The first African Americans to live in what is now South Carolina were slaves in the sixteenth century Spanish settlements of San Miguel de Gualdape and Santa Elena. Slavery was very much an integral part of the Caribbean world, which gave rise to both the Spanish and later English colonization efforts in Carolina. Slavery was a recognized institution under the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, and within the first year of permanent English settlement there were enslaved Africans in the colony.
During the first decades of settlement, most enslaved persons were imported from the various English West Indian islands. However, by the turn of the eighteenth century, South Carolina was a major market for the transatlantic slave trade. By the end of the colonial period it is estimated that 80 percent of the Africans brought to South Carolina were imported directly from Africa; the remaining 20 percent came from the West Indies.
The expanding nature of the South Carolina economy led to an increased demand for slave labor. South Carolina planters preferred slaves from the Gold Coast, Senegambia, and the Windward Coast and to a lesser extent from Angola. However, there were occasions when enslaved Africans of any ethnicity were marketable. Modern researchers, combing the state’s rich colonial records, have been able to identify some twenty-five separate West African ethnicities among the colony’s slave population.
The increased importation of enslaved Africans led to South Carolina’s having a black majority by 1708. The black majority increased until by 1740 nearly two-thirds of the colony’s population was African American. With an influx of white settlers in the later colonial period and the loss of thousands of slaves during the American Revolution, the demographics changed, and the state’s population was 56 percent white by 1790.
South Carolina was the only state to reopen the African slave trade after the Revolution, and tens of thousands of Africans were imported. By 1808, when the external slave trade was closed, it is estimated that some 40 percent of all slaves brought to the United States had entered through the port of Charleston. On the journey to becoming black Carolinians, Africans of many different ethnic backgrounds passed through Sullivan’s Island, where there was a slave quarantine station. In this sense it was the African counterpart to Europeans’ Ellis Island.
The introduction of short staple cotton and the subsequent first great cotton boom created more demand for slave labor. With the external trade closed, Carolinians began to purchase slaves from other states. Between the importation of slaves and the natural increase of those already in South Carolina, the state found itself in 1820 once again with a black majority. And, as had happened in the eighteenth century, that majority increased. On the eve of the Civil War, the state’s population was about 59 percent black. In no other southern state was there such a concentration of persons of color. And the black population was omnipresent. Even in the few areas of the state where there were white majority districts, blacks were a considerable presence. Pickens District had the smallest black population (21.9 percent). Other traditionally “white” districts had sizable black populations, such as Horry (30 percent) and Lexington (40 percent).
During the four decades after the Civil War, the state’s African American population continued to hover right around 60 percent. Then, beginning in the 1920s, thousands of black Carolinians left the state because of Jim Crow and a lack of economic opportunity. In 1930 the state had a white majority for the first time in 120 years. There would be another major black out-migration the years after World War II, but by the last decades of the twentieth century more African Americans were moving to South Carolina than were leaving the state. In the 2000 census, some 29.5 percent of the state’s population was African American. Only Louisiana (30.8 percent) and Mississippi (35.6 percent) have more black residents as a percentage of the population.
The presence of a large black population throughout South Carolina’s 335 years of settled history has had a significant impact on the state’s cultural, economic, and political development.
Culturally, as historian Charles Joyner has so ably demonstrated, South Carolinians regardless of race have traditions with European and African origins. As can be seen from the way the state’s residents cook and dress to the way they dance and speak, African American folkways have blended with European ones to create the culture of twenty-first century South Carolina.
Economically, for nearly two centuries enslaved African Americans were not only the producers of great wealth—primarily as laborers in rice, indigo, and cotton fields—but were in their persons also capital wealth. In 1775 South Carolina was the wealthiest colony in British North America because of the labors of black Carolinians. By the eve of the Civil War, the state had dropped to the third wealthiest state in the nation, but there was a direct correlation between the wealthiest districts in the state and their black populations. It is estimated in 1860 that human property accounted for roughly one-half of the total wealth of South Carolinians. And some historians calculate that 70 percent of the state’s wealth in personal property was in slaves.
With the exception of Reconstruction, the politics of the state were shaped for nearly three hundred years by the response of white Carolinians to the black population. And that response was one more of reaction than action. The passing of slave codes, the taxes on imported slaves, the creation of the Township System, the apportionment of the legislature, the gerrymandering of election districts, the Constitution of 1895, and the enactment of Jim Crow legislation were all reactions to specific concerns that the white minority had about the black majority. That would change with the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the effect of the civil rights movement.
Since 1670 there has been a visible African American presence in South Carolina. Regardless of individuals’ status, that black presence has had an incalculable impact of the cultural, economic, and political development of the state as seen in the twenty-first century. The African American Monument on the State House grounds, in striking detail, depicts that presence. See plate 38.
Gordon, Asa H. Sketches of Negro Life and and History in South Carolina. 2d. ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971.
Joyner, Charles. Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999,
Littlefield, Daniel C. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade to Colonial South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Newby, Idus A. Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.
Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1952.
Williamson, Joel. After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861–1877. Hanover, N.H.: Weslyan University Press, University Press of New England, 1990.
Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.