Interracial couple survived Reconstruction, Jim Crow

bedenbaugh house

A 155-year-old structure located in rural South Carolina embodies the conflicted racial legacy evident in South Carolina and possibly other parts of the South, if not the nation.

The Jacob Bedenbaugh House, built around 1860, isn’t noteworthy for its age or its architectural style. Described as a detached two-story traditional “I” house with a modified L-shaped plan, the dwelling, in serious need of restoration, is located along a country highway about five miles east of Prosperity, SC.

What prompted the US Department of the Interior to the place the home on the National Register of Historic Places is the individuals who lived in the structure during its first 55-75 years.

Jacob Belton Bedenbaugh was a white South Carolinian born in 1833. His common-law wife Sarah Bedenbaugh, described as mulatto, was initially a slave purchased by Jacob. Sometime between 1860 and 1864, the two entered into a relationship.

Despite the increasing difficulties inherent with pursuing an interracial relationship in the Deep South in the years following the Civil War – not that it was a walk in the park during or before – the Bedenbaughs remained together in the house as a couple from at least 1864 until Jacob’s death in 1915 and had eight children.

But going against prevailing social mores didn’t come without a price. In July 1890, they were indicted and tried for “fornication” due to the fact that they living together. Being an interracial couple undoubtedly contributed to the decision to prosecute.

It’s unclear from a search of the Internet what the outcome of the case was, but one should bear in mind that South Carolina’s political climate was changing rapidly in 1890 as the Conservatives who had come to power in 1877 following the end of Reconstruction were about to be turned out of office by populist Ben Tillman, who was elected later that year, and his supporters.

Tillman, a virulent racist, was a leading force behind the state’s 1895 constitution, which solidified Jim Crowism in the state and, among other things, prohibited interracial marriage.

Legally, the couple could have married during the war, Reconstruction and immediate-post Reconstruction period, provided they had been able to find a minister willing to perform the service, but the Tillman Constitution forever barred Jacob and Sarah Bedenbaugh from being wedded.

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

wade-hampton-statue

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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How the tyranny of the petty minded can infect a society

Coleman_Livingston_Blease

Like most US states, South Carolina has elected some bad governors over the years. Pitchfork Ben Tillman, an avowed racist and demagogue who did a great deal to divide the state in the late 19th century, is currently getting some much-needed scrutiny, but one of his protegés, Cole Blease, never fails to amaze when his career is analyzed.

Blease was a self-proclaimed pro-lynching, anti-black education politician who was cut from the same cloth as Tillman. He was elected to the state’s highest office in 1910 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.”

Blease acquired such a bad reputation that he was said to represent the worst aspects of Jim Crow and Ben Tillman, a noxious combination if there ever was one. Blease, for example, is said to have once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden in Columbia.

He was not only doggedly political, but arrogant about it, as well.

In early February 1911, less than a month after taking office, Blease stated publicly that he wouldn’t appoint anyone but friends to public office if he could help it.

The matter came to a head after a judge elected in Richland County, where Columbia is located, did not qualify in time to take office immediately, and a short-term intermediary was needed.

The Richland County Bar Association endorsed Duncan J. Ray as a special judge, and Ira B. Jones, chief justice the SC Supreme Court, wrote the governor recommending and requesting the appointment of Ray, adding that this was “the course prescribed by the law, as the statute governing special judges says they shall be appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of Supreme Court,” according to an article in the Feb. 9, 1911, edition of the Bamberg Herald.

“However, the governor had already taken the bit in his teeth and appointed F.J. Caldwell, of Newberry, to preside, and when the Chief Justice wrote him recommending Mr. Ray, he replied that he would not appoint anybody but his friends to public office,” the paper added.

Blease made no apologies for injecting politics directly into the judiciary system.

“My friends,” he said, “are to receive some consideration from this administration. I do not expect to appoint my enemies to office upon the recommendation of anybody unless it be that I cannot find a friend who is competent and worthy of the position.”

The (Columbia) State newspaper, begun in 1891 as a response to Tillman and his politics, took Blease to task. Continue reading

Why one 19th century SC paper urged readers to vote for blacks

Orangeburg County Courthouse

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.)

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

Livingston-Coleman-Blease

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.

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We can’t erase Pitchfork Ben, but we can learn from him

pitchfork ben tillman

For more than a century, Tillman Hall has dominated Winthrop University’s campus.

The three-story building, constructed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, features a combination gabled and hipped roof configuration, projecting bay windows, and is highlighted by a clock tower with an open belfry.

The red-brick edifice was erected in 1894, during South Carolina Gov. Ben Tillman’s reign, and the structure was named for the Palmetto State politician, who would go on to serve in the US Senate, in 1962. Tillman was instrumental in the founding of both Winthrop and Clemson University.

Unfortunately for Winthrop, Tillman’s legacy hasn’t held up well under the scrutiny of history.

A virulent racist who worked not only to codify Jim Crow laws in South Carolina, Tillman personally advocated the lynching of blacks.

So perhaps it’s not unreasonable that a pair of former Winthrop students would like the Rock Hill-based school to consider changing the name of the structure.

However, Winthrop University officials have replied that state law prevents such action.

South Carolina law prohibits changing the name of buildings or monuments named for historic figures, Winthrop Board of Trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham wrote to former students Michael Fortune and Richard Davis in a letter this week.

In the letter, Bigham cites a South Carolina law that was passed in 2000 to protect war memorials and historic structures on public property. The law prevents anyone from changing the name of any street, bridge, structure or park that has been “dedicated in memory of, or named for, any historic figure or historic event,” according to the Rock Hill Herald.

Changing the state law requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly, the publication added.

Given that it’s difficult to get two-thirds of SC lawmakers to agree on what day of the week it is, it’s unlikely that anyone could gather enough support to rename Tillman Hall.

However, that doesn’t mean that Winthrop can’t use the building’s name as a chance to highlight Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s backwardism or how much damage his views have done to South Carolina over the decades.

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Where does Tillman statue fit in SC’s future?

Ben Tillman Statue

Earlier this month a Charleston writer took out a full-page advertisement in The State, the daily newspaper of Columbia, SC, calling for the removal of a statue of former governor and US senator Ben Tillman from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.

Will Moredock has long advocated for the removal of the imposing statue of Tillman, an unabashed racist who perhaps more than anyone else in South Carolina came to embody the evils of post-Reconstruction racism.

Pitchfork Ben Tillman never hid his hatred for blacks or his efforts to maintain white supremacy.

“We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting] … we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them,” he said in 1900. “We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”

Tillman’s populist rabble-rousing and first class demagoguery got him elected governor in 1890, turning out the conservative Bourbons, and he was re-elected two years later.

In 1894, he was appointed to the US Senate, where he served until his death in 1918, and he never missed a chance to voice his narrow-minded sentiments.

Tillman is said to have pioneered the use of race to mobilize white voters, and historian James M. McPherson has claimed that Tillman “created the model for two generations of Southern ‘demagogues.’”

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