The drama of Reconstruction and the New South played out in microcosm in Orangeburg. Spurred by the resistance of white planters to their new status as free laborers, three black delegates from Orangeburg attended the Colored Peoples Convention in Charleston in November 1865 to petition Congress and the General Assembly for redress against the repressive Black Codes, an action that precipitated Radical Reconstruction.
(Orangeburg County; 2020 pop. 12,460). Orangeburg is the county seat of one of South Carolina’s richest agricultural regions. The town originated with the arrival of 220 German-Swiss immigrants in 1735, who settled along the North Edisto River. These “Switzers” became prosperous farmers, growing wheat, rice, and indigo and shipping timber downriver to Charleston. The first Lutheran congregation in the state was established at Orangeburg; it converted to the Anglican faith in 1750 under the leadership of the Reverend John Giessendanner. Prior to the Revolutionary War, Orangeburg was described as “neatly laid out,” but vulnerable to Indian attack, for which several “block houses,” or forts, were constructed. In 1768 the colonial government designated Orangeburg as the seat of the Orangeburg judicial district.
Orangeburg played a strategic role during the Revolutionary War, and the town changed hands several times between 1781 and 1782. Generals Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, and Nathanael Greene all camped or skirmished at Orangeburg, while Governor John Rutledge established his office temporarily at the Donald Bruce House in 1780.
Robert Mills counted just 152 residents (black and white) in Orangeburg during the mid-1820s. But by 1831 the village had grown enough to warrant incorporation by the General Assembly. The railroad reached Orangeburg in August 1840, providing a valuable link between the area’s burgeoning plantation economy and the port of Charleston. Antebellum Orangeburg was a nullification and secession stronghold. The proslavery writers George Frederick Holmes and William Gilmore Simms lived nearby, and native son David Flavel Jamison, who helped found the Citadel, presided over the South Carolina Secession Convention. The Union army of General William T. Sherman arrived in February 1865, camping at Orangeburg’s Caw Caw Swamp en route to Columbia. Union horses were stabled in the First Baptist Church, and blocks of buildings were set on fire, including the courthouse and railroad depot.
The drama of Reconstruction and the New South played out in microcosm in Orangeburg. Spurred by the resistance of white planters to their new status as free laborers, three black delegates from Orangeburg attended the Colored Peoples Convention in Charleston in November 1865 to petition Congress and the General Assembly for redress against the repressive Black Codes, an action that precipitated Radical Reconstruction. After the withdrawal of federal troops from South Carolina in 1877, Samuel Dibble of Orangeburg devised South Carolina’s gerrymandered congressional districts (1882) to dilute the strength of the state’s black majority. By the mid-1890s the local newspaper reported that “many colored folks” were leaving the area for Georgia and points west. Despite the exodus, the establishment of Claflin College (1869) and South Carolina State Agricultural and Mechanical College (1896) made Orangeburg a haven for black intellectuals and political activists, and the center of African American education in South Carolina. The People’s Recorder, a black newspaper, relocated from Columbia to Orangeburg in 1903; a progressive black women’s club movement took root in 1911 under the leadership of Mrs. Robert Shaw Wilkinson; a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter of seventy-eight members was established in 1919; and the luminaries Langston Hughes, Mary Bethune McLeod, and George Schuyler visited and lectured at the State College campus.
During the Great Depression the city’s banks failed and relief rolls swelled. The New Deal and World War II broke some of Orangeburg’s cultural isolation, bringing bureaucrats to administer extensive Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps projects; thousands of soldiers, including British and French, received flight training at the Hawthorne School of Aeronautics. In the wake of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, fifty-seven black residents petitioned the Orangeburg school board to end segregation locally. The white Citizens Council, under the leadership of W. T. C. Bates, retaliated by firing petitioners from their jobs and boycotting black-owned businesses. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s counterboycotts, sit-ins, and picketing by the students of Claflin and South Carolina State led to mass arrests and investigations, culminating in the Orangeburg Massacre on February 8, 1968. In the midst of this turmoil, Dr. T. E. Wannamaker of Orangeburg helped found the South Carolina Independent School Association and two segregated academies, Wade Hampton and Willington, where the Confederate flag flew and a majority of the town’s white students were enrolled. Wannamaker’s brother, W. W. Jr., played a key role in the reinvention of the state’s Republican Party during the 1950s and 1960s, laying the groundwork for an exodus of white Democrats in the decades that followed.
Agriculture is still predominant, but the local economy has diversified to include international manufacturing concerns. The chamber of commerce has successfully marketed the Edisto Memorial Gardens and its Festival of Roses as an annual springtime destination, drawing thousands of visitors to a resplendent display of roses along the banks of the Edisto River. In spite of its economic advances, Orangeburg in the early twenty-first century remained a community polarized by race.
Ackerman, Hugo S. A Brief History of Orangeburg. Columbia, S.C.: Home Federal Savings and Loan Association, [1970?].
Bass, Jack, and Jack Nelson. The Orangeburg Massacre. 2d ed. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1996.
Culler, Daniel Marchant. Orangeburgh District, 1768–1868: History and Records. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1995.
Salley, Alexander S. The History of Orangeburg County, South Carolina from Its First Settlement to the Close of the Revolutionary War. 1898. Reprint, Baltimore: Regional Publishing, 1969.