As the crucial local, state, and national elections of 1876 approached, tensions between the races in South Carolina reached a boiling point. White Democrats sought to reclaim political power lost as a result of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Using violence, intimidation, economic blackmail, and fraud, Democrats attempted to cow blacks into submission to the old order. Five riots occurred in two counties of the state, Aiken and Charleston. In Aiken County the riots were usually white-on-black violence. In Charleston County they tended to be the other way around. Charleston County black Republicans were particularly incensed by Democratic attempts to induce black voters to leave the Republican Party and vote Democratic in 1876. In Charleston angry black Republicans resented the men from their race who changed sides, frequently threatening them with physical violence and often carrying out their threats. Democrats sought to protect their black recruits, thereby setting up confrontations with black Republican activists.
Matters came to a head in September 1876. On September 1 Democrats held a ward meeting, at which several blacks made fiery speeches denouncing the Republican Party. After the meeting, one of the speakers, a black porter named Isaac Rivers, was attacked. On September 6, fresh from their own ward meetings, black Republicans gathered at Archer’s Hall to hear speeches made by their Democratic opponents. J. R. Jenkins, a black Democrat, angered the Republicans with a verbal assault that impugned the intelligence of black women who encouraged black men to vote the Republican ticket. A group of black Republicans pursued the white and black Democrats to the Citadel green, where one white man, fearing attack, fired a pistol in the air to frighten the Republicans. Instead, the action drew hundreds of additional black men to the spot, and a riot ensued with the Democrats retreating and asking for protection from federal troops stationed at the Citadel. As the night progressed, more and more black men roamed the city, their anger increasing. A full-scale riot ensued with blacks beating any white men they encountered. “For the next few days, Charleston was in turmoil as blacks continued to attack whites randomly, making it unsafe for whites to venture out on the streets, particularly at night.” White opposition to the violence was modest and ineffective. Federal troops did not intervene. One black and one white died in the riot, while six policemen, a handful of blacks, and at least fifty whites were injured.
The activism and aggression against whites displayed by Charleston blacks set that city apart from others in the South during Reconstruction. While southern ports such as New Orleans and Mobile likewise experienced Reconstruction era riots, blacks tended to be the victims rather than the aggressors. Charleston’s black community drew on its majority status in the city, as well as a tradition of militancy and violence that dated back to the Stono Rebellion and the Vesey conspiracy, to aggressively protect their newly found freedoms, including the right to vote and to hold political office. They had the numbers, as well as the political and racial consciousness, to do so until the end of Reconstruction in 1877.
Hennessey, Melinda Meek. “Racial Violence during Reconstruction: The 1876 Riots in Charleston and Cainhoy.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 86 (April 1985): 100–112.
Jenkins, Wilbert L. Seizing the New Day: African Americans in Post–Civil War Charleston. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Powers, Bernard E. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.