The Phoenix Riot is best understood as an exaggerated example of the everyday violence that faced late nineteenth-century African Americans in South Carolina.
The Phoenix Riot occurred on November 8, 1898, in the small town of Phoenix in Greenwood County when a group of local Democrats attempted to stop a Republican election official from taking the affidavits of African Americans who had been denied the right to vote. The riot reflected the ongoing tension not only between Democrats and Republicans but also between whites and the county’s African American population. In Greenwood County black men outnumbered white men, but few blacks had voted since Democrats regained power in the state following the 1876 elections.
The riot originated in front of Watson and Lake’s general store, which was serving as an election site. Thomas Tolbert, a white man and brother of Republican congressional candidate Robert Red Tolbert, was sitting outside the store and collecting affidavits from blacks who had been prevented from casting ballots. He was approached by a group of local Democrats, including J. I. “Bose” Ethridge, the local party boss. The men ordered Tolbert to leave. When he refused, they overturned the box of affidavits and began to beat Tolbert. Tolbert responded in kind by hitting Ethridge over the head with a wagon axle. A larger fight erupted between the supporters of Tolbert and those of Ethridge. Shots rang out, though their source was not clear, and Ethridge was killed (his grave marker states that “He Died for his Country”). The Democrats retaliated by opening fire on the crowd of African American men gathered outside the store; Thomas Tolbert was shot in the neck, arms, and side, but he survived.
White retribution was swift and severe. In the days that followed, between six hundred and one thousand white men gathered in Phoenix, where they burned the Tolberts’ homes and forced the Republicans into exile. Several local black men were not so fortunate; four were lynched outside of Rehoboth Church. Over the next several days the white mob killed at least eight black men, though the exact number is not known. No one was ever charged with any of these murders. The Phoenix Riot is usually overshadowed in larger historical narratives by the Wilmington, North Carolina, race riot that began on November 10, 1898, and resulted in the triumph of Democrats over Republicans and Populists in North Carolina’s government. The Phoenix Riot occurred in an area that was already under Democratic control. Robert Red Tolbert, the Republican, lost the 1898 election to Democrat A. C. Latimer by a 996 to 107 margin.
The Phoenix Riot is best understood as an exaggerated example of the everyday violence that faced late nineteenth-century African Americans in South Carolina. African Americans in rural Greenwood County faced crippling debt and white terrorism routinely; any attempt to fight the system of white supremacy was met with violence by white enforcers drawn from surrounding areas. The Tolberts continued to fight for black political rights at the state and federal levels, despite the fact that their houses were continually set aflame by unknown arsonists. Phoenix was also home to a remarkably resilient African American population. The black community there maintained churches and schools even in the face of violence, and the civil rights activist Benjamin Mays was born there in 1894.
Hoyt, James A. The Phoenix Riot: November 8, 1898. N.p., 1935.
Prather, H. Leon, Sr. “The Origins of the Phoenix Racial Massacre of 1898.” In Developing Dixie: Modernization in a Traditional Society, edited by Winfred B. Moore, Jr., Joseph F. Tripp, and Lyon G. Tyler, Jr. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1988.
Wells, Tom Henderson. “The Phoenix Election Riot.” Phylon 31 (spring 1970): 58–69.
Wilk, Daniel Levinson. “The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County.” Southern Cultures 8 (winter 2002): 29–55.