More proof the past isn’t always as tidy as we think it is


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”.

Gravestone of Richard "Dick" Roberts, Flint Hill Baptist Church Cemetery, Newberry County, SC.

Gravestone of Richard “Dick” Roberts, Flint Hill Baptist Church Cemetery, Newberry County, SC.

“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.)

13 thoughts on “More proof the past isn’t always as tidy as we think it is

  1. I admit to knowing nothing of the US Red Shirts beyond the above but elements of the “opressed” cooperating with the “opressor” is a fairly common historical occurrence, from Occupied Ireland to Occupied France. Maybe he was just, to use the crude, admittedly simplistic term, a type of “Uncle Tom”? What we here would call a Seonín or West Brit in different circumstances.

    • I know that in South Carolina there had been corruption, societal disruption and a great deal of chaos during Reconstruction (1865-1877). I think it’s safe to assume that some blacks voted for a different party in the 1876 election with the hope that it would steer the state out of the chaos of the previous few years. But, yes, I believe there’s no doubt that some blacks were led to vote for the democratic candidate through a sense of loyalty to those that had once been their masters. I have no idea how large a percentage either group made up.

      I have been meaning to read up on the Klan of the 1860s and early ’70s because, as I understand it, it was an entity that differed from the Klan of the early 20th century. The first iteration was more concerned with wresting control of the Southern states from Republican governments. There was certainly an element of racial superiority and the use of violence against blacks who supported the Republican-backed government was common, but it differed from the second iteration of the Klan, which was most clearly an anti-black, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant organization.

    • Thank you, Helen.

      It’s a rather convoluted and understudied period in US history overall. I believe a good deal of the groundwork for the following century (problems with race relations in particular) were laid during Reconstruction. However, I myself need to read up more on the period. Each Southern state, for example, appears to have had a slightly different experience during Reconstruction, although the overall outcome for elites, poor whites and blacks was largely the same.

  2. Please read up on how President Grant sent investigators into Newberry, SC.

    The transcripts are printed in the Google e-book entitled Reports and Resolutions of the South Carolina General Assembly– 1870.

    The president sent congressional investigators to Newberry Co., SC because, in the earliest years of Reconstruction, the Black people there were being threatened with loss of work, bodily harm to themselves or their families and, in some cases, death when the men did not vote as they were told (for the Democrats) or for having the audacity to vote at all.

    • It’s interesting, but because of the way US History was always divided when I was in school, colonial-1877 during the first semester; 1877-present during the second semester, we would never get around to Reconstruction before the end of the first semester and would begin the second semester by starting by studying the Gilded Age. And as I took all foreign history classes in college, it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I began to really understand what went on during this period. I’d say this period and the period right before the Civil War are probably the least understood by the general public.

  3. Pingback: Best of the Civil War Blogs (5-18-2017) | Civil War Chat

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