Recent Markers

Congaree Creek Earthworks (32-40)

Below are remarks offered by S.C. Historical Marker Coordinator Ehren Foley on the occasion of the dedication of the historical marker for Congaree Creek Earthworks.  This marker is located along the Timmerman Trail in Cayce, South Carolina.

IMG_0307 IMG_0308

“‘So what?’  That is a sometimes vexing, but always necessary, question for a historian to answer. Why does this person, idea, building, or place matter?

“So what?”

When writing a marker text I try to start with that question; to find the essential significance of the place being marked before trying to figure out the best way to convey that core argument in twenty-two or thirty-six lines of text.

Sometimes that search for a deeper significance proves unsuccessful and a marker simply becomes a chronicle of past events. I consider those failures. I don’t think this marker is a failure.

So what, then?  Why does this marker matter, what is the story here?

The ostensive reason is these earthworks all around us, and they are great. As someone who grew up traipsing the battlefields of central Virginia I must admit that well preserved field fortifications do cause my heart to beat just a little more rapidly.

It almost makes me want to get out a map and start plotting unit locations and maneuvers.  Almost.  Because, while the heading on the marker might read “Congaree Creek Earthworks,” this marker isn’t really about the earthworks or the four-hours of fighting that took place here on February 15, 1865. We already have another marker that discusses that battle.

What this marker is about is the men who built these earthworks, and especially about the context of their service.

As the marker indicates, the labor force consisted of approximately 750 enslaved and free men who were impressed into Confederate service.

The ordering of the text is also an indication of the order of magnitude; most, if not all, of these men were enslaved, so let’s start by talking about the role of slaves in the Confederacy.

Planters didn’t like sending valuable slave property to the front lines to work in various laboring capacities; they were dangerous places and enslaved men were made vulnerable to illness or death.

Slaveowners and government officials were also forced to confront the uncomfortable fact that slaves on the front lines also had a propensity disappearing; stealing themselves as it were; voting with their feet and running away to Union camps, or at least away from Confederate ones.

Slaveowners also worried about the unprecedented expansion of state power vis-a-vis their slave property.

In August 1861, Virginia planter John Speice wrote to Judah P. Benjamin, Attorney General of the Confederate States, and wondered if military labor were really that different than military duty, and whether the performance of such duty might transform enslaved men, in the eyes of the law, first into persons with legal rights, and maybe even into citizens.

Others expressed concern that the expansion of state power represented by slave impressment had no clear limits. What if the same exigencies of war that required slave impressment one day were used as justification for emancipation?

The fear wasn’t far fetched.

That very scenario would come to pass, first with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which used wartime necessity and executive war powers as a rationale for declaring slavery ended in those portions of those states still in rebellion, while also authorizing the enlistment of African American soldiers in the United States Army.

Later still, in the very waning days of the Confederacy, weeks before the fall of Richmond, even Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee contemplated offering some limited, circumscribed version of freedom to enslaved men who would fight for the Confederacy.

Predictably, the policy faltered, undermined by the refusal of both slaveholders and slaves, for their own reasons, to support the plan, and also by the fact that, tellingly, it came far too late; only after the collapse of the Confederacy was at hand and far too long after the war for Union had already been transformed into a war for emancipation.

But even at the very outset of the war, Confederate officers complained of the difficulty they had mobilizing enslaved labor for military projects.

Confederate General John Magruder expressed exasperation in March 1862 when he explained why he could spare only a single regiment to support Confederate operations on the Virginia peninsula.

“The reason why I cannot do more,” he wrote, “is that notwithstanding all my efforts to procure negroes I have rec’d but eleven from the counties in my district.” (McCurry, CSA Reckoning, 3581)

It was these experiences that led the Confederate government to pass a series of laws that attempted to give their commanders in the field slightly more authority to obtain the labor that they so required.

At first legislative action was left to the states, but the laws passed proved largely ineffectual and some states, including South Carolina, refused to pass any legislation at all.

Finally, in March 1863, the Confederate Congress passed a general impressment law, the first attempt to nationalize impressment of slave labor, though, in a bow to states’ rights, authority for enacting legislation remained with the states themselves.

When it became evident that even this legislation was failing to provide the needed manpower, subsequent legislation was passed by the Confederate Congress in February 1864 granting more explicit authority for government agents to impress property, including slaves. It was not until December 1864, on the eve of the Carolina Campaign itself, that South Carolina finally passed its own impressment law.

Despite these interventions, John R. Niernsee—who was responsible for overseeing construction of Columbia’s defenses and, in his civilian life, was a noted architect and designer of the South Carolina State House—did little better mobilizing slave labor in 1865 than John Magruder had done three years before.

In his official report, Niernsee complained that he had to begin work on these fortifications with only 12 impressed African American laborers. Better by one than the 11 that Magruder had been able to muster three years earlier.

Admittedly, he did eventually secure the aid of approximately 750 African American men who would labor to build these works, but even that number was far short of the 2,000 workers that Niernsee had hoped to receive.

The point is this: continually, throughout the war, when the state authority to fight a war ran against individual property rights, especially property rights in slaves, the state met with resistance; it was a persistent tension that often hampered the Confederate war effort.

But there is another point that is important to make here too, and that is about the men who labored to construct these works.  I don’t want us to leave here thinking that they matter only because they had strong backs and built impressive structures that remain evident on the landscape even today, 150 years later.

Who were they?  We don’t know a lot about them, we know that the overwhelming majority of them were enslaved, perhaps even all of them were enslaved, but not necessarily so.

Let’s circle back for just one moment to that legislation passed by the Confederate Congress in February 1864.

It was not only meant to empower the state to impress slave labor.  Demonstrating the internal tensions between state authority and individual rights, the legislation also put in place a number of provisions meant to safeguard planters’ property rights. It included, for instance, a provision establishing a fund of $3.8 million to compensate slaveholders for slave property lost while in government service, though by that time the Confederate Treasury lacked the ability to fulfill those promises. It also established a number of formulas meant to protect any individual slaveholder were bearing too great of an individual loss of slave property.

But there was one other provision that is interesting to note. The law explicitly stated that “free blacks shall be the first impressed, and if there should be a deficiency, it shall be supplied by the impressment of slaves according to the foregoing provisions.”

As a practical matter this statement meant little.  In most parts of the Confederacy there were not nearly enough free blacks to fulfill the army’s nearly insatiable desire for labor.

In Richland County in 1860, for instance, there were fewer than 100 free black men of impressment age. (72 ages 15-50)

The clause served more as a rhetorical flourish meant to show deference to planter prerogative.  But it also did more than that. It also highlighted the vulnerability of free blacks in the antebellum South.

Lacking patrons with a vested economic interest in their well being, they had no one who would resist their impressment or worry about their physical safety while in the field.

None of the various legislation passed by the Confederate Congress or by the State of South Carolina offered them any safeguards; there were no protections put in place like those that were meant to protect enslaved men, if only because the latter represented a significant economic investment.

We don’t know who those first twelve laborers were that Niernsee mentions in his report.  He makes no reference to their condition, in fact he elides the use of the term “slave” entirely in the course of his letter to the Governor A.G. Magrath.

But it seems entirely plausible to me that these twelve men were drawn from Columbia’s free black community, swept up in the first attempt to secure labor in the frenetic weeks before the arrival of the Union army.

Herein lies an important point for us to remember about the intersection of slavery, race, power and coercion, in both the ante- and the postbellum South.

To say that free black men might have worked to construct these fortifications is not to say that they were here of their own volition.

Similarly, saying that the majority of the men who toiled here were slaves does not mean that they were forced to labor merely because of their legal status.

In fact, I would argue, they weren’t really here because they were slaves. They were here almost in spite of their condition as slaves and, as we’ve seen, their owners often bitterly resisted their impressment.

Instead, they were here because the state was able, albeit with difficulty, to exert authority over their bodies and their labor. That authority did not end with emancipation, in some ways, it only grew more coercive.

Without slaveowners serving as a counterweight to the power of the state, African Americans were often left even more vulnerable in the postwar South. The locus of power had shifted, but the power dynamics themselves were not altogether different.

That is not to say that African Americans were merely victims, and we must remember that the vulnerability of African Americans to state violence varied greatly over time and across space.

The story is far from straightforward and following it hardly leads on a clear upward trajectory.

Let’s just think again for a moment about the men who built these works.

In 1865 they would celebrate the passage of the 13th Amendment, which would establish a constitutional ban on slavery and involuntary servitude, but they would also find themselves subjected to new state legislation meant to curtail and define the meaning of that freedom; a set of laws known collectively as the “Black Codes.”

Two years later, in part because the U.S. Congress was so appalled by the Black Codes, they would be among the first black men in the nation to cast a ballot, doing so even before the ratification of the 14th or 15th Amendments.

In the fall of 1867 they would go to the ballot box and elect a majority African American delegation that would meet in Charleston in early 1868 to re-write the state’s constitution; a document that was, in many ways, remarkably progressive.

But they would also face the violence and terrorism that characterized so much of the period of Reconstruction, and that certainly hastened the downfall of the Republican regime in the state in 1877. And we could, if we wanted, continue to trace that legacy and highlight both progress and regression.

And here lies the challenge that I want to present to you and leave you with today.

While many of us would like to breathe a small sigh of relief as we approach what many view as the culmination of the Civil War sesquicentennial, let’s remember that the story does not end on February 17, 1865 with the Burning of Columbia, or on April 9, 1865 when Lee surrendered to Grant, or even on April 26, 1865 when Johnston surrendered to Sherman.

The battles to secure the meaning of freedom, and to make freedom meaningful, continued long after the drums of war were silent.

It is easy to remember discrete events like Columbia’s burning, and I’m certainly as excited as anyone for this moment.  But let’s not forget the many moments that came after that one.

Let’s work just as hard to commemorate the story of Reconstruction, a story that is more tangled and more difficult than even the intractable question of “who burned Columbia.”  It is a story that is just as important, and just as worthy of our collective public memory, as is the Civil War.”

Brookgreen Plantation (22-60)

Brookgreen MarkerBrookgreen marker side 2

Here are some photos from a recent marker unveiling at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet. The National Society Colonial Dames XVII Century, Chicora Chapter sponsored the marker and pictured below are Mary Duvall (President, S.C. Society Colonial Dames XVII), Bonnie O’Lena (Chicora Chapter President), Bob Jewell (Brookgreen President and CEO) and Brenda Hamilton (National Marking and Preservation Chairman Colonial Dames XVII). Thanks to all who helped make the marker possible!

Brookgreen dedication photo

The land that comprises Brookgreen Gardens once encompassed most or all of four separate rice plantations: The Oaks, Springfield, Laurel Hill, and Brookgreen. Title to this land can be traced to a patent for 48,000 acres granted to Robert Daniell by the Lords Proprietors in 1711. The property passed into the hands of the Allston family when William Allston (1698-1744) purchased it c. 1740. William Allston Jr. (1738-1781), the nephew of the elder William, purchased the property from Allston’s heirs in 1764 and developed the property as his home plantation. By 1799 title to the property had transferred to Joshua Ward. Ward’s son, Joshua John Ward, was born at Brookgreen and would become among the wealthiest planters in the nation. In 1850 Ward’s plantations, including Brookgreen, yielded 3,900,000 pounds of rice on land cultivated by 1,092 enslaved laborers.

In 1920 Dr. Julius A. Mood and a group of sportsmen acquired the property for use as a hunting preserve. Ten years later railroad magnate Archer Milton Huntington and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, purchased Brookgreen. The Huntington’s built Atalaya, a Spanish-style castle, at what is now Huntington Beach State Park as their primary residence and transformed the former Brookgreen plantation into a sculpture garden to display the work of Anna Hyatt Huntington, as well as other representative pieces of American sculpture from the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Segregation is Per Se Inequality” (Marker 10-85)

This afternoon a ceremony at the federal post office and courthouse in Charleston will celebrate the formal unveiling of the statue and state historical marker recognizing Judge J. Waties Waring.  As the many stories now circulating the state and national press point out, Waring was a native son and member of the inner circle of Charleston society who, in his capacity as a federal district judge, “issued some of the most important civil rights rulings of the era.”  The historical marker that now stands on Broad Street offers a glancing reference to these rulings, but devotes most of its space to Waring’s dissent in Briggs v. Elliott (1952), a case originating in Clarendon County, South Carolina and challenging the legal basis of public school segregation.  Waring’s dissent in Briggs is fully worthy of discussion, no doubt, but as we look forward to the celebration in Charleston this afternoon, it may be worth considering Waring’s “other” rulings as well as the larger context of his actions.

Waring’s Briggs dissent was the last opinion that he issued as a sitting judge, but it was not the first time that he had addressed racial inequality.  He was appointed to the federal bench in 1942 and early in his tenure he ended the practice of placing a “(c)” next to the names of African Americans on the rolls of potential jurors, a practice that allowed for the easy exclusion of these individuals during jury selection, and gradually African Americans began appearing on federal juries in Charleston.  Waring also ended segregated seating in his courtroom and appointed a black man, John Fleming, to serve as court bailiff.  Some of these changes were symbolic, but they were indicative of the broader changes that Waring would bring to his opinions.  In Wrighten v. Board of Trustees of South Carolina (1947) he ruled that South Carolina had to address the lack of an African American law school in the state by a) providing for an adequate legal education for black students within the state; b) admitting African American students to the University of South Carolina Law School; or c) closing the white law school entirely.  In his decision Waring relied on the precedent set forward by the Supreme Court in its earlier decision Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938).  There the Court had decided that the state of Missouri had to provide equal educational opportunities for black students to pursue a legal education within the state and that providing tuition grants for study outside of the state did not satisfy the doctrine of “separate but equal” laid out in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  Neither Gaines nor Wrighten challenged the legality of segregation per se, but instead held that states must provide “substantially equal” educational opportunities within their own borders.  As a remedy, South Carolina devoted $200,000 to the establishment of an African American law school, though in reality all that resulted was a professorship in law at the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural, and Mechanical College of South Carolina in Orangeburg (South Carolina State University).

Waring’s decision in Wrighten, though, demonstrated a logic that would hold through his dissent in Briggs.  He was not developing his legal opinions sui generis, but instead was relying upon prior precedent in cases already decided by the Supreme Court.  He may have proven more willing to read these precedents in a sympathetic manner than some other judges, but he was not creating law, he was interpreting it in light of prior rulings by the higher court. He followed the same pattern in issuing what was likely his most consequential ruling, the decision to strike down South Carolina’s all-white Democratic primary in Elmore v. Rice (1947).  In this decision Waring looked back to two precedent setting cases in particular, U.S. v. Classic (1941) and Smith v. Allwright (1944).  In Allwright the Court had overturned Texas’s white primary, finding that even though the Democratic Party was a voluntary association, a state could not “permit a private organization to practice racial discrimination” in elections.  South Carolina had attempted to circumvent this ruling by erasing any mention of primaries within state election law in order to deny that state action was in any way involved.  Waring rejected this attempt to bypass the law by relying, in part, on the decision in Classic.  In that case, the Supreme Court had determined that one test for a whether a primary deserved close scrutiny was whether, “in fact the primary effectively controls the choice,” which was certainly the case in South Carolina, whether or not the operation of the primary was officially part of state law.  Waring’s decision demonstrated both frustration and exasperation.  “It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union,” he wrote, “It is time to fall in step with the other states and adopt the American way of conducting elections.”   

 These decisions led Clark Foreman to describe Waring as “one of the most courageous people in this country … [a judge who] stands for the full American constitution.”  Foreman made this pronouncement during a 1948 campaign rally in Charleston, and all of this came several years in advance of Waring’s dissent in Briggs, which suggests that it is perhaps best to view Waring’s Briggs dissent as the culmination of a process that was a decade or more in the making.  In his twenty-page analysis, Waring again used forceful and declarative language, just as he had in Elmore.  Waring argued that there “is absolutely no reasonable explanation for racial prejudice. … Let the little child’s mind be poisoned by prejudice of this kind and it is practically impossible to remove these impressions. … If segregation is wrong, then the place to stop it is in the first grade and not in graduate colleges. … Segregation in education can never produce equality and is an evil that must be eradicated. … Segregation is per se inequality.”  Here Waring anticipated the later Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), of which Briggs was a part, in one way and not another.  The language of his decision invoked contemporary social science research conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, studies that were part of the NAACP case presented during oral arguments.  The Clarks’ conclusions suggested that segregation created a sense of inferiority in African American children and Waring alluded to that, obliquely, by talking about the poisoning of “the little child’s mind,” though he probably was thinking also of works by Gunnar Myrdal and W.J. Cash, and considering as much the “poisoning” of white children’s minds as he was of black children’s.

In his opinion in Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren would include a famous footnote citing the Clarks’ studies, and so in that way Waring anticipated the later ruling.  But in Brown the Court would overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy, something that Waring did not, and could not, do in his capacity as a U.S. District Judge.  When he wrote that “Segregation is per se inequality,” he was attacking Plessy to be sure, but he was doing so by looking back to Court precedent as established in two cases in particular, Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950).  In both of those cases, which involved legal and professional training respectively, the Court had recognized the “intangible aspects” that comprised a quality education.  Things like the “reputation of the faculty, experience of the administration, position and influence of the alumni, standing in the community, traditions and prestige” that all played a role in determining the entire educational experience.  In both cases the Court went beyond the mere appearance of equality, went beyond tangible equality, and began to consider whether the intangible circumstances and effects of segregated education led to unequal outcomes; they were questioning whether separate could ever be equal in the realm of education.

The other members of the three-judge panel that convened in Charleston refused to take up the Supreme Court’s invitation to consider these “intangible qualities,” though Judge John J. Parker, who wrote the majority opinion, certainly did recognize that these precedents existed.  He dismissed them, however, saying “as good education can be afforded in Negro schools as in white schools and the thought of establishing professional contacts does not enter into the picture.”  Parker demanded that Clarendon equalize their school facilities, a process then underway in the state as a whole, but did not suggest that separate was inherently unequal.  The difference between Waring and Parker’s opinions illustrates the importance of individual actors to historical outcomes, and it does so in more than one way.  In addition to highlighting the remarkable quality of Waring’s dissent, it also places it within the context of a much larger, and longer, legal process.  Waring could not have made his ruling without the prior precedents of Sweatt and McLaurin, two cases that were part of the long-term, and carefully crafted, strategy of the lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to challenge the basis of racial segregation.  Without the work of Walter White, Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter and others, there would have been no precedents for Waring to draw from and, indeed, no case for him to rule on at all.  That is not to minimize the significance of Waring’s actions, but instead to remind us that he did not walk alone.

To that end, it is an interesting footnote to the Waring story that he is the namesake of an African Methodist Episcopal Church in upstate New York.  DeLaine-Waring A.M.E. Church in Buffalo bears his name, along with that of Joseph A. DeLaine, one of the principle figures responsible in bringing the Briggs case to Waring’s Charleston courtroom.  Both DeLaine and Waring would live out their days in exile from their native state and both, it turns out, found sanctuary in New York.  DeLaine founded the A.M.E. Church in Buffalo and included Waring’s name as a reminder and celebration of his actions.  It is a fitting tribute.  But as we prepare to remember Waring with a statue in Charleston, we should also take a moment to remember DeLaine, for without his work to organize the families in Clarendon County, the NAACP lawyers would never have found their way to Summerton, South Carolina.  They did not want to challenge segregation in the heart of the Deep South and instead had planned to remain on the edges, focusing their strategy on finding worthy cases in the Border South (it is not a coincidence that a case from Kansas became the namesake of Brown, even though it was one of five consolidated cases and came after Briggs both alphabetically and in point of time).  DeLaine and the Clarendon families, who do receive brief mention on the historical marker, forced the issue; forced the NAACP to make a case in Clarendon County; and forced the hearing before the three-judge panel of which Waring was a part.  Waring has now gotten his statue.  DeLaine still awaits his.

Colonial Block House / Fort Pickens (01-18)

Here is the text of one of our newest historical markers, just erected on Sunday, March 9.  It is so new that we don’t yet have its geo-coordinates (Lat, Long) in order to pin it to our new marker map.  Can anyone help us to get this information?  It should be in Abbeville on Washington St., just south of Hemphill Rd.  If you are really industrious, you could also add this marker to the Historical Marker Database where it currently lacks an entry.  Adding material to this database is important because it is used as a resource for a number of third-party products that promote historic markers, and other historic sites, including the recently redesigned, and generally pretty cool, Google Field Trip.  We’ve got at least three more Revolutionary-era markers in the works for Abbeville and they should be going up soon.  We’ll let you know when they do.


A “block house,” a log building with a stone foundation, stood SE on Parker Creek from ca. 1767 to the 1850s. It was built by Andrew Pickens (1739-1817), later a militia general in the American Revolution, a state representative and senator, and a U.S. Congressman. Pickens married Rebecca Calhoun in 1765, moved to the Long Canes settlement, and built his home nearby.


The block house was an outpost near the boundary between Indian lands and white settlements and was later a refuge for area families during the American Revolution. Tradition holds that in 1785 Pickens held the first court in the new Abbeville District there. After his death the old block house was popularly called “Fort Pickens” and this part of Abbeville was long known by the same name.

Sponsored by the Little River Electric Cooperative and the Abbeville County Historical Society, 2014

When Paul Robeson Visited Charleston (Marker 10-86)

Below is a bit more detail about an event that receives a very brief mention on a recently approved historical marker (10-86) that will be placed in Charleston at the former site of Plymouth Congregational Church and parsonage.

On a Thursday night in October 1948 Paul Robeson performed for an audience of about 500 people at Charleston’s Morris Brown A.M.E. Church.[1]  Robeson was the embodiment of a 20th century renaissance man.  Twice he was chosen as a consensus All-American in football while playing end at Rutgers and he would complete his law degree at Columbia while continuing to play professionally in the recently established National Football League.  Robeson’s career as a professional athlete was brief, however, and he is probably best known for his work on stage and screen.  Robeson’s most iconic role was that of the stevedore “Joe” in Show Boat, a role that he first played on the London stage in 1928 and later reprised in the 1936 film adaptation.  In fact, Robeson sang that number during his stop in Charleston.  But in 1948 Robeson’s motives for visiting South Carolina had less to do with entertainment and more to do with politics.  He was in that year touring the country, including an extensive tour of the southern states, campaigning for third-party candidate Henry Wallace, who was running for president as a member of the Progressive Party ticket.

Wallace had served in the Roosevelt administration, first as Secretary of Agriculture, and then as Vice President, though FDR had dropped him in favor of Harry Truman when he ran for re-election in 1944.  In 1948 Wallace was running as a foil not only to Truman and the national Democrats, but also to the States’ Rights Democratic Party ticket headed by South Carolina’s own Strom Thurmond.  In many ways Wallace’s candidacy was the antithesis of Thurmond’s, particularly regarding the issue of racial segregation.  He refused to speak before segregated audiences and Robeson, an African American, was among the co-chairs of the Wallace for President Committee.[2]  Robeson would leverage his celebrity to stump for Wallace, speaking to desegregated audiences across the South and promoting the Progressive Party ticket.  Indeed, that was Robeson’s aim when he visited Charleston on October 7, 1948.

Robeson had initially planned to appear in Charleston on September 29 and his companion on the campaign trail, Clark Foreman, told a reporter with the Associated Press that they hoped to hold the rally at Charleston’s County Hall.  Foreman, who, like Wallace, was a veteran of the Roosevelt administration, also mentioned that he and Robeson would stay as overnight guests of Rev. Jacob A. Dyer, the pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church.[3]  Robeson and Foreman, however, never received an answer from the County Hall committee regarding their request to use the venue, which represented a de facto denial, and instead had to delay their Charleston visit and speak at Morris Brown A.M.E. Church.  Robeson still, however, stayed with Dyer at the Plymouth Church parsonage located at 32 Bull Street as he had previously planned.[4]  Robeson actually had a connection to Plymouth.  His wife, Eslanda Cardozo Goode, was the granddaughter of Francis L. Cardozo who, in addition to serving as a delegate to the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention and as State Treasurer during Reconstruction, was also an early pastor at Plymouth.  While it is not clear if that is why Robeson chose to stay at Plymouth, it certainly does seem possible that the connection was not merely coincidental.

While Robeson’s visit generated some local interest, and while his southern tour was a remarkable event for the time, the Wallace campaign fizzled amid external accusations of communism and internal divisions.  Despite Robeson’s celebrity endorsement, Wallace failed to capture a single electoral vote and the campaign hardly even registers a footnote in most history texts, squeezed from the pages by Strom Thurmond’s more successful third-party bid of that year during which he carried four Deep South states and 39 electoral votes.  Still, Wallace’s campaign, along with Robeson’s role in it, represents a notable example of biracial politics, one evident even in the Deep South.  This biracialism was, in part, a legacy of the labor activism of the Depression-era and it preceded by a decade or more the period most often thought of as the “classic” Civil Rights Movement.

Photograph of Paul Robeson Leading Moore Shipyard Workers in Singing the Star Spangled Banner, Oakland, CA, September 1942. Series : Negro Activities in Industry, Government, and the Armed Forces, compiled 1941 – 1945
Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951. National Archives.

[1] “Robeson Attracts 500 to Rally of Progressive Party,” Charleston News and Courier, 8 October 1948, sec. A, p. 12.

[2] Paul Robeson, Jr.  The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for Freedom, 1939-1976 (New York: Wiley and Sons, 2010), 127.

[3] “Key Wallacites Plan to Speak at Charleston,” The State, 17 Sept. 1948.

[4] Interview with Clark Foreman, 9 Jan. 1975; Interview with Paula Weber, 10 Nov. 1983.

Victory Savings Bank, Columbia, Richland Co (Marker 40-180)

It is rare these days to hear too many kind words about banks and bankers, but the story of Victory Savings Bank reminds us of the potential good that these community institutions can do.  Founded in 1921, Victory Savings Bank was, for many years, the lone African American-owned bank in Columbia.  By 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, it was one of only a small handful of African American-owned banks still in existence in the entire nation.[1]  The bank still exists today, though with a new name, South Carolina Community Bank.

Prepping for the unveiling.

Prepping for the unveiling.

Victory Savings Bank, along with the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association, which was once located nearby, served as anchor firms that marked Washington Street as the heart of Columbia’s African American business district.  These businesses represented a paradox.  On the one hand they spoke to the growth of an African American middle-class and the collective economic power of the African American community.  On the other hand, their development and success was possible precisely because of both the de facto and de jure racial segregation that shaped all aspects of African American life in the early 20th century South.  Yet Victory Savings Bank itself would also become a vehicle for combating the very system of Jim Crow that had served as one impetus for its founding.

Perhaps at no time was the bank’s role in attacking Jim Crow and pursuing social justice more evident than in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board, which included among its consolidated cases Briggs v. Elliot, which had originated in Clarendon County, South Carolina.  Many of the litigants in that case had faced economic reprisals for their participation.  Both Harry Briggs, Sr. and his wife lost their jobs.  Levi Pearson, who had brought the original suit in 1947 asking only for the provision of a school bus to carry African American children to their segregated schools, found that he was unable to obtain credit from “any white-owned store and bank in the county” and instead had to borrow from already cash-strapped black neighbors just get to get the fertilizer he needed for his crops.[2]  In a 1956 letter to Modjeska Montieth Simkins, who had just begun working at Victory Savings, where her Brother, H.D. Monteith, was president, the Reverend J.A. DeLaine, a central figure in organizing the Clarendon suit, asked for Simpkins’ cooperation in his attempts to “get people to deposit on Savings some of their money in the Victory Savings Bank so that the Bank will be in better shape to lend to the Petitioners and other hard pressed folks.”  Simkins and Victory Savings did assist in this effort to alleviate the suffering caused by what DeLaine referred to as the “Economic Squeeze.”  Simkins appealed directly to the heads of all the state organizations of the NAACP asking for deposits, which would earn 2% interest, and make possible loans to those experiencing economic hardship as a result of their assault on Jim Crow.  She also placed an advertisement in Jet magazine in 1955 that brought contributions from across the nation and even from abroad.[3]

Marker with Martha Cunningham Monteith.  Wife of H.D. Monteith and former board member of Victory Savings Bank.

Marker with Martha Cunningham Monteith. Wife of H.D. Monteith and former board member of Victory Savings Bank.

This ability to operate outside of the established white power structure was the benefit provided by an institution like Victory Savings Bank.  It gave a measure of empowerment to depositors who now had a black-owned banking option if they felt mistreated at white-owned institutions, or if they wanted to exert their collective economic force by removing their funds from those institutions, or even if they just wanted the ability to conduct their banking within their own neighborhood.  Additionally, though, as the Clarendon example highlights, it also offered a measure of insulation, though not complete by any measure, against the economic reprisals that were deployed against individuals who challenged the status quo of racial segregation.  Without institutions like Victory Savings Bank, and without individuals like Modjeska Monteith Simkins holding positions of power within those institutions, the fight for racial equality would have been even more fraught, even more hazardous, than it already was.  It is that history that we remember with the marker for Victory Savings Bank.

This marker also represents the culmination of a larger project, begun in 2007 and sponsored by the City of Columbia and Historic Columbia Foundation, to mark places significant to the city’s African American history.  The marker for Victory Savings Bank is the last in a series of 25 markers, which represents one of, if not the most, ambitious single project to mark historic sites in any city or town in South Carolina.

Marker Front Marker Back

[1] Abram Lincoln Harris, The Negro As Capitalist: A Study of Business and Banking Among American Negroes (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1936), 48-9.

[2] Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 17-8.

[3] Barbara A. Woods, “Modjeska Simkins and the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, 1939-1957,” in Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 112-3.