A loyal Republican and politically ambitious, Miller was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1874 and served until 1880.
Political leader, college president. Miller was born on June 17, 1849, in Ferrebeeville in Beaufort District, the son of Richard Miller and Mary Ferrebee. Miller regarded himself as a black man, but his fair complexion led to persistent speculation and controversy about his racial identity. There were allegations that he was white, the son of an unmarried white couple who was raised by black parents.
In the early 1850s Miller moved with his parents to Charleston, where he attended schools organized for free black youngsters. After the Civil War he accompanied Union soldiers to Long Island, New York, and enrolled at Hudson school. He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1872. He returned to South Carolina and briefly attended the law program at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina). He also read law and was admitted to the bar in 1875. He subsequently practiced law in Beaufort, where he had been elected to the county school commission in 1872.
A loyal Republican and politically ambitious, Miller was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1874 and served until 1880. Elected to the state Senate in 1880, he resigned after two years. In 1886 he lost an election to the U.S. House, but in 1888 he defeated William Elliott after a prolonged election controversy. He lost to Elliott in 1890 in another disputed election when the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that while Miller’s ballots had been printed on the required white paper, it was “white paper of a distinctly yellow tinge.” He then lost in 1892 to George W. Murray when Murray–a black man–made an issue of Miller’s light complexion.
Miller was reelected to the S.C. House in 1894 and was then elected to represent Beaufort in the 1895 constitutional convention. The convention’s presiding officer, U.S. Senator Benjamin R. Tillman, was determined to eliminate black men from the political system. Miller eloquently but unsuccessfully fought the effort as he pleaded “for justice to a people whose rights are about to be taken away with one fell swoop.” The new constitution included an elaborate set of voter registration qualifications that effectively disfranchised the state’s black majority. Miller and the other five black delegates refused to sign the completed constitution.
However, during the convention’s deliberations Miller succeeded in enlisting Tillman’s support for a provision in the new constitution authorizing the creation of a separate land-grant college for African Americans. Since 1872 the state’s land-grant funds had been allocated to the State A&M College, which was under the control of Claflin University, a private Methodist institution in Orangeburg. In 1896 Miller guided legislation through the General Assembly creating the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina (now South Carolina State University). Shortly thereafter Miller resigned from the House and was named the president of the new institution in Orangeburg.
Miller skillfully administered the college during its first fifteen years. Its primary mission was to train black youngsters in agriculture and the trades. In 1897 he explained, “The work of our college is along the industrial line. We are making educated and worthy school teachers, educated and reliable mechanics, educated, reliable and frugal farmers.” In 1910 Miller publicly opposed Coleman Blease’s candidacy for governor. But Blease won and promptly demanded and received Miller’s resignation.
Miller devoted the remaining twenty-seven years of his life to a variety of community causes. Settling in Charleston, he served on an all-black subcommittee devoted to generating support for World War I. He successfully led a controversial campaign in 1919 to eliminate white teachers from the black public schools in Charleston. Miller moved to Philadelphia in 1923 but returned to Charleston in 1934. He had married Anna M. Hume about 1874, and they were the parents of nine children, seven of which survived until adulthood. Thomas Miller died on April 8, 1938. His legacy was inscribed on his tombstone in the Brotherly Association Cemetery in Charleston: “I served God and all the people, loving the white man not less, but the Negro needed me most.”
Hine, William C. “Thomas E. Miller and the Early Years of South Carolina State University.” Carologue 12 (winter 1996): 8–12.
Newby, I. A. Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.
Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes 1877–1900. 1952. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.