First woman senator progressive and regressive, all in one

rebecca-ann-latimer-felton

When the 115th Congress is sworn into office next month, it will include 21 women senators, a record, and there will be three states where both senators are women.

Of the 46 women to have served in the US Senate since its inception, fully half have taken office during the past 20 years.

But one doesn’t hear a whole lot about the Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the US Senate. It may partly be because she served just a single day, but it’s also likely that she’s little recognized because she espoused views that today are decidedly out of tune with society as a whole.

Felton was born in 1835 in Decatur, Ga., the daughter of a prosperous planter and merchant. Unusual in the antebellum South, she was sent to Madison Female College, in Madison, Ga., which was essentially a finishing school, incorporating both the last years of secondary education and the first year or two of college. At Madison, she finished at the top of her class.

She married young, in 1853, to William H. Felton, and moved to the latter’s plantation just north of Cartersville, Ga. Like most plantations in the Deep South, the Feltons had slaves.

On the plus side, Rebecca Ann Felton was a prominent women’s rights advocate, pushing for women’s suffrage long before it was popular. In addition, she was a proponent of prison reform and educational modernization.

Also a lecturer, writer and reformer, Felton was considered the most prominent woman in Georgia in the Progressive Era.

Felton’s involvement in politics went beyond being an advocate. Her husband was a member of the US House of Representatives and Georgia House of Representatives, and she ran his campaigns.

In 1922, when Felton was 87, she was named to the US Senate through a bit a political maneuvering, though not all on her part.

Georgia Gov. Thomas W. Hardwick was a candidate for the next general election to the Senate when sitting Sen. Thomas E. Watson died prematurely. Seeking an appointee who would not be a competitor in the coming special election to fill the vacant seat and also looking for a way to secure the vote of the new women voters alienated by his earlier opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment (giving women the right to vote), Hardwick chose Felton to serve as senator in early October 1922.

Despite Hardwick’s tactics, Walter F. George won the seat. Rather than take his seat immediately when the Senate reconvened on Nov. 21, 1922, George allowed Felton to be sworn in. This was due in part to the efforts of Felton and a supportive campaign launched by the women of Georgia.

While Felton was a solon for but a single day, she became the first woman seated in the US Senate.

As such, she was oldest freshman senator to enter the legislative body, at 87 years, nine months and 22 days; was the last member of either house of Congress to have been a slave owner; and is also the only woman to have served as a senator from Georgia.

Unfortunately, Felton’s “progressivism” only went so far. Felton was, quite simply, a virulent white supremacist. She claimed, for instance, that the more money that Georgia spent on black education, the more crimes blacks committed, wrote Leon Litwack in the 1999 work Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.

Felton considered “young blacks” who sought equal treatment “half-civilized gorillas,” and ascribed to them a “brutal lust” for white women, Litwack wrote, adding that while Felton sought suffrage for women, she decried voting rights for blacks, arguing that it led directly to the rape of white women.

Felton was among the few prominent women who spoke in favor of lynching and on at least one occasion stated that white Southerners should “lynch a thousand [black men] a week if it becomes necessary” to “protect woman’s dearest possession.”

“She’s a puzzle to us now because we would have expected a woman who was committed to expanding the opportunity for women to have been sensitive to the plight and oppression of African Americans,” Fitz Brundage, an expert on post-Civil War Southern history at the University of North Carolina, told The Wall Street Journal. “She never had a moment of introspection.”

(Top: Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, in all her conflicted opaqueness.)

Life experience trumps popular platitudes regarding race

Church

This past Saturday found me looking for a long-vanished church in what was once the town of Helena, SC.

Helena, subsumed years ago by the county seat of Newberry, is a predominantly African-American area with a couple of interesting and decidedly disparate claims to history: It is the birthplace of civil rights activist Frank J. Toland Sr. and, conversely, was where noted racial demagogue Cole Blease served as mayor in the late 19th century before moving on to the South Carolina state legislature, the governor’s office and finally the US Senate.

There are almost no records of Helena Church available on the Internet, and all I had to go on was information found on a genealogy site titled “Newberry County GenWeb SC Cemetery Project,” which lists numerous county cemeteries, along with addresses and GPS coordinates if that data is available.

For the old Helena Church, the information included GPS coordinates and the words “S/A Browns Chapel.” I don’t know what “S/A” refers to, but I am familiar with a Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in the Helena area of Newberry, sometimes identified as Browns Chapel.

I have been told of cases of some older white churches abandoning their structures once congregations dwindled to a size that they were no longer a viable house of worship, at which point a black church would take over the building.

Wondering if Brown Chapel was the old Helena Church, or built on the site of the latter, I decided to pay it a visit.

I pulled into the crushed-gravel parking lot about 2 p.m. and saw a couple of cars parked near the church. About 30 feet behind and to the right of the church I noticed an old gravestone standing alone and pulled near it. At the same time, another car with two older black women pulled into the lot.

I got out of my car to take a closer look at the grave marker, and the two women, having parked about 75 feet away, inquired from their car if they could help me. I walked over and explained to them that I was looking for the old Helena Church and asked if I was in the right place.

They immediately asked me my name and requested my identification. Somewhat surprised, I complied.

As they wrote down my name and driver’s license number, the pair, both of whom were in their mid- to late-60s, questioned me about why I was looking around. I told them I was interested in a certain individual, a German immigrant who had died around 1912 and who had been buried in the Helena Church cemetery.

Peering at my driver’s license, they noticed that I was from a town about 20 miles south of the church, and asked why I was in Newberry County. I explained, politely, that I had read old newspaper reports that had said the individual I was searching for had been buried in Helena Church and according to information I’d found on the Internet, I thought that the church may have once been at this location.

They explained to me that Brown Chapel only had graves of black parishioners, but suggested I try another site about a mile away.

I thanked them and as one of the pair handed me back my identification, she replied, “Well, we can’t be too cautious.”

The comment was an apparent reference to the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston earlier this month by a 21-year-old white nut job that claimed nine black lives.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I thanked them again and returned to my car. Needless to say, I found the experience unsettling.

A quick description of yours truly: Bespectacled white male, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, 50 years old. I was wearing a t-shirt, nice shorts, dockers shoes and a Santa Clara University baseball cap. I can’t speak for others, but I hardly see myself as a threatening individual.

Were the two women out of line questioning me because I was white? Some would say yes.

Would they have asked for my ID if I were a black male; were they insinuating that given my color I needed to be watched more closely; do they believe there is increased chance of similar white attacks on black churches occurring?

I don’t know. I didn’t feel comfortable asking any of those questions.

There is a segment of society that decries the fact that, according to them, the most segregated hour in America takes place on Sunday morning, during church services. Personally, I’ve always felt that folks should go to whatever church they want, with the understanding that no one should be turned away from a house of worship because of something as arbitrary as skin color or sexual preference.

That said, after Saturday’s experience, I believe my presence during an AME or CME church service would be met with trepidation. But could I blame a congregation for being anxious if one day, less than a month after the events at Emanuel, an unfamiliar white male showed up at a black church service?

Doesn’t the human body provide protection by sending up internal red flags when something seems amiss?

As I thought about the encounter at Brown Chapel, I realized that both of the women I had talked with were likely born in the late 1940s or early 1950s. They grew up in the segregated South and had to deal with all that went along with that world.

I, on the other hand, was born in California, on the day after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. I’ve lived in the South for many years, but no matter how much I read and how many people I talk with, I would never be able to fully understand the experiences these two older black women went through.

I have trouble understanding how they could be suspicious of me; they might have countered by stating that they had trouble understanding how I couldn’t understand why might be suspicious.

If, as it has been said, we are all products of our environment, and every person we meet, every new adventure we experience and every book we read reshapes us, even if ever so slightly, and makes us the unique beings we are, I can only hope that my manner and disposition left those two lades changed, and for the better.

 

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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How King, Coca-Cola helped erode segregation in Atlanta

MLK and Jacob Rothschild

Fifty years ago this month Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence.

King, an Atlanta native who had been actively working against segregation in the South for at least a decade when he was recognized with the honor, initiated a fundamental change in his home city’s business, religious and racial cultures when blacks and whites came together for the first time to share a meal in public to recognize the new Nobel laureate, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Not surprisingly given the climate of the era, the change didn’t come easily.

King was Atlanta’s best-known figure in 1964 and the first Georgian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but the question of how a segregated city would celebrate the accomplishments of a black man wasn’t an easy one to work out, according to the publication.

“ … the races didn’t mix, and King was still black. The immediate question became, how do you honor the man who was now the city’s most recognizable figure?”

Initially, there was talk in the black community about perhaps having a dinner at Paschal’s, where Civil Rights leaders had often met to discuss strategy. However, it was recognized that King should be received by the entire city, not just a segment.

Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, along with Catholic Archbishop Paul Hallinan, Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays, Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill and Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., formed a core group of organizers who set their sights on having a huge banquet at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel downtown, so that King might be honored by a gamut of Atlanta residents, according to the Journal-Constitution.

However, even after the dinner had been announced and a date set, no one bought tickets. Atlanta’s business community wasn’t buying into the idea.

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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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Civil Rights site recognized, then razed

One week after a ceremony honoring South Carolina civil rights pioneer George Elmore culminated with the erection of a historic marker in front of the downtown Columbia building he once operated, the structure was promptly razed.

Elmore ran the Waverly 5-and-10 cent store, and area mainstay, up until the late 1940s, when he dared to challenge the state’s status quo and put his name on a lawsuit that sought to end South Carolina’s practice of all-white political primaries.

Elmore’s actions led to economic reprisals and financial ruin, according to The State newspaper.

Last Friday, one week after a ceremony attended by city leaders, academics and Elmore’s descendants, the 1935 structure was reduced to a pile of rubble.

The property’s owner, First Nazareth Baptist Church, which sits next door, has not said what it will do with the razed site or why it chose to knock down the historic structure.

Not surprisingly, there is a good bit of unhappiness in area preservation circles.

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Waller, a true Mississippi rebel, dies at 85

A view held by those outside the South – and no small number within – is that white racism not only dominated life in the region until about roughly 30 years ago, but that it was a predominant factor in the governments which oversaw the states of the former Confederacy.

To be certain, with governors such as George Wallace of Alabama, Orval Faubus of Arkansas and Lester Maddox of Georgia, it’s easy to see how one might reach that conclusion.

But, as with all stereotypes, it would be wrong to imply that all Southern leaders up to and through the Civil Rights movement were unabashed bigots.

Case in point is William “Bill” Waller, the former governor of Mississippi, who died last week in Jackson, Miss., at age 85.

Waller, a Democrat, was elected in 1971 and used his time in office to appoint blacks to administrative boards and commissions for the first time in post-Reconstruction Mississippi, according to the New York Times.

He elevated three historically black colleges to university status, and he abolished the anti-integration Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger described as the “state segregationist spy agency.”

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