Whipper, William J.

1834–1907

Legislator. Whipper was one of the most influential African American politicians in South Carolina’s Reconstruction government. He was born free in Philadelphia, the son of a prominent lumber merchant who was an active Pennsylvania abolitionist. Early in the Civil War, Whipper was working as a clerk in an attorney’s office. During the war he joined a Michigan volunteer regiment. At the end of the war Whipper was among the federal occupation forces in South Carolina. He read law and passed the South Carolina Bar to enter practice in Charleston in 1865. He then moved to Beaufort and became the town’s most prominent Reconstruction lawyer. Along with Robert Smalls and Richard Howell Gleaves, he founded the Beaufort Republican Club at the Steven’s House in Beaufort on March 26, 1867. This was the first Republican political organization in South Carolina.

In autumn 1867 Whipper was elected as a delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1868, where he took a leading role. He was among the most progressive delegates, supporting free public education for all South Carolinians and the widest possible voting franchise. Whipper even introduced a resolution to add a woman-suffrage provision to the state constitution, declaring, “The systems of legislation have been laid on insecure foundations, and they will never be permanent until women are recognized as the equal of men and . . . permitted to enjoy the privileges which appertain to the citizen.” However, this provision was too extreme even for the “radical” convention of 1868 and was defeated.

Whipper represented Beaufort County in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1868 to 1872 and from 1875 to 1876. While he was in Columbia, his talent and intellect made him one of the most influential members of the Reconstruction legislature. In 1872 Whipper challenged Robert Smalls for the state Senate. Whipper was soundly defeated, and the spirited campaign divided the loyalties of Beaufort County freedmen and began a lasting rivalry between the two men. In 1875 Whipper was elected a circuit judge by the legislature but fell victim to the corruption scandals of the state government. Governor Daniel Chamberlain refused to sign his commission, blocking him from taking his seat on the bench. Whipper returned to Beaufort and served for twelve years as Beaufort County probate judge. He was finally ousted by a white Democratic office seeker in 1888 as part of the “People’s Ticket,” a fusion government compromise between Beaufort County’s black Republicans led by Robert Smalls and white Democrats led by William Elliott and William J. Verdier.

Part of Whipper’s special influence in the Reconstruction state government derived from his marriage on September 17, 1868, to Frances Ann Rollin, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent free-black family of Charleston. Whipper’s last political duty was as a delegate from Beaufort County to the state constitutional convention of 1895, where he tried to head off moves by Democrats to disenfranchise African American voters. When their efforts failed, Whipper and the entire Beaufort County delegation refused to sign the new constitution. He retired from politics and died in Beaufort in 1907.

Holt, Thomas. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Miller, Edward A. Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839–1915. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Powers, Bernard E. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

Taylor, Alrutheus A. The Negro in South Carolina during the Reconstruction. 1924. Reprint, New York: Russell and Russell, 1969.

Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900. 1952. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

Underwood, James L. The Constitution of South Carolina. 4 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986–1994

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Whipper, William J.
  • Coverage 1834–1907
  • Author
  • Keywords Legislator, one of the most influential African American politicians in South Carolina’s Reconstruction government,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date August 14, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 11, 2016
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