Another example of South Carolina’s counterintuitive past revealed itself recently, in a cemetery in the middle of the state.
Buried in the graveyard of Flint Hill Baptist Church, a black church located in northwestern Newberry County, are the remains of Richard “Dick” Roberts.
Roberts, who was born March 15, 1833, and died March 7, 1906, has a rather unusual inscription on his tombstone: “During the troublous years of reconstruction he was true to the people among whom he was born, and with whom he was reared.”
A March 9, 1906, story in the Newberry (SC) Observer provided some insight.
“Dick Roberts, colored, was known in his day as a ‘Hampton democrat.’ In fact he voted with democrats all the time, and wore the ‘red shirt’ in the famous campaign of 1876. He was one of the very few negroes who sided with their white neighbors in politics. Dick dropped dead at his home on the Duncan place in Cromer Township on Wednesday. He was about 65 years old.”
The Red Shirts are relatively little known outside South Carolina, but they were supporters of Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton during his run for governor in 1876. Hampton’s election that year brought an end to eight years of Republican rule in South Carolina and the subsequent withdrawal of Federal occupation troops.
A week after Roberts’ death the Observer followed up:
“Dick Roberts, colored, of Number 4 Township, who was a democrat all the dark days of reconstruction and to the day of his death, voting always with his white neighbors, died recently, as was mentioned in The Observer at the time. Remembering his loyalty and fidelity and appreciating his faithful services and the correctness of his life, and feeling that some recognition should be made of these, his white friends have decided to pay his funeral expense and to erect a simple and suitable monument at his grave. A liberal subscription is being raised for this purpose. Sheriff Buford has a list at his office and Mr. C.H. Shannon also has one.”
Buford was Munson Monroe Buford, (1846-1930), who served in the 5th South Carolina Cavalry during the war, and was the only member of the Ku Klux Klan ever brought to trial from Newberry County in U.S. District Court under the Enforcement Acts, legislation passed in 1870 and 1871 to stem the Klan movement. His case ended in a mistrial. He was later a member of the Red Shirts.
Finally, on April 19, 1907, the Observer ran an article titled “Monument to Colored Democrat”.
“Sheriff Buford and others of Cromer Township are having a marble monument prepared for the grave of Dick Roberts, colored, who remained faithful to the democracy till he died. The inscription will be ‘During the troublous years of reconstruction he was true to the people among whom he was born, and with whom he was reared.’
The Red Shirt movement got its name from Hampton backers who adopted the wearing of red shirts to show support against Republicans in the 1876 gubernatorial race, according to historian and author Louise Pettus.
The Red Shirts were seen by many as leading an effort to “redeem” the state from corrupt radical Republicans, the latter led by Northerners and opportunistic South Carolinians, along with blacks, some of whom were viewed as lacking the education to govern adequately and were being used by the first two groups.
Conversely, there were also Republicans who were idealists seeking to improve living conditions and to educate the newly liberated blacks.
What is known for certain is that the gubernatorial race of 1876 was fraught with fraud, intimidation and violence. Eventually, Hampton was named governor, and South Carolina would go for nearly a century before another Republican would be elected to lead the state.
Today, there are those who regard the Red Shirt movement as nothing more than a white supremacist effort. While there’s no question that the goal of Red Shirts leaders was the overthrow of the Reconstruction-era government and a resumption of power by prewar elites, some blacks also had motives for taking part.
“Some continued to benefit from white paternalism, like Jonas Weeks, of Richland County, who had been a slave belonging to Wade Hampton’s father,” according to W. Scott Poole in the book Never Surrender: Confederate Memory and Conservatism in the South Carolina Upstate. “Other African American Red Shirts had more complex motives, like Asbury Green, of Abbeville County, who was wearied of sharecropping and simply hoped that a change of administration would improve his prospects: ‘I wanted a change in the government. …’”
The black Red Shirts appeared prominently in many of the parades leading up to the 1876 South Carolina election and were often placed conspicuously on speakers’ platforms.
Democratic Party leadership motives went beyond trying to gain black votes. They hoped that such public expressions of black support would show the Federal government that the Red Shirts, many of whom were ex-Confederates and were now bearing arms, were not another illegal Ku Klux Klan movement like that which took place in the latter half of the 1860s and early 1870s, according to Poole.
Robert’s grave, with its inscription, presents questions:
Namely, if, as some believe, the Red Shirt movement was nothing more than a blatant power grab by Southern white Democrats, why would blacks, even a small number, take part?
The idea of blacks serving as Red Shirts is a relatively little-studied subject, though at least one book on the topic has been published.
Perhaps the fact that there were so few black “Hampton democrats,” as the Observer identified Dick Roberts, accounts for the fact that his death was worthy of such notice, and that a number of prominent white citizens contributed to cover his funeral costs and gravestone.
Given Roberts’ date of birth, it’s likely he was born into slavery. By the time of his death, Jim Crow was thriving in South Carolina, due in no small part to the role of former Gov. Ben Tillman and the state constitution of 1895.
As a result, intermingling between the races was increasingly uncommon, and it’s likely few blacks had their funeral costs paid for and tombstones erected by neighboring whites.
There were at least a few other blacks who admired Hampton and the Red Shirts, as well.
In the cemetery of New Enoree Baptist Church, another black church in Newberry County, is the grave of Wade Hampton Stephens (1877-1921).
Stephens was born about nine months Hampton’s election as governor. I speculated in a post three years ago when I first came across Stephens’ grave about whether his father might have been a Red Shirt, as well.
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 – among whites and even some blacks – particularly around the time of the 1876 election.
(Top: Statue of Wade Hampton on South Carolina statehouse grounds, Columbia, SC.)