt that judging the past by present standards is often poor practice with regard to history.
While many actions of the past were wrong then and remain wrong today, others that we consider egregious today weren’t so clear cut when they occurred.
And sometimes there are cases where historical figures do, more or less, the right thing, but for the wrong reason.
As the mid-term election of 1886 rolled around, Reconstruction in South Carolina had been over for a full decade. However, Democrats, who had “redeemed” the state from Radical Republicans 10 years earlier, weren’t taking any chances. Elections were still spirited affairs, rather than the perfunctory events that they would later become once Democrats had fully consolidated their hold on power in the state.
In 1886, South Carolina had one black congressman, Civil War hero Robert Smalls, and would send two more to Washington before the end of the century. All were Republicans.
While anti-black sentiment among whites in the state had not yet hardened into what it would become under Gov. Ben Tillman’s racially divisive policy, ex-slaves and their descendants were undoubtedly considered second class citizens by both white elites and non-elites.
Still, as the 1886 election neared, at least one South Carolina newspaper urged voters to put prejudice aside and vote a straight-Democrat ticket, even though the ballot contained two black candidates.
The Orangeburg Times and Democrat wrote in a Sept. 30, 1886, editorial that democrats needed to place party first:
We hear a great many men say that they will not vote for a negro for office if put on the Democratic ticket. Without stopping to discuss the propriety of the action of the convention in deciding to put two negros on the ticket, we emphatically say that it is the duty of the Democrats of the County to vote for the entire ticket as nominated by the primary, negro and all. The very life of the party itself depends upon its purity and a strict enforcement of the rules and regulations, and a rigid and uncompromising discipline. One who obeys the party mandates, and supports the nominated ticket, regardless of his personal objections or animosities for those who compose it, deserve party confidence and can alone be trusted to keep up and preserve the organization. When the action of the party convention is rebelled against, and the ticket scratched or openly opposed, it will not be long before the party itself will go to pieces. Our advice to all Democrats is to vote the ticket straight, whether the ticket as a whole suits their views or not. In this way alone can the unity and ascendancy of the Democratic party be maintained.
The piece was signed by J.L. Sims, editor and owner of the publication.
It should be noted that 19th century American newspapers were often mouthpieces for one political party or the other. That the Times and Democrat urged its readers to vote a straight Democrat ticket likely wasn’t unusual.
Any credit Sims might have gotten for urging readers to vote for the two blacks on the Democratic ballot was greatly diminished by his second sentence, in which he essentially calls into question the S.C. Democratic Convention’s decision to include two African-American candidates on the ticket.
It’s unclear who the two candidates in question were or how they fared in the Nov. 2, 1886, election.
What is clear from South Carolina history is that as time went on and segregation became entrenched in all aspects of life, there would be little reason for editors such as Sims to urge voters to cast ballots for blacks on the Democratic ticket.
The powers that be made certain such episodes didn’t happen again.
(Top: Old postcard showing Orangeburg (SC) County Courthouse, built in 1875. It served the county until 1928.)