The fourth largest city in South Carolina, Greenville traces its origins to 1797 when Lemuel Alston, the largest landowner in Greenville County, laid out the “Greenville C. H. Village of Pleasantburg” on either side of Pearis’s wagon road on the east bank of the Reedy River.
(Greenville County; 2020 pop. 72,227). The fourth largest city in South Carolina, Greenville traces its origins to 1797 when Lemuel Alston, the largest landowner in Greenville County, laid out the “Greenville C. H. Village of Pleasantburg” on either side of Pearis’s wagon road on the east bank of the Reedy River. The county courthouse had been built in the middle of the road in 1795. A few stores, dominated by Jeremiah Cleveland’s, opened to serve local farmers, but the lots sold slowly. The delivery of mail, sessions of court, and the arrival of drovers from the north in the fall regulated life in the village.
Life quickened after the War of 1812. When lowcountry planters began to spend the summers in the upcountry, hotels opened and local academies and churches were established. The chief promoter of the village was Vardry McBee, who purchased Alston’s 11,028 acres when he moved to Alabama in 1815. McBee opened a store and a pair of mills along the Reedy River. He championed the Greenville and Columbia Railroad, which finally reached the village in 1853. The legislature granted Greenville a municipal charter on December 17, 1831, and the population reached 1,100 by 1843.
In 1851 Furman University opened in temporary quarters on Main Street, and in 1855 the Greenville Baptist Female College (later the Greenville Woman’s College) opened on the former site of the Greenville Academies. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary opened in 1859 but moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1877.
Greenville was a Unionist stronghold during the nullification crisis, led by attorney and editor Benjamin F. Perry. However, secessionist sentiment gradually grew in the late 1850s, and Greenville voted to follow the state out of the Union in 1860. Many local residents marched off to war, and lowcountry refugees flooded the town to escape Union occupation of the coast. On May 2, 1865, a detachment of General George Stoneman’s Union cavalry, in pursuit of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, raided Greenville and looted a number of homes and businesses. During Reconstruction the Freedmen’s Bureau opened an office on Main Street in 1865, and federal troops were stationed in Greenville from 1866 to 1867. Black members of local congregations established separate churches, and a school for African Americans operated with the support of the bureau and northern missionary societies. President Andrew Johnson appointed Benjamin Perry provisional governor in 1865.
Economic changes after 1865 transformed Greenville into a leading cotton market and a center for the growing textile industry. The area’s textile industry had antebellum roots, and by 1882 Greenville County had several mills. With new rail connections and an influx of northern capital in the 1890s, Greenville truly caught “mill fever.” New factories and mill villages sprang up in and around the city. By 1920 Greenville County had the largest number of spindles in the state, and the city of Greenville was well on its way to becoming the self-proclaimed “Textile Capital of the World.”
Other economic and social developments appeared. The first national bank in South Carolina, the National Bank of Greenville, opened in Greenville in 1872, and cotton and fertilizer warehouses operated in the West End area of the city. The coming of the telegraph (1871), the telephone (1882), and paved streets (1883) transformed the town, as did a water system (1888), gas, and electric lights. A city school system began in 1885. By 1900 the population had grown to 11,857. In 1915 the first Southern Textile Exposition opened in Greenville, beginning a tradition of textile machinery shows which continued throughout the twentieth cen- tury. Black businesses were common after the Civil War, and whites and blacks lived adjacent to one another. But the South Carolina Constitution of 1895 instituted the era of legal segregation, and in 1912 the city council adopted a segregation ordinance and separate districts for whites and blacks developed.
The location of Camp Wetherill in Greenville in 1898 strengthened the local economy, as did the opening of Camp Sevier during World War I. Duke’s Mayonnaise was a direct outgrowth of Mrs. H. C. Duke’s sandwich business supplying Camp Sevier; and the Balentine Packing Company opened to supply meat to training camps statewide. In the 1920s economic growth continued. On Main Street, the Poinsett Hotel, the Chamber of Commerce Building, and the Woodside Building (once the tallest building in the state) changed the landscape. Bony H. Peace controlled the local news media, purchasing the Greenville News in 1919, the Piedmont in 1927, and establishing WFBC Radio in 1933. A municipal airport opened in 1928, and regular airline service began in 1930.
A financial downturn began with the failure of the Bank of Commerce in 1926. In 1929 textile mills curtailed their operations. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, local relief agencies were overwhelmed, and in 1932 Greenville voters supported Franklin D. Roosevelt by a large majority. New Deal agencies opened local offices, and the economy began to improve. Greenville was swept up by World War II. In 1942 the Greenville Army Air Base (later Donaldson Air Force Base) was located near the city. Charles E. Daniel, president of Daniel Construction of Anderson and one of the major contractors for the air base, moved his headquarters to the city. New Deal agencies closed, and textile mills began to operate around the clock.
After 1945 textiles at first continued to expand, but Daniel and others began to plan for a diversified economy. One local product,
Texize Household Cleaner, developed a national market, and in the 1950s two radio stations merged with the News-Piedmont Company into Multimedia, Inc., which expanded nationally. In the 1960s, Donaldson Air Force Base was transformed into an industrial park. To meet the demands of the new economy, South Carolina opened the state’s first technical education center in Greenville in 1962. Charles Daniel and Roger Milliken of Spartanburg spearheaded the creation of the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport the same year.
The city annexed suburbs and in 1950 employed its first city manager. Suburban shopping malls, such as McAllister Square, drew retail business from downtown, and Daniel challenged the city to revitalize Main Street. Just prior to his death, he broke ground for the Daniel Building in 1964. A civic center, renamed Heritage Green, provided sites for the county library, the Greenville Little Theatre, and the Greenville County Museum of Art. Under the leadership of Mayor Max Heller (1971–1979) there was greater development downtown. Education was transformed in 1951 with the creation of a single School District of Greenville County. Bob Jones University opened in Greenville in 1947, and Furman University purchased a new campus north of the city in 1950.
Race relations took a violent turn in 1947 with the lynching of a black man, Willie Earle, by a group of white taxicab drivers. The subsequent trial brought international attention. As the civil rights movement developed nationally, local leaders like Daniel were determined that integration in Greenville would be peaceful. On January 1, 1960, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People staged a march, and a few months later young African Americans began to test local laws at the library and lunch counters. The chamber of commerce appointed a biracial committee to plan strategy and integration began to take place. Finally, under a court order, the county schools desegregated peacefully in February 1970. Jesse Jackson, a native son, became a national figure in the civil rights movement. In 1973 Mayor Heller honored him at a public banquet.
Redevelopment of the central city continued, and in 1990 the Peace Center for the Performing Arts opened on the banks of the Reedy River. Both the city and county became involved in planning development along the river. Despite the decline of the textile industry in the 1980s, the Greenville economy continued to flourish. The city’s location along the “mega-growth corridor” between Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, its interstate highway connections, and its business-friendly environment made the area attractive to outside investment. International firms such as Michelin and Hitachi comprised much of Greenville’s manufacturing base by the 1990s. Despite the economic boom, Greenville’s population remained stagnant, with population increases instead appearing in surrounding bedroom communities such as Mauldin, Simpsonville, and Fountain Inn. See plate 39.
Ehrenhalt, Alan. The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power and the Pursuit of Office. New York: Times Books, 1991.
Huff, Archie Vernon, Jr. Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Sloan, Cliff, and Bob Hall. “It’s Good to be Home in Greenville.” Southern Exposure 7 (spring 1979): 82–93.
Zimmerman, Samuel L. Negroes in Greenville, 1970: An Exploratory Approach. Greenville, S.C.: Tricentennial Association, 1970.