Part 1 of
The King Street Riot of 18761
The Most Violent Race Riot in Downtown Charleston
by Gene Kizer, Jr.
The sidewalks along Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina were jam packed with exuberant people from Broad to Marion Square just after dark, Friday, August 25th, 1876, two weeks before a violent race riot would rage on King Street.
Bystanders this night numbered around 7,500 and they were cheering an impressive torchlight parade, part of a Democratic Party rally that had started at Broad Street "amid the clash of drums," the hissing of rockets and Roman candles, and music. As far as one could see, Meeting Street was "a perfect blaze of light with torches, transparencies, lanterns, blue lights and rockets" moving steadily toward Marion Square, called "Citadel Green" back then.2
The parade itself was over 6,000 strong led by 500 men on horseback. Every window "along the line of march was crowded with ladies and children, who waved their handkerchiefs in response to the cheers of the men."
As they passed the Meeting Street ice house "a shower of rockets" went up, and in front of the Charleston Hotel "there was a perfect fusillade of Roman candles, bombs and rockets which lit up the street from Hasel to Broad" and made it "almost as bright as day." The "handsome stores of Messrs. W. Carrington & Co. and J. R. Read & Co. were brilliantly illuminated with Chinese lanterns of variegated colors" that "provoked a yell from the torch bearers which was responded to by a shower of rockets from the occupants of the building, and a general flutter of pocket handkerchiefs from the ladies."
Passing Von Santen's, "a half dozen of his clerks were sent out with an unlimited supply of rockets, whose brilliant coruscations served to reveal the handsome and cheery faces of hundreds of the fair sex who thronged the windows of the Masonic Temple." Some of the ladies were so excited "as to hold a Roman candle."3
As the cheering procession turned left on Calhoun Street and poured onto Citadel Green, a battery of cannons manned by the Washington Artillery opened up rapid fire, a deafening BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, while over King Street "there was sent up as brilliant a flight of rockets as was ever seen in Charleston."4
They marched across the square to a grand stand in front of The Citadel. The platform was 10 feet high and 30 feet by 25 and around it "was a substantial balustrade 8 feet high and surrounded by fifty gas jets, which lit up the scene for yards around, the names of Tilden and Hendricks being painted on the globes." The lower part of the platform was "fringed with Centennial bunting."5
The transparencies (apparently some kind of placards) carried by those marching had on them messages that were often funny but dead serious. A triangular one "had the picture of a diminutive carpet-bagger retreating from an immense shoe in his rear."
Another had "Hampton will Wade in," and another had two crossed rifles "with bayonets, cartridges and bowie knives" labeled "Agricultural Implements."6
Many signs carried messages appealing to blacks, like "'Let the Republicans name a Democrat who has ever cheated the colored man.'"
Another featured a wagon loaded with bales of cotton and "drawn by a white and black man, and underneath was the motto, 'Together we'll redeem the State and live in peace.'"
Another, more pointed, said "'No intimidation of colored Democrats.'"
Others mimicked the Freedman's Bank scandal or proclaimed "straight-out."7
The speeches were just as uplifting as the parade. All of Charleston's leading citizens were there and included John A. Wagener, George Walton Williams, C. T. Lowndes, A. G. Magrath, E. T. Legare, C. Kerrison, Jr., Henry Buist, J. Ancrum Simons, W. C. Courtenay, James Cosgrove, W. L. Trenholm, W. W. Sale and George H. Walter.8 Mr. Walter's son, Endicott, would be shot dead in a race riot on Broad Street two and a half months later and Mr. Walter himself would be wounded.9
Col. Edward McCrady was one of the first speakers and this excerpt is typical of the others:
. . . The Republicans claim to own the 30,000 negro votes. They claim that "negro" and "Republican" mean the same thing. That all negroes are Republicans. We do not admit this. We know that very few of the negroes understand the difference between Democrats and Republicans. They are told to this day that they are still voting for Lincoln when they vote the Republican ticket, and that the Democratic party will put them back into slavery. But in this campaign we intend that they shall hear from us our true position, . . . We intend to have no Republican intimidation in the coming election. . . . (great applause).10
Major Theodore G. Barker denounced the racial hatred promoted by the Republican Union League early in Reconstruction as it sought to consolidate the black vote. He continued:
. . . If the counsels of corrupt Republican leaders, from the very highest and most cultivated to the coarsest and lowest dog in the Radical kennel, had been followed, blood and hate would have marked the history of the State for eleven years past. To the natural kindliness between the native white and the blacks which has always existed in South Carolina - to the refusal of both the former master and the former slave to suffer themselves to be arrayed in strife against each other by miserable carpet-baggers of both races - and to this alone is due the fact that to-day we are at peace . . .11
These two excerpts exemplify the themes of the many speakers and the frustration of whites. South Carolina Democrats had been "whipped dogs" since 1868 when Congressional Reconstruction began. They had not even called themselves "Democrats" instead hiding behind the label "conservatives." Some of this had to do with the backlash of the War Between the States which caused Lincoln's Republicans to ascend and Democrats to be discredited, but most had to do with pure hopelessness. South Carolina whites saw no end to Republican corruption which was pervasive as was public thievery and the promotion of virulent racial hate. Whites saw an entrenched carpetbag government that had at its disposal the state militia and treasury, the courts, the national Republican Party, the Northern press, the White House, and it was all backed up by federal troops. Whites knew they were a minority in a state run by outsiders whose political power base was the black majority.
Those outsiders had to maintain absolute control over black voters and the most effective way to do that was racial distrust and hate. Republican leaders told blacks, among other things, that if whites got back in power they would reestablish slavery. There were also constant threats of violence against any black too friendly with whites, or who dared not vote Republican, as well as other modes of ostracism within the black community.12
The Hamburg Riot of July 8th, seven weeks earlier, changed all that.
It gave Democrats a big surge of confidence, not because of the blood that was shed but because whites began realizing they were not impotent. They could fight back. Whites felt that the situation was no longer tolerable and the Republicans had to go even if it meant bringing a military government on themselves, which they figured would at least protect them and not rob the state blind. They did have a great fear that a military intervention would simply be put under command of the corrupt state government, but by the election of 1876, they were ready to chance it. The efforts at "fusion" with the untested reform branch of the Republican Party gave way to a "straight-out" Democratic ticket and a political fight to the finish.13
Adoption of the Mississippi Plan
Another speaker at the Charleston rally of August 25th was Gen. S. W. Ferguson, "a Carolinian born, residing in Mississippi." He told how they had gotten rid of carpetbag rule the year before in Mississippi, which had been in a similar situation as South Carolina with a large population of blacks under tight Republican control.
South Carolina Democrats quickly adopted the exact same strategy, which included, as a key element, face to face confrontation of Republicans at Republican meetings. This tactic became known as the "joint meeting" with "division of time."
Gen. Ferguson said that in Mississippi they went to every Republican meeting and when Republicans lied, Democrats "clinched them then and there" to their faces and "denounced the corrupt leaders" calling them "liars and thieves." Mississippi Democrats spoke to blacks "as residents of the same country with the same interests at stake" and "told them how they (blacks) had been cheated and duped by their leaders," and Democrats "promised to protect them if they wished to vote the Democratic ticket."14
Gen. Ferguson said there had been little violence but he stressed that Democrats should "be there in numbers strong enough to enforce if necessary, their demand" for equal time. He said to instill in blacks "the truth that their interest and the interest of the white man were the same." Democrats, he said, "should promise to protect them (black Democrats), and carry out their promise." Gen. Ferguson ended saying there was no need to resort to violence, that if Democrats were "prepared for violence" then "no violence would come."15
The Democratic strategy at joint meetings was simple: talk to blacks honestly, face to face, man to man, without patronizing or building them up with false promises. Democrats would simply tell the truth about Republican corruption and thievery. This, they reasoned, would gain them a manly respect. Democrats were confident that most Republican leaders were so corrupt they could not answer the Democrats face to face, and none could defend the party's record.16
Democrats were right. Republicans ran from this tactic the whole campaign falling back on their old standby of racial hatred and violence to maintain control.17
Even in the race for governor, Democrat Hampton many times challenged Republican carpetbagger Chamberlain, from Massachusetts, to debate him "on the stump," which was the custom, but Chamberlain refused. One reason for Chamberlain's refusal was that he might not have been able to face the heat. Though he ended up well thought of and he himself ended up respecting South Carolina Democrats (he admitted this years later, not during the campaign), he was still attorney general during the most corrupt days of Reconstruction and there were questions about why he didn't prosecute more of the public thieves. There was an implication that he too had personally benefited from his government office.18
There is also a sort of funny reason why Chamberlain would not debate Hampton. Journalist Alfred B. Williams described Hampton as a warm, good humored, confident fellow who would talk with anybody. On the campaign trail, a man came up to Hampton and said "Say, Gin'ral, they tell me you're kind of a dog man. I wisht you'd come over there an' look at somethin' I've got."
Hampton "joined him and they tramped together to where there was a litter of new hound puppies and through the next hour were in deep, confidential debate on the breeds and builds of hounds and the possibilities of rescuing a young dog wanted for 'possum purposes from the soul destroying vice of going off after rabbit trails.'"19
Chamberlain was the "diametrically opposite type, more of the student and scholar than a handler of real things." He "was forty-one years old in 1876, absolutely and conspicuously bald except for fringes of hair around his ears and the back of his head and wore a dark mustache." He was an indoor person and "His features were good" and "His manners, dress and personal habits were those of the New Englander." Chamberlain's "speeches and writings were models of style and diction, polished." On the stump, however, he:
. . . toiled diligently to build elegant addresses, admirably suited for cultivated audiences, to be delivered to people who wanted, enjoyed and understood nothing but rant, shrieks, howls, arm waving, foot stamping and funny stories about hogs and mules and hound dogs.20
Chamberlain aside, there was more to the Mississippi Plan, like boycotts of Republican businesses and putting pressure on black employees of Democrats, the same tactics Republicans had been using for eight years. However, at no time did Democrats encourage black women to ostracize or refuse to live with black men who supported the whites, as the Republicans had done, nor did Democrats promise blacks free land or threaten them with whippings for not following Democratic dogma, nor did they tell blacks they would be sold back into slavery if the Republicans won. Republicans had used all these tactics of lies and hate to intimidate and trick blacks and keep them voting Republican.
The key to the success of the Mississippi Plan was the direct confrontation afforded by the joint meeting. Over and over, throughout the campaign, joint meetings proved to average blacks that Democrats were right about Republican corruption and deception. Joint meetings gained Democrats the respect of thousands of blacks and led finally to the collapse of the Republican strategy, which was to control the lower classes of blacks with racist appeals and violence, to bribe the mulattos, and to control whites with the army and machinery of the government."21
A Typical Joint Meeting with Division of Time
Democrats employing the Mississippi Plan got a joint meeting and division of speaking time with Republicans at Strawberry Church, located at Strawberry Ferry, a Republican stronghold dominated by Christopher Columbus Bowen, sheriff of Charleston County and corrupt Republican leader. It took place Thursday, August 31st, 1876, a week after the Marion Square rally. A boat was chartered and the 40 mile trip up the Cooper River was made by approximately 100 white men who were joined at Strawberry Church by the Hampton Mounted Social Club and the Mount Pleasant Mounted Club, together totaling over 50 riders. Another 150 white men came on their own so that whites totaled 300 and blacks had about the same number, though voters in this area were 600 to 700 black, to 25 whites. Blacks were "armed with old muskets, rifles, shot guns and swords" and "some carried bayonets stuck on the end of a stout hickory stick, and others bore scythes, reaping hooks, clubs and sabers." Most whites and blacks also carried pistols as was the custom.22
The meeting "held under the cool shade of the venerable oaks which surrounded the Strawberry Church" started and each speaker was given a half hour. A Republican spoke then a Democrat who among other things said that Gen. Hampton had spoken to blacks in Columbia and said: "We have lived together peaceable in the past, let us now go on together in the same path."23
Republican Bowen spoke and denounced Democrats as "the oppressor of the poor men of both races," among other things.
Next was Major Barker who "did not mince matters" but denounced a Republican black who "has told lies about me and my father in my absence." He went on to accuse Bowen of setting himself up as a "God" before the blacks, and he chastised them saying "Are you sunk so low that you are willing to take any living being as your God?" Barker denounced Bowen over and over in Bowen's presence then said "I charge him (Bowen) with giving George Sass the programme (sic) for carrying out the strike the other day."24
Bowen responded that he knew nothing of the strike and Barker answered, "that other god," meaning Bowen, "said to the women and children and cowardly men that they must not work for less than sixty cents a task under a penalty of fifty lashes each." Col. Barker went on "you are slaves or freemen just as your courage or cowardice makes you slaves or freeman." He ended saying "I repeat that there was a conspiracy here to inflict fifty-five lashes upon the bare back of any man, woman or child who dared to work for less than sixty cents a task - that is who dared to exercise their rights as freemen. No democratic party ever taught this doctrine."25
The next speaker was an old black fellow who said he was opposed to the Democrats "on general principles," and he "couldn't vote for a Democrat, but, if he ever got into trouble, he would want a Democratic lawyer to defend him, and a Democratic jury to try him, because then he knew that he would get justice."26
This old black gentleman's statements seem to support Democratic assertions that most of the time there were good feelings between blacks and whites until carpetbaggers arrived.
The meeting ended with Bowen giving a long, ineffective talk and being confronted time to time by Major Barker. Bowen pretended he missed his ride and would have to stay the night at Strawberry Ferry, but Major Barker and the whites knew Bowen wanted to stay to undo the good that had been promoted this day so they insisted that they would be glad to give Bowen a ride back to town, and they made sure he got on their boat with them.27
The Short Chain of Events
Leading to the King Street Riot
The Mississippi Plan showed immediate success. Republican leaders "noted with growing dismay and fury the slow but steady additions to the number of negroes enrolling in Democratic clubs, for one reason or another." Republican frustration was demonstrated by "a riotous attack" made "on the negro club at Mout Pleasant."28
Republican frustration was also obvious in the short chain of events leading to the King Street Riot. Those events began on Friday, September 1st, the day after the Strawberry Ferry meeting, and the day a detailed story came out in the newspaper with the headline:
BOWEN CONFRONTED BY DEMOCRATS
IN ONE OF HIS STRONGHOLDS.
A Notable Meeting at Strawberry Church -
How the Freedom of the Ballot is to be
Secured to the Colored Voters of Charleston
County - The Speeches - A Lively Time.29
That night, the Democratic club of Ward 8 "met in the old carriage factory, Spring Street near Rutledge Ave." It was "invaded by a number of boisterous negroes who interrupted and demanded and were accorded division of time." They put up a speaker but it soon became apparent that their mission was to "injure Isaac Rivers, a huge black man and an effective speaker, working for the Democrats, and J. W. Sawyer, another colored speaker." Rivers and Sawyer spoke as did Major Theodore G. Barker, Joseph W. Barnwell and R. S. Tharin. While speaking and after, "Rivers and Sawyer were hustled, threatened and cursed, but escaped uninjured."30
On September 4, the News and Courier reported on the incident in an editorial entitled "An Example and a Warning." They compared the peaceful Strawberry Church meeting with the "riotous and dangerous" Ward 8 meeting and concluded that Strawberry Church had been well planned for danger, while Ward 8 had not been expecting danger therefore was unprepared. They ventured "the prediction that the meeting in Ward 8 is the last of its kind that will ever occur in Charleston" implying that from then on the Democrats would be more prepared. It continued by inviting Republicans to share speaking time on which it commented:
The trickery of the Republican leaders, the miserable falsehoods which they tell to the Democracy, the wretched characters which most of the Republican speakers themselves bear, may all be exposed with profit to Democrats and Republicans of both races.31
The editorial also suggested that nobody "under the influence of liquor" should be admitted, and that the halls should not become overcrowded. It reiterated the Democratic vow to protect black Democrats from black Republicans:
In every case a committee, and, if necessary, a 'committee of the whole' should conduct Democratic colored speakers and voters to and from their homes, if they have any fear of violence. Do the Democrats of Charleston know that, owing to a want of adequate precaution of their part, two colored speakers on the Democratic side were in danger of serious harm on Friday night?32
The editorial ends with a warning that "the campaign in this country is to be a fight against Republican knavery and ruffianism in the country and in the city" and that the two most recent meetings were clearly "an example and a warning." The Strawberry Church meeting had been a good example of a fair joint meeting with both sides accorded plenty of time to speak in a peaceful atmosphere, while the Ward 8 trouble was a clear and ominous warning of what would happen if Republican racial hatred of black Democrats got out of hand.33
The next day, September 5, another editorial had a short paragraph that started with "The Eighth Ward Bullies," in which it chastised the police for not making any arrests but admitted it was dark and the black Democrats "Rivers and Sawyer could not identify their assailants." It goes on to say that "even if they had done so, and the rascals had been arrested, they would probably have been bailed out by the men who sent them to the meeting." It ends saying "There is only one way to stop this kind of thing. The white Democrats absolutely must protect black Democrats from Republican violence and intimidation."34
Both articles, "An Example and a Warning" of September 4, and "The Eighth Ward Bullies" of September 5, point out Republican efforts to disrupt black Democratic meetings and do violence to black Democrats. Republican leaders knew that if blacks started voting Democratic, their days at the public trough were numbered. Republicans had to make blacks so terrified of voting Democratic that they would stay home or vote Republican. If Republicans could murder the leading black Democrats, that would send a chilling message to all blacks that if they vote Democratic, they and their families can not be protected and can be brutalized or murdered at will.
On the eve of the King Street Riot, black Democrat Rivers "attended and spoke at a meeting of the Democratic club of Ward 5, describing what had occurred in Ward 8." Outside, "a mob of negroes packed the street around the entrance to the meeting." They had been "encouraged by the partial success in Ward 8" four days before. To get the black Democrats to safety "white men formed a square, with Rivers and other negro Democrats in the middle, and marched into King Street through a roar of jeers and curses." The police were there and the disturbance ended.35
1 This paper was written 22 years ago and turned in May 2, 1998 for a Victorian Charleston history course taught by Professor Robert P. Stockton at the College of Charleston when I was a middle-age student. The parallels between the violent leftists of the Democrat Party today, and the violent Republican Party during Reconstruction, are striking. Both used (and Democrats today are still using) racial hatred, division, and violence, to stay in power.
2 "To Live and Die in Dixie!", News and Courier, August 26, 1876, front page.
8 Melinda Meek Hennessey, "Racial Violence During Reconstruction: The 1876 Riots in Charleston and Cainhoy," South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 86, No. 2 (April, 1985), 111.
9 "To Live and Die in Dixie!", News and Courier, August 26, 1876.
12 David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina, A Short History, 1520 - 1948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1951), 572.
13 Alfred B. Williams, Hampton and His Red Shirts, South Carolina's Deliverance in 1876 (Charleston, SC: Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, Publishers, 1935), 37-41.
14 "To Live and Die in Dixie!", News and Courier, August 26, 1876.
16 Claude G. Bowers, The Tragic Era, The Revolution after Lincoln (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1929), 513-14.
18 John S. Reynolds, Reconstruction in South Carolina, 1865-1877 (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1905; reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), 507-08.
19 Williams, Hampton and His Red Shirts, 91.
21 Williams, Hampton and His Red Shirts, 116-117.
22 "'No Intimidation'," News and Courier, September 1, 1876.
24 Williams, Hampton and His Red Shirts, 120.
25 "'No Intimidation'," News and Courier, September 1, 1876.
26 Williams, Hampton and His Red Shirts, 120.
27 "An Example and a Warning.", News and Courier, September 4, 1876, editorial page.
28 Williams, Hampton and His Red Shirts, 120.
29 "'No Intimidation'," News and Courier, September 1, 1876.
30 Williams, Hampton and His Red Shirts, 120.
31 "An Example and a Warning.", News and Courier, September 4, 1876, editorial page.
34 "The Eighth Ward Bullies," News and Courier, September 5, 1876, editorial page.
35 Williams, Hampton and His Red Shirts, 120.