At Freedom's Door: African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina

Article excerpt

At Freedom's Door: African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina. Edited by James Lowell Underwood and W. Lewis Burke. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xxiii, 269, $34.95, cloth.)

South Carolina's Reconstruction experience was more radical than that of any other southern state. Yet, as many historians of Reconstruction tend to focus their attention on why Reconstruction failed, many of the most important aspects of the South Carolina experience have been neglected. This is especially true when it comes to chronicling the African-American history of Reconstruction and the manner in which African-Americans exercised real political power and took full advantage of opportunities for freedom.

The essays in At Freedom's Door are therefore part of an ongoing conversation among Reconstruction historians as we try and recapture that wonderful moment when America discovered for the first time biracial democracy. These essays grew out of a seminar held in 1998 to commemorate the life and career of Justice Jonathan Jasper Wright, South Carolina's first African-American to serve on the state supreme court. The essays cover a wide breadth of topics dealing with the experience of African-American lawyers during Reconstruction. Contributors discuss the significance of the participation of African-American delegates in the constitutional convention of 1868, the legal and political career of Jonathan Jasper Wright, the impact African-American lawyers had on the legal profession of South Carolina in the years after Reconstruction and before the First World War, the career of Richard Greener, and a concluding essay by the dean of Reconstruction historians, Eric Foner, on the role of South Carolina's African-American elected officials during Reconstruction.

The essays vary widely in both length and quality. Those by Underwood, Foner, Burke, and the Gergels demonstrate a real appreciation and understanding of the significant role African-American lawyers played during Reconstruction. What emerges is a picture of people who were not victims, but active political participants in the life of the state. Moreover, law itself proved to be an attractive career for those interested in the public life of the community. Reconstruction was a time of real economic, social, and political opportunity within South Carolina. African-Americans actively sought out these changes developing within their society and fashioned for themselves a new understanding of politics and law.

These points become especially clear when one looks at the legal and political career of Jonathan Jasper Wright. Wright obviously holds a special and important place in the discussion of law, politics, and race in South Carolina during Reconstruction. …