UNION — The first era of black political empowerment in Union County and the rest of the South began to come to an end due the issues of taxation, economic downturn, political scandal, and splits within the Republican Party.
The first era of black empowerment was an indirect result of the defeat of the Confederate States of America and a direct result of a group of self-described “Radical Republicans” gaining overwhelming control of the U.S. Congress in the elections of 1866.
When the new Congress took office in 1867, the Radical Republicans initiated what is known as Congressional or Radical Reconstruction, removing the governments of the states of the former Confederacy and putting the region under the control of the U.S. military which organized and held elections in those states that year.
In those elections, whites who’d held leading positions in the Confederacy were temporarily deprived of the right to vote and to run for public office. The former slaves, however, were permitted to vote and, in coalition with white Republicans from the North who’d moved to the South after the war, and southern whites who supported Reconstruction, brought the Republican Party to power in all the former Confederate states except Virginia.
Not only did the elections bring the Republican Party to power in the South, it brought blacks — all of whom were Republicans — into public office in the region for the first time in history.
While there were no blacks holding public office in the South at the beginning of 1867, the years following saw blacks elected to local, state, and federal offices throughout the region. By the early 1870s, 15 percent of all the public offices in the South were held by blacks. From 1870 to 1876 the ranks of black officeholders in the South would include two U.S. Senators, 15 U.S. Representatives, and 633 state legislators.
The ranks of black legislators included a black Republican majority in the S.C. House of Representatives that took office in July of 1868. That majority included the all-black and all-Republican legislative delegation from Union County which would remain in office until 1872 when the county’s one senator — Hiram W. Duncan — died, and its three representatives — Junius S. Mobley, Samuel Knuckles, and Simeon Farr — were defeated for reelection.
With the election of 1872, the county’s legislative delegation went from being all-black and all-Republican to being all-white and all-Democrat. This reversal of fortune for the blacks and the Republican Party in Union County was a sign of things to come in South Carolina and throughout the South as a series of developments combined to bring about fall of Reconstruction.
When they came to power, the Republican legislatures of the South instituted programs of internal improvements including support for the development of railroads and the establishment of public school systems similar to those in the North.
To pay for all this, the legislatures levied and/or raised taxes despite the fact that the South had not recovered economically from the ravages of the Civil War.
The tax burden fell especially heavy on whites who owned most of the property in the South but not so much on the blacks who, being recently freed from slavery, owned very little. This fueled resentment of the Reconstruction governments, especially when property owners saw their property sold by their county sheriff for non-payment of the taxes levied by those governments.
Economic conditions in the South worsened with the Panic of 1873 which saw many small businesses and land owners go bankrupt and brought about the collapse of Republican plans to raise the region to prosperity through the construction of railroads.
The Panic of 1873 also damaged the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant who’d been a strong supporter of black civil rights. Grant was blamed for the panic and in the 1874 elections, the Republican Party lost 96 seats, enabling the conservative or “Bourbon” Democrats to gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In addition to the issue of taxation and the economy, Reconstruction was also being undermined by political corruption in both the southern legislatures and in the Grant administration. The corruption of the Grant administration had brought about a split in the Republican Party in 1872 with one faction forming the Liberal Republican Party and joining forces with the Democrats. Grant was easily reelected, in part because of the support he received in the South. The result of Grant’s victory was that the Liberal Republican Party disappeared and, more ominously, many of its supporters abandoned the cause of Reconstruction.
While Grant won reelection with the support of southern Republican parties, those parties were beginning to fracture along regional and racial lines. Whites from the north and whites from south split into factions in competition for patronage and control of the parties.
A similar split developed between black and white Republicans with the blacks demanding a larger share of patronage and public offices. The result of these divisions was that the Republican parties of the south began losing members as, when defeated in these power struggles, northern whites returned to the North, while southern whites left the party and joined the increasingly resurgent Democratic Party.
The racial divisions within the Republican Party in the South began to disillusion its black supporters, some of whom sought alliance with the more moderate elements within the Democratic Party. Others began to turn away from political activity and toward economic uplift through cooperation with the economically dominant whites.
By the end of 1873, only four southern states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — were still in Republican hands. Reconstruction was in trouble, it fortunes declining as the Democratic Party — and the white supremacist terrorist groups that did its bidding — continued to gain strength.
The information for this article was taken partly from a Wikipedia article on Reconstruction and partly from “A Narrative History of Union County, South Carolina” by Allan D. Charles.
Editor Charles Warner can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 14, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.