Community Evolution and Race Relations in Reconstruction Charleston, South Carolina

By Powers, Bernard E., Jr. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Community Evolution and Race Relations in Reconstruction Charleston, South Carolina


Powers, Bernard E., Jr., South Carolina Historical Magazine


BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR AN INTRICATELY DETAILED BODY OF ordinances and custom regulated virtually every aspect of slave life and established the social subordination of all blacks. With the emancipation of four million slaves, the southern system of labor organization and the region's primary mechanism for controlling race relations were reduced to chaos. During the era of Reconstruction whites often attempted to maintain the antebellum racial order, but their intransigence was met by the United States Army, Republican politicians, unprecedented state and federal legislation, and also by an Afro-American population determined to widen the horizons of its newly won freedom. The result was a significant transitional period in race relations which differed substantially from its predecessor. Furthermore, while evidence of certain practices characteristic of the later "Jim Crow" era could be found, the patterns of race relations during Reconstruction had not yet "crystallized" into the rigid forms which typified the mid-twentieth-century South. The transformation in race relations ubiquitous throughout the South, was most dramatically evident in southern cities. To date there has been no systematic examination of the consequences of emancipation in Charleston, South Carolina.1 This essay focuses on the new era in race relations there.

After the Union invasion of Charleston in February 1865 and the withdrawal of Confederate forces, the city became the destination for waves of freedmen. These new migrants increased the already large black population, which grew from 16,660 or 41 percent of Charleston's population in 1863 to 26,173 or 53 percent by 1870. The presence of thousands of new and potentially rebellious freedmen exacerbated the already tense relations between former masters and slaves and contributed to the general fear of rebellion evidenced throughout the South. In the summer of 1860 members of the Ravenel family were typical, reporting that they lived "in a dreadful state of apprehension of insurrection" and that this was "the general fear" throughout the Lowcountry. A Union army officer observing the volatile climate expected "some insurrectionary movement on the part of the colored people" and feared its consequences once underway.2

The presence of black soldiers among the Union army's forces of occupation was a special source of apprehension. At various times during 1865-1866 blacks from the Twenty-first, Thirty-third, Fifty-fourth, and 102nd Regiments of the United States Colored Troops took possession of public buildings and strategic locations in and around Charleston. Henry W. Ravenel denounced squads of black soldiers who visited plantations near Charleston, disarming and "insulting the whites" while providing the freedmen with weapons. Dr. Benjamin Huger also warned that the history of Charleston would be "written in blood." He believed that unless black troops were removed and the freedmen forced to submit to the civil authorities, "massacre of white or black" would surely occur.3

Under these circumstances, mounting tensions flared into serious and bloody racial clashes during the two years preceding Radical Reconstruction. The most serious were between black citizens and soldiers on the one side and white policemen on the other. After a series of disturbances between freedmen and the police, two discharged soldiers organized a large group of blacks which attacked a detachment of policemen, threatening "to kill all of the d__d rebel sons of __ " One of the ringleaders later bragged that he had killed plenty of rebels during the war and pledged to continue doing so. According to the report of a special Charleston City Council investigation, many such episodes stemmed directly from the presence of black soldiers which it demanded be removed immediately. Military commander General Daniel Sickles disagreed with the city council characterizations and subsequently ordered all policemen to turn in their weapons or face arrest.

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