The legalized segregation of the races in South Carolina arose as a part of white Carolinians’ long reaction to emancipation and Reconstruction.

Segregation, the residential, political, and social isolation of African Americans, was accomplished in South Carolina by a long and varying effort in the aftermath of slavery. The de facto, or socially based, segregation of the races was channeled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into a rigid legal, or de jure, system that effectively enforced the second-class citizenship of African Americans. As all-encompassing as the system of “Jim Crow” came to be in South Carolina, it was constructed through a slow and halting process, which black Carolinians contested at every turn.

The legalized segregation of the races in South Carolina arose as a part of white Carolinians’ long reaction to emancipation and Reconstruction. Though it emerged as a response to a particular political and social reality—the psychological and material threat posed by black Carolinians’ anticipation of equality—segregation resonated deeply with southern culture and history. In the aftermath of emancipation, perennial white southern fears of slave insurrection were transformed into the dread specter of black political domination, as exemplified by the mythologized “tragedy” of Reconstruction. The goal of preventing African American power came with the Black Codes, enacted in 1865. The codes created many legal impediments to the progress of the freedmen. Taken as a whole, however, they were much more concerned with controlling African Americans as a labor force and maintaining the plantation economy. The intent of the Black Codes, then, was the retention of white supremacy but not the legal segregation of the races.

Reconstruction after 1868 represented a radical shift in the racial politics of South Carolina. After the state’s readmission to the Union that year, African Americans increased their political participation both as voters and as politicians. South Carolina counted African Americans among high-ranking members of the state government, as well as its United States congressional delegation. Outside of politics, African Americans did not hesitate to assert their new rights. When Charleston established a streetcar system in December 1866, African Americans immediately demanded equal accommodation. Protest eventually led to federal intervention, and in May 1867 blacks were granted equal access to streetcars. Change came in education as well: from 1873 to 1877 African Americans were admitted to the University of South Carolina, and the school was tuition-free.

These freedoms, however, were brief, and the transition to fullscale de jure segregation occurred after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Wade Hampton III and Benjamin Ryan Tillman provide appropriate touch points for this evolution. Hampton’s election to the governorship in 1876 marked an ambiguous beginning to the “redemption” effort. On the one hand, Hampton had campaigned unequivocally for the return of white rule in South Carolina. As a Confederate hero, he could offer his war credentials as proof of his commitment to the legacy of the Old South. On the other hand, Hampton—out of personal commitment or political savvy—offered the significant remaining number of the state’s black voters some reason to believe that he would not completely overturn the gains of Reconstruction. His message of moderation was juxtaposed with the violently antiblack rhetoric emanating from figures in the upstate such as Martin Gary, who advocated the so-called “Mississippi Plan” of disfranchisement by extralegal means. In the end, Hampton benefited from all of these factors, as well as the activities of the vigilante group known as the Red Shirts, who used intimidation and violence to keep blacks from voting, especially in the upstate. Despite Hampton’s proclaimed moderation, the movement toward de jure segregation proceeded apace: in 1879 South Carolina passed a law prohibiting interracial marriage.

The election of Tillman in 1890 represented the end of any semblance of racial moderation in South Carolina. Tillman was completely open in sanctioning illegal means of disfranchising the remaining black voters. White Carolinians’ campaign of fraud and intimidation was successful enough by 1895 that the constitutional convention of that year counted among its members only a handful of African Americans, despite the state’s significant black majority. In silencing the once-powerful black vote, the way was paved for the next step in the campaign for white supremacy, the legal separation of the races. Accordingly, the 1895 constitution defined a black person as anyone having “one eighth or more negro blood.” The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of “separate but equal” accommodations in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case gave federal sanction to the Jim Crow ordinances and laws that had already begun popping up across the South.

Why segregation? The redeemers’ call for a return to the rule of white men invoked the antebellum status quo, in which African Americans certainly played a subservient role but which did not necessarily feature the separation of the races. The slave regime’s ideology ordered the world hierarchically, with white plantation owners unquestionably on the top rung. In plantation society there was no question as to whether blacks were subordinate to whites. The system of slavery, as a matter of course, placed whites and blacks in intimate contact with one another on a daily basis; indeed, the planters’ claims to superiority in many ways depended on ready comparison to the lowest members of society. In this way segregation was antithetical to the ruling ideology of the antebellum South. One of the early precedents for the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling was the case of Roberts v. City of Boston (1850), in which the Massachusetts high court affirmed the right of local school boards to discriminate between students on the basis of race. Before the Civil War, segregation was not solely a southern issue.

With the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the racial hierarchy was upset, creating the need in the minds of many whites for a legal system that would ensure the second-class status of African Americans. In the absence of slavery, segregation would prove an effective means of demonstrating the inferiority of African Americans and enforcing social inequality in South Carolina.

The period around the turn of the century brought about a flurry of laws and ordinances specifically designed to segregate the races. As before, these actions were not uncontested. When Columbia ordered streetcars segregated in 1903, the African American community organized a boycott, although it ultimately proved ineffective. Segregation legislation quickly grew into a labyrinth of city ordinances and state laws that covered the entire state. Residential segregation was accomplished by a complex network of city ordinances, banking practices, and social agreements. In the mills black and white workers by law worked in different rooms with different entrances and toilets.

Not surprisingly, the great migration of African Americans from the South coincided with the completion of Jim Crow segregation. The advent of World War I provided some economic opportunities for blacks in the industrialized North, and many took advantage of their remaining freedom to migrate. Their second-class status now a matter of law in South Carolina, many African Americans saw little reason to remain in the state.

For the majority who remained, the experience of life in a segregated society was often traumatic. A wide range of laws set African Americans apart from whites. Blacks sat in the balconies of movie theaters, drank from separate water fountains, waited for trains in separate waiting rooms, and sat in the backs of buses. Even when African Americans could use the same facility as whites—as at a post office—they would wait until all whites had been served. African Americans had separate parks and swimming pools in Charleston, and the beaches at the Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, and Folly Beach were off-limits. A separate school system for blacks was established in the constitution of 1895, and the pervasive inequality of the system eventually sparked a legal protest that would bring the entire system of de jure segregation crashing down.

The legal proscriptions were generally accompanied by a socially enforced system of etiquette, which was felt in intensely personal and painful ways by black Carolinians. This system, while never codified, could still be quite rigid: African Americans were never given the title of “Mr.” or “Mrs.”; they were expected to give up the sidewalk upon encountering whites; and blacks were to enter white homes always through the back doors. The ever-present threat of vigilante lynch mobs added a particularly devastating level of terror to the everyday lives of blacks, particularly those who dared to transgress even the most minor points of the social order. Taken as a whole, de facto segregation provided an effective complement to the legal system of Jim Crow in enforcing white supremacy.

Maintaining a segregated society required a great deal of material and psychological effort on the part of the white community. In the face of internal ironies and perceived threats from without, the general trend moving into the mid–twentieth century was an intensification of commitment to racism and Jim Crow. In 1951 the General Assembly established an official legislative committee (the Gressette Committee) to monitor and fight all efforts at desegregation and equal rights for blacks. As the storm and thunder surrounding its demise indicates, segregation was not accomplished or maintained in South Carolina without a struggle. Blacks fought city ordinances and state laws as best they could. In establishing an alternate economy supported and run by the African American community, they maintained a certain quality of life and a semblance of self-determination. Day-to-day encounters provided numerous informal opportunities to resist the white power structure. Black Carolinians kept up their pressure on the system of segregation, never fully relinquishing their hopes for equality. In 1950 the attorney Harold Boulware of Columbia filed suit on behalf of twenty African American parents in Clarendon County challenging the segregation of schools there. The case of Briggs v. Elliott eventually folded into Brown v. Board of Education and overturned the precedent of “separate but equal” on which legalized segregation was built. Public schools were to be desegregated “with all deliberate speed.”

There was swift and determined opposition to the Brown ruling. Most southern political and civic leaders joined force and organized and endorsed the “Declaration of Southern Principles,” or “Southern Manifesto,” coauthored by Strom Thurmond. The ruling was seen as “judicial encroachment.” The manifesto clearly advocated white southerners’ universal contempt for and defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court. White resistance took several forms: legislative action under the banner of states’ rights; school closings; and new organizations such as white Citizen Councils, which organized and raised funds for local resistance efforts. The impact on education was immediate. In 1955 the General Assembly repealed the compulsory school attendance law, allowing white parents to keep their children out of integrated schools. Private schools only for white children sprang up in many communities. In 1956 the legislature passed a law that prohibited state employees from joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). South Carolina’s congressional delegation opposed every civil rights bill proposed in Congress from 1957 to 1965. Thurmond, known nationally for his pro-segregation views, attempted to thwart passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act with a record-setting filibuster lasting more than twenty-four hours.

Segregation had long been a defining feature of South Carolina life. In 1963, when outgoing governor Ernest Hollings concluded, “South Carolina is running out of courts,” a peaceful desegregation took place at the University of South Carolina and Clemson. The end of segregation in secondary schools would take longer. Desegregation of the public schools began in Charleston in the fall of 1963, but progress was slow: in 1965 ninety-five percent of African American children across the state still attended segregated schools. Only in the early 1970s was there widespread desegregation of public education. Although Brown marked the end of de jure segregation, resistance to the decision demonstrated that ending de facto segregation continued to be a work in progress.

Dailey, Jane, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon, eds. Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Hale, Grace E. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940. New York: Pantheon, 1998.

Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. “The Boycott Movement against Jim Crow Streetcars in the South, 1900–1906.” Journal of American History 55 (March 1969): 756–75.

Perman, Michael. Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Powers, Bernard E. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

Smyth, William D. “Segregation in Charleston in the 1950s: A Decade in Transition.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 92 (April 1991): 99–123.

Tindall, George. South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900. 1952. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Segregation
  • Author Cleveland L. Sellers, Jr.
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/segregation/
  • Access Date September 21, 2017
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date August 1, 2016
  • Date of Last Update October 26, 2016