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.”

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A glimpse back at SC’s dissonant past

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.

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