The antebellum economy was agricultural, based initially on wheat and corn and a few mills and foundries. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dozens of textile factories sprang up in Greenville County. Small farmers and sharecroppers migrated to mill villages and the county found itself at the center of a booming textile industry.
(790 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 532,486). Greenville County was created in 1786 out of Cherokee land ceded to the state by the Treaty of DeWitt’s Corner in 1777. Originally part of Ninety Six District, the land between the Saluda River and the Indian Boundary Line of 1767 was administratively divided between Spartanburg and Laurens Counties until 1786, when Greenville County was formed. There were a few illegal settlers on Cherokee land in the 1760s, but after the Revolutionary War, state commissioners began to survey and sell parcels of land. Many of the settlers were Scots-Irish or English from Spartanburg and Laurens. More numerous were veterans who applied for state bounty lands. By 1790 blacks–mostly slaves–accounted for over nine percent of the population. Soon the county boasted its own store and a Presbyterian, a Methodist, and two Baptist churches, although the majority of the population was Presbyterian until the Civil War. In 1788 Greenville delegates supported the federal Constitution, unlike most of the backcountry.
The antebellum economy was agricultural, based initially on wheat and corn and a few mills and foundries. The opening of a wagon road across the mountains to Asheville and Knoxville in 1797 brought a brisk droving trade and numerous taverns to the area. The village of Greenville was laid out the same year and became the mercantile center of the district. The early nineteenth century brought the Second Great Awakening and the camp meeting movement, the emergence of state militia musters as social and political gatherings, and the creation of a strong Democratic-Republican Party. After the War of 1812, Rhode Island textile entrepreneurs built a series of mills on local rivers, while westward expansion took many Greenvillians as far west as Texas in search of fresh land. The largest landowner, Vardry McBee, led efforts to build the Greenville and Columbia Railroad, which was completed in 1853. Summer migration of lowcountry planters brought an infusion of culture, including the creation of male and female academies.
Slavery was another element of lowcountry society that made inroads into antebellum Greenville District. But compared to the rest of the state, its presence was relatively weak. By 1860 only one third of the district population was black. The comparatively low influence of slavery also affected Greenville politically, as the district was strongly Unionist until 1860. It opposed nullification in the 1830s, led by editor and attorney Benjamin F. Perry. However, Perry’s leadership was repudiated when Greenville joined the state in its rush to leave the Union in 1860. Though a state arsenal operated in Greenville and three volunteer companies joined the Confederate forces, there were large numbers of deserters and dissatisfaction with the Confederacy. Many lowcountry planters took refuge in Greenville for much of the war.
The end of the Civil War brought major changes: freedom for former slaves, the rapid development of textiles, and the expansion of cotton planting. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dozens of textile factories sprang up in Greenville County. Small farmers and sharecroppers migrated to mill villages and the county found itself at the center of a booming textile industry. Black county residents did not benefit from the textile bonanza, but many did become farmers or tradesmen. The completion of the Southern Railway in 1893 and the Atlantic Coast Line in the following decade linked the economy with the nation, although many in the Dark Corner (northern Greenville County) and in Possum Kingdom (southern Greenville County) remained isolated.
In the twentieth century, World War I and the creation of a U.S. Army training facility, Camp Sevier, brought greater contact with the wider world. The economic downturn of the 1920s and 1930s led the county to embrace the New Deal, though the failure of the General Strike of 1934 stifled unionization efforts among county textile workers. Mill owners, led by Thomas F. Parker, attempted to create strong community-based programs in their mill villages. Best known was the Monaghan YMCA, led by L. Peter Hollis. In 1922 the mill executives created the Parker School District, with Hollis as superintendent. It became a showcase for progressive education.
World War II had a major impact, sending large numbers overseas and quickening the textile economy with war contracts. After 1945 agriculture declined and a generation of business leaders, led by construction magnate Charles E. Daniel, began to court diversified industry to replace declining textiles. Donaldson Air Base, built by Daniel during World War II, was transformed into an industrial park in the 1960s. The first technical education center in the state opened in Greenville in 1962 to train workers for the new economy. That same year the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport opened, thanks to the efforts of Daniel and textile mogul Roger Milliken of Spartanburg. The new interstate highway system criss-crossed the county, spurring development and placing Greenville County in the forefront of the state’s economy.
Racial desegregation did not come easily, but after witnessing the violence that broke out in other southern states, local leaders worked to insure that such scenes were not repeated in Greenville County. After a protest march led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on January 1, 1960, barriers began to fall. In 1964 a federal court ordered a limited freedom of choice plan in schools, and in January 1970 the entire school district of Greenville County was integrated.
Politics began to change from one-party Democratic domination to one-party Republican domination. There was strong support for Governor Strom Thurmond’s third-party bid for president in 1948, and increasing support for Republican presidential candidates thereafter. Between 1976 and 1980, county Republicans divided between economic conservatives and religious conservatives centered at Bob Jones University, which moved to Greenville in 1947.
Other changes resulted from the “one person-one vote” decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964, which reapportioned legislative representation from counties to election districts of equal population. In the state legislature, rural counties lost their base of power, and metropolitan counties like Greenville gained influence. As the most populous South Carolina county, Greenville became a state leader politically as well as economically. The S.C. House of Representatives elected two Greenville speakers, Rex Carter and David Wilkins, while J. Verne Smith of Greer became a power in the S.C. Senate. Greenville Democrat Richard W. Riley was elected governor in 1978, succeeded by Greenville Republican Carroll A. Campbell in 1988.
Huff, Archie Vernon, Jr. Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Richardson, James M. History of Greenville County, South Carolina, Narrative and Biographical. 1930. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1980.