The 1898 Phoenix Riot: Essex Harrison, Eliza Goode, and South Carolina’s black voter suppression

The current reports of black voter suppression in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have made me revisit two late 19th Century South Carolina voter suppression riots that had tragic and devasting impacts on my Old Ninety Six District, South Carolina kinsmen and women: The Parksville Riot (1884) and The Phoenix Riot (1889), which would see scores of extended family lynched, indiscriminately murdered, or run out the state.

I have already written about the Parksville Riot, and how that black voter supression-fuelled riot impacted on my Yeldell cousins. In this article, I will discuss how the Phoenix Riot led to the brutal death of one cousin, Essex Harrison, and the senseless killing of another cousin, Eliza Goode.
The Phoenix election riot, occurred on 8 November 1898, near Greenwood County, South Carolina. 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 race-based riot was the outcome of increasing tensions not only between the Republican and Democratic parties, but also White Americans and the area’s black population.

This is a complex history with numerous moving parts. Neither voter suppression riots appeared out of the ether. There was a clearly demarcated road with numerous signposts that led to both tragic events. I will briefly touch on the major signposts leading up to the Phoenix Riot in order to provide a fuller picture of how this riot happened, and the immediate results that followed in its aftermath.

Not the same parties we know today: Republicans, Democrats, and the 1968 Southern Strategy

In order to understand the tensions that existed between the 19th Century’s Republican and Democrat parties, we need to see the difference between the two parties as we experience them today – and the parties they once were. The year 1968 would see a radical shift in the political ethos of both parties .
In 1968, George Wallace ran as a third-party presidential candidate against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Wallace ran on an explicitly segregationist platform. Of the two main presidential candidates, Humphrey had been the main champion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the Senate. Nixon, while no civil rights activist, rejected an overtly racist platform. Southern white racists, who felt abandoned by both parties, flocked to Wallace’s cause, winning him the Deep South states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Kevin Phillips, a political analyst and Nixon campaigner, reviewed voting trends between 1948 and 1968. Phillips viewed the Southern voters in those five states as ripe for Republican picking. In The Emerging Republican Majority (Arlington House, 1969), he correctly predicted that the Republican party would shift its national base to the South by appealing to whites’ disaffection with liberal democratic racial and welfare policies.

President Nixon shrewdly played a Southern strategy by promoting affirmative action in employment, a wedge issue that later Republicans would exploit to split the Democratic coalition of white working class and black voters. (John Skrentny,The Ironies of Affirmative Action, University of Chicago Press, 1996). This strategy soon produced the racial party alignments that prevail today.

I would argue that the pre-1968 Republican party resembled the centrists and moderates of the post-1968 Democratic party; it most definitely did not bear any parity to the progressive wing of the modern Democratic party. In contrast, the pre-1968 Democratic party resembled the modern Tea Party and Evangelical strands within the post-1968 Republican party.

The contrast and distinction between the modern face of these two parties, and their earlier pre-Civil Rights Era iterations, is an important aspect to grasp in order to understand the genesis of the Phoenix Riot.

The Phoenix Riot: A quick synopsis

The riot ignited when white land-owner, Thomas Tolbert, began to take affidavits from African Americans who had been disenfranchised by the new 1895 Constitution of South Carolina. Thomas Tolbert, the brother of republican candidate Robert R. Tolbert, urged the African Americans to fill out and submit an affidavit if they were prevented from voting. Tolbert and his allies hoped to use the affidavits that they collected to challenge the legality of certain portions of the 1895 South Carolina state constitution that had enshrined in law the previously informal disfranchisement of African-Americans.

On 8 November 1898, Thomas Tolbert stationed himself outside of the entrance of the Watson and Lake general store and began to collect the affidavits of African Americans. Thomas Tolbert was quickly approached by a group of local Democrats, including Democratic party leader, J. I. “Bose” Ethridge, and his followers. Ethbridge and his supporters began to repeatedly beat and terrorize Tolbert for his audacious actions.

Violence and chaos ensued following the outbreak of the riot: an estimated twelve African-Americans were fatally shot or hung, one African-American lynched, hundreds injured by the white mob, and one white man murdered. Additionally, Tolbert’s home, property and personal belongings were all burned in the days to follow the riot, with many family members forced to leave the state – and compelled to sell their vast landholdings.

The altercation triggered four days of violence directed mainly at the black population.

The Phoenix Riot: Outbreak

Although much of the riot is still under speculation, the initial outbreak was a direct result of heightened political and racial tensions that resulted in physical violence. Increasing tensions between Republican and Democratic parties played a profound factor in the eruption of conflict.

Thomas Tolbert, during this time, did not follow the common beliefs that surrounded African-Americans during the time. Despite the fact that Tolbert was a white man, he believed that African-Americans deserved the right to vote, and disagrees with their disenfranchisement by the South Carolina State Constitution. It is not clear whether he held this view because he was aware that a number of black Tolberts and Talberts who lived in close proximity to his family, and/or worked for his family, were his blood relations. I have seen no first or second hand accounts to prove whether or not this was a consideration for Tolbert. Then again, it does not appear that any research has been done on his connections to key black supporters of his apartment from citations that some lived on his family’s land and worked for them. Alternatively, he needed votes. As a Republican of the time, he needed black votes – and it could something as simple as that.

South Carolina’s Black Codes

The state’s Black Codes were passed by whites in late 1865. The Codes imposed a strict set of regulations on black labor and social life which plainly resembled a return to enslavement. Although the codes recognized abolition, blacks were expected to work as field hands or domestic servants, unless they had a license from a judge for a different occupation. They were required to work from sunrise to sunset and could be charged with vagrancy if caught unemployed by white officials. Fortunately for black Americans in the state, South Carolina’s military governor invalidated the laws by 1866. Yet, the codes clearly demonstrated white attempts to control black labor.

The federal government did equip black Americans with the means to protect themselves from such hostility by giving them full political rights. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867, later re-enforced by the Fifteenth Amendment, ensured that African-American men could vote and hold office, regardless of race or ancestry.

These new black voters overwhelmingly tended to vote for the Republican Party, which was not unusual considering the fact that Abraham Lincoln, the party’s first president, was seen by many former slaves as the “Great Emancipator.” At least ninety percent of 100,000 black voters were members of the Republican Party in 1869.

Black land ownership in 1868 South Carolina

In South Carolina – more than any other southern state – freed men took advantage of their newfound political rights. Constituting sixty percent of the state’s voting population, they elected 73 African Americans out of 124 total delegates to the 1868 Constitutional Convention.

Most of the black legislators in South Carolina owned land. This suggests a significant relationship between land ownership and political activism. In fact, black Americans who held onto land were more likely to register, vote, and run for office than those who did not. Black legislators in South Carolina therefore appreciated the powerful symbolism of land ownership and its potential for racial uplift. At the 1868 convention, delegate Richard Cain argued that, without owning land, freed men and women could not elevate themselves much higher than their status as former slaves. Despite having established strong black communities, they could “know nothing of what is good and best for mankind until they get homesteads and enjoy them.” His political comrades agreed with him.

Through the authority of the state government, they tried to extend the means for land ownership to their fellow freed men and women, creating what became known as the South Carolina Land Commission.

The South Carolina Land Commission

The Constitutional Convention met in Charleston on 14 January1868, to discuss among other pressing issues a land distribution program in the state of South Carolina. Seventy-six of the one hundred and twenty-four delegates were African American and they initially hoped to petition the United States Congress for a loan to purchase plantation lands for redistribution to landless people.

Little attention was paid to South Carolina’s request in Washington D. C. and no money was granted, but on 27 March 1869, the South Carolina legislature established the Land Commission on its own. The original appropriation from the legislature was $200,000, and in March of 1870, another $500,000 was appropriated for lands to be purchased by the Land Commission. This was made possible by the overwhelming presence and voice of black Americans in the legislature, and South Carolina would become the only southern state to promote the redistribution of land for the benefit of freed men and women, as well as landless whites (who largely refused to participate in the scheme due to racial animus towards blacks).

By 1890, as many as 14,000 African-American families had settled on Land Commission lands in South Carolina as a whole, but only 960 had received titles to 44,579 acres of the 118,436 acres available. The rest of land, now being sold in large parcels, was sold to whites, and by 1890 the sale of lands had ceased and the program was bankrupt.

Land ownership and political activism would become key issues a few years later when South Carolina passed a new state constitution in 1895.

The South Carolina State Constitution of 1895

The Constitution of 1895, which was ratified on 4 December 1895, essentially laid the ground work for Jim Crow in South Carolina, since almost the entire African American population was disenfranchised, which further strengthen the white control over the state of South Carolina. The disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws continued to thrive in the state until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.

In Bleser’s book, The Promised Land: The History of the South Carolina Land Commission, 1869–1890, black farmers in America have had a long and arduous struggle to own land and to operate independently from whites. For more than a century after the Civil War, deficient civil rights and various economic and social barriers were applied to maintaining a system where many blacks worked as farm operators with a limited and often total lack of opportunity to achieve ownership and operating independence. By 1880, in state after southern state, the statistics on black landownership were depressing — 100,000 acres in South Carolina, less than that in Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina.

Since emancipation, the wealth of former slaves and their descendants has greatly lagged behind that of whites. Higgs (1982; 1977) found that black total property holdings were just 1/36 those of whites in 1880. This ratio improved slightly to 1/26 by 1890. When income from ownership of land and capital is added to labor income, the average per capita income of blacks was 61 to 64 percent of white per capita income in the South. Given that blacks were emancipated for the most part without any assets beyond their own labor, it is not surprising that in 1880, whites derived more income from the ownship of land and capital.

Land ownership would provide South Carolina’s white legislators with an easy means of stripping voting rights from black men. Literacy would be another. The 1895 Constitution also contained an understanding clause: the basics of which acted like a reading comprehension test. In order to comprehend whatever paragraph the election officials chose for black men to read, one needed an ability to read it. The paragraph(s) were not read aloud to the black men registering to vote. No, they had to read the passage(s) under their own steam. If you couldn’t read because you had no access to even the most basic forms of education, you were hobbled. You were ineligible to vote.

After 1 January 1898, the understanding clause was revoked. In order to vote, one had to be able to read and write – or present proof of having paid taxes on three hundred dollars worth of property. In the South Carolina of the 1890s, blacks tender to own between 10 to 150 acres of land…which put such black landowners well below the 300 acre minimum. This was the intent of that 300 acre requirement. Overnight, vast swathes of black landowners, who were in the minority already when it came to owning any land at all, were summarily stripped of their right to vote. My 3x great grandfather, Lewis Matthews, who has inherited 200 acres from his white father-enslaver, Drury Cook Matthews, was one of the countless black men affected by the new provisions in the 1895 South Carolina Constitution.

This was the South Carolina suffrage law that put black control of the State beyond possibility, while still preserving suffrage for the illiterate whites of that generation.

The day of the riot

At around 9:00 in the morning on 8 November 1898, Thomas Tolbert stationed himself outside of the polling office at Watson and Lake general store with Joe Circuit, Will White and a number of other African-Americans. He proceeded to encourage the black men of the community to submit affidavits documenting how they had been prevented from voting. Tolbert had hoped that the affidavits would help to expose the ongoing electoral fraud that had deprived African-Americans of the vote for the past twenty-two years.

Tolbert and his followers were quickly approached by a group of local Democrats, including J. I. Ethridge, the local Democratic party boss. Ethridge and Robert Cheatham asked Tolbert to stop what he was doing. Upon his refusal, they overturned the box that he had been using to collect the affidavits with and began to beat him with the splintered wood and other various materials. Tolbert quickly responded to the violence by hitting Ethridge over the head multiple times with a wagon axle. Honestly, in terms of this part of South Carolina and violence was concerned, this was a typical exchange.

During the altercation, William White, one of Tolbert’s followers, was pushed to the ground. It is speculated that White grabbed a shotgun and fired the first shot, which hit Ethridge in the middle of the forehead, killing him on impact. Outraged by the murder of their leader, Etheridge’s followers promptly engaged in further escalating the conflict with Tolbert and his supporters. The gunshots, which were overheard by the white voters, prompted the majority of those who were at the polling stations inside the general store to engage in the conflict.
During the riot, Tolbert withstood several injuries and sustained gunshot wounds to the neck, arms, and his left side. The buckshot, which struck Tolbert during the riot, proved not to be fatal, however, they resulted in his retreat.

Below are newspaper accounts covering the riot. I have opted to not provide a synopsis or an overview for a simple reason: note the coded language of white supremacy and racism. Pay particular attention to the racist dog whistles, nay, bullhorns.

(Note: click each article below for a larger, more legible copy to read)


Sat, Nov 19, 1898 – 7 · The Appleton Crescent (Appleton, Outagamie, Wisconsin, United States of America) · Newspapers.com

The riot, and Essex Harrison’s name, made the national news.


Tue, Nov 15, 1898 – Page 1 · The Newberry Herald and News (Newberry, Newberry, South Carolina) · Newspapers.com

The riot, and Essex’s brutal fate, have been addressed in numerous books:

A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940 by Terence Finnegan (available via Google Books)

The above account demonstrates that racist programs directed against the black community did not end with the lynchings. The reign of terror continued.


Wed, Nov 16, 1898 – Page 6 · The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, Sumter, South Carolina, United States of America) · Newspapers.com

Aftermath


Wed, Nov 16, 1898 – Page 6 · The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, Sumter, South Carolina, United States of America) · Newspapers.com


Wed, Nov 16, 1898 – Page 6 · The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, Sumter, South Carolina, United States of America) · Newspapers.com


Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 50 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) · Newspapers.com


Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 52 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) · Newspapers.com


Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 54 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) · Newspapers.com


Thu, Apr 7, 1938 – Page 56 · The Index-Journal (Greenwood, Greenwood, South Carolina, United States of America) · Newspapers.com

The thing that applls me the most in the articles provided in the Aftermath section is straightforward. The then Democratic racists had learned nothing. That is pretty clear in their comments, how they portray the black community, and how they place the entirety of blame on the Tolberts.

Hundreds of black families fled the area for Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington D. C., and New York in the twelve months following the riot. They and their families weren’t safe…and they knew it. It explains why some 25% of my extended family from this region of South Carolina were living in the northern states and Washington D.C. by the time of the 1870 U.S. Federal Census.

Nor was their any justice for Eliza Goode, Essex Harrison, or the many others who perished in the aftermath of the riot.

Reading and hearing the same kinds of racist dog whistles and bullhorns in 2016, and again in 2018, is disquieting. It is proof yet again that America fails to learn from the worst chapters in its history. Instead, as a country, it recycles its darkest history.

References

  1. “16 Nov 1898, Page 1 – The Watchman and Southron at Newspapers.com“. Newspapers.com.
  2. Race Riots“. Remember Your history.
  3. Phoenix Riot – South Carolina Encyclopedia“. South Carolina Encyclopedia.
  4. 16 Nov 1898, Page 1 – The Watchman and Southron at Newspapers.com“. Newspapers.com.
  5. Lab, Digital Scholarship. “History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes“. historyengine.richmond.edu.
  6. Wilk, Daniel Levinson (2002-11-27). “The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County“. Southern Cultures. 8 (4): 29–55. doi:10.1353/scu.2002.0052. ISSN 1534-1488.
  7. Norris, Pippa (02/12/2002). “Democratic Phoenix“(PDF).
  8. Dinnella-Borrego, Luis-Alejandro (2016-07-11). The Risen Phoenix: Black Politics in the Post–Civil War South. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813938738.
  9. Lab, Digital Scholarship. “History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes“. historyengine.richmond.edu.
  10. 10 Nov 1898, Page 2 – Keowee Courier at Newspapers.com“.
  11. Loren Schweninger. Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 34.
  12. Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968“. http://www.chesnuttarchive.org.
  13. Finnegan, Terence (2013). A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813933849.
  14. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . The Wilmington Riot | PBS“. http://www.pbs.org.
  15. Branch, Taylor (1999). Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963–65. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 242.
  16. C. Vann Woodward, Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction(1956) p 8, 205-12
  17. Ted Van Dyk. “How the Election of 1968 Reshaped the Democratic Party”
  18. Zinn, Howard (1999) A People’s History of the United States New York:HarperCollins.
  19. Childs, Marquis (June 8, 1970). “Wallace’s Victory Weakens Nixon’s Southern Strategy”The Morning Record.
  20. Rick Perlstein (13 November 2012). “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy”, The Nation.
  21. Boyd, Tim.“The 1966 Election in Georgia and the Ambiguity of the White Backlash“. The Journal of Southern History. 75 (2): 305–340. JSTOR https://www.jstor.org/stable/27778938″
  22. George B. Tindall, “Southern Strategy: A Historical Perspective”, The North Carolina Economic Review in JSTOR.
  23. Margo, Robert A. “Accumulation of Property by Southern Blacks Before World War I: Comment and Further Evidence.” The American Economic Review, 74.4 (1984): 768-776.
  24. Higgs, Robert. “Accumulation of Property by Southern Blacks Before World War I.” The American Economic Review, 72.4 (1982): 725-737.
  25. Bleser, Carol K. Rothrock. The Promised Land: The History of the South Carolina Land Commission, 1869–1890. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969.

Further reading

Wilk, Daniel Levinson (2002). “The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County“. Southern Cultures. University of North Carolina Press. 8 (4): 29&ndash, 55. doi:10.1353/scu.2002.0052.

Wells, Tom Henderson (1970). “The Phoenix Election Riot“. Phylon (1960-). 31 (1): 58–69. doi:10.2307/273874.

One thought on “The 1898 Phoenix Riot: Essex Harrison, Eliza Goode, and South Carolina’s black voter suppression

  1. Unless I missed it, I don’t even see the names of most of the African-American victims listed. I think that R.P. Henderson is R. Pratt Henderson, who is related to the Tolberts. I have an African-American Collins cousin from McCormick, who is related to me through my Hendersons. No idea if these Hendersons are connected to mine. The Tolberts are also connected to some Collins. And I have another African-American cousin who is almost certainly descended from the white Tolberts. On the other side of his family he has Harrisons – I really wonder if he is linked to Essex. These incidents come across to me as a clan feud as much as anything else – so many levels but I really think the relationships are key. Oh, and most of the Ethridges are related to me through the Rush family …

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