After the Civil War, South Carolina’s Republican politicians recognized that the lack of access to land by former slaves was a serious impediment to the full enjoyment of their newly earned freedom. At the constitutional convention of January 1868, delegates proposed to petition Congress for a loan of $1 million to purchase some of the state’s largest plantations for subdivision and sale to landless persons. Finding little support in Washington, Republican leaders pursued a different course. Promoted by the Reverend Richard H. Cain, a black delegate from Charleston and the convention’s most vociferous advocate of land reform, the new constitution included a provision for a state land commission. The Republican-dominated General Assembly established the South Carolina Land Commission on March 27, 1869. It was administered by an advisory board consisting of the governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general, and state comptroller. This body also chose the land commissioner. The commission’s goal was to purchase land for sale in plots of between twenty-five and one hundred acres, which would then be sold to landless blacks on favorable terms. South Carolina thus embarked on a unique experiment, using its authority to assist the freedmen in acquiring land.
From the beginning the S.C. Land Commission was plagued by organizational and other problems. The first commissioner, Charles P. Leslie, was corrupt and incompetent. His agents typically failed to inspect the tracts they recommended for purchase. This, combined with bribery and falsification of records, led the state to pay inflated prices for land that was frequently of low quality. Republicans forced Leslie from office in 1870, but his successor, Robert C. DeLarge, was equally disappointing. In addition, the operation of the Land Commission was commonly dictated by politics more than economics. For example, in 1870 the commission purchased land in Newberry County at a premium price to prevent freedmen there from becoming dependent on Democratic landowners. By 1871 approximately one-half of the commission land was in the black-majority counties of Charleston, Colleton, Georgetown, and Beaufort.
Following an 1872 legislative investigation, the secretary of state, Francis Cardozo, was given authority over the Land Commission. Cardozo removed corrupt officials, streamlined the agency’s operations, reorganized its records, and introduced many innovations. Ironically, while Governor Franklin Moses’s administration was being denounced for pervasive corruption, under Cardozo’s leadership the Land Commission began achieving recognition for honesty and efficiency. Even so, a Democratically controlled investigation in 1876 soundly condemned the agency based on its earlier failings, without recognizing the reforms. In his bid to portray himself as a reformer and attract Democrats in the 1876 campaign, Republican governor Daniel Chamberlain (a former member of the commission’s advisory board) condemned the Land Commission as ill conceived.
After 1877 the state’s white politicians moved the Land Commission away from its original intent, viewing it purely as a source of state revenue. Land was sold in large parcels, and eviction rules were vigorously enforced. Perhaps as many as 14,000 African American families had been settled on commission lands by 1890. Most were unable to purchase these plots, but at least 960 received titles to 44,579 of the commission’s 118,436 acres by 1890. Most of the remainder was acquired by whites. Commission lands were largely sold by 1890, and its activities ended shortly thereafter. Promised Land, in Abbeville and Greenwood Counties, is an example of an extant African American community organized around Land Commission plots acquired during Reconstruction.
Abbott, Martin. The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, 1865–1872. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.
Bethel, Elizabeth Rauh. Promiseland: A Century of Life in a Negro Community. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
Bleser, Carol K. Rothrock. The Promised Land: The History of the South Carolina Land Commission, 1869–1890. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969.
Williamson, Joel. After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861–1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.