Governor. Evans, a son of the Confederate general Nathan George Evans and Ann Victoria Gary, was born on October 15, 1863, in Cokesbury, Abbeville District, South Carolina. He attended Cokesbury Conference School and then entered Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1879. Following the death of his uncle and guardian, Martin Witherspoon Gary, in 1881, Evans returned to the South and studied law in Augusta, Georgia. He was admitted to the bar in Georgia and South Carolina in 1885 and began practicing law in Aiken.
Though he was a lawyer rather than a farmer, Evans had strong ties to the “Reform” or “Farmers’” movement of Benjamin R. Tillman. He represented Aiken County in the House of Representatives from 1888 to 1891 and in the state Senate from 1892 to 1894. Known as a brilliant speaker and forceful politician, Evans quickly became a leader within the Tillman faction of the Democratic Party. He favored educational improvements, separate accommodations and schools for African Americans, the repeal of civil rights laws, a new constitution, and the establishment of a state dispensary system to control the sale of alcohol.
Evans was Tillman’s choice to succeed him as governor in 1894. He was nominated at the “Reform” Democratic convention, which practically excluded conservative party members from the nominating process. On December 4, 1894, he was inaugurated as governor of South Carolina and became the youngest man ever to hold the office. Evans presided over the 1895 state constitutional convention that virtually disfranchised the state’s black citizens, outlawed interracial marriages, and legalized school segregation. The convention also adopted an antilynching measure that he supported. The state was authorized to fine county governments up to$2,000 if a lynching occurred within its jurisdiction and if the county’s law-enforcement authorities had been found negligent. Under Evans, the hiring out of state convicts ceased, and instead the state put prisoners to work on public roads. The state’s economy was depressed under Evans’s tenure due to cotton prices that fell as low as 4¢ per pound, but that was not the main reason for his unpopularity. Conservatives sneered that the procedure by which he was nominated was corrupt, and even many Tillman followers distrusted his motives for being a Tillmanite and opposed his strict enforcement of the unpopular dispensary laws.
In 1896 Evans lost a bid for the U.S. Senate. He moved to Spartanburg after the election and married Emily Mansfield Plume of Connecticut in 1897. He served as a major in the Spanish-American War and for a time as the military governor of Havana. He ran for the U.S. Senate three more times but was never elected. Although he remained active in public life for over two more decades, Evans served in only one other elected post: state representative for Spartanburg from 1923 to 1924. He died on June 26, 1942, in Spartanburg, survived by his wife and their one daughter. He was buried at Willowbrook Cemetery in Edgefield.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Hendrick, Carlanna Lindamood. “John Gary Evans: A Political Biography.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1966.