Path to the Council Chambers: African American Aldermen in Charleston, 1865-1868

By Rebecca L. Schultz

 In February 1865, as the City of Charleston lay in ruins, Mayor Charles Macbeth sent a delegation led by Aldermen W.H. Gilliland and George W. Williams to greet Lt. Col. Augustus G. Bennett of the 21st Regiment United States Colored Infantry. Macbeth’s message stated that the Confederate Army had evacuated the city, and he had remained only to “enforce law and preserve order until you take such steps as you may think best.” In the months that followed, under the authority of Brig. Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig, Union officers attempted to restore Charleston to a state of calm. Peace remained elusive, however, as frequent riots and confrontations occurred between blacks and whites.[i] 

On 27 September 1865, the newly reconvened South Carolina Legislature passed the Constitution of 1865 that included laws designed to govern and control former slaves. These laws, later known as the Black Code, regulated the activity of African Americans and failed to address questions concerning black suffrage. When Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles assumed control of Charleston, he ordered municipal elections to take place on 3 November. As African Americans were ineligible to vote, Confederate Army veteran Col. Peter C. Gaillard and an all-white slate of aldermen easily won the election.[ii]

Black Charlestonians voiced strong opposition to the new laws and the results of the election. At the Colored Peoples’ Convention of South Carolina held at Zion Presbyterian Church in late November, black community leaders composed “An Address to the Legislature of the State of South Carolina,” that requested repeal of the Black Code, the establishment of voting rights, and the right to testify in court. They wrote:

            The laws which have made white men great, have degraded us, because we were colored, and because we were reduced to chattel slavery. But now that we are freemen, now that we have been lifted up by the providence of God to manhood, we have resolved to come forward, and, like MEN, speak and act for ourselves. We fully recognize the truth of the maxim that “God helps those who help themselves.” In making this appeal to you, we adopt the language of the immortal Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal,” and that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the right of all; that taxation and representation should go together; that governments are to protect, not to destroy the rights of mankind; that the Constitution of the United States was formed to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to all the people of this country; that resistance to tyrants is obedience to God—are American principles and maxims; and together they form the constructive elements of the American Government.[iii] 

In wider society, an intellectual war raged between those who sympathized with the plight of white southerners and those who wanted them held accountable for actions that had torn the nation apart. The former group included men who frequently held close ties of family and friendship to southern whites, such as President Andrew Johnson. In fact, President Johnson was the only senator from a southern state who did not withdraw from office when his home state of Tennessee seceded from the Union. This made him an ideal running mate for President Lincoln who wanted to unify the nation as quickly as possible after the war.[iv]General Daniel E. Sickles

The opposing faction doubted the loyalty of southerners to the Union and demanded accountability of the South for their refusal to abandon the barbarous institution of slavery. This faction included men like Gen. Sickles, who daily witnessed the hatred of white southerners for the North. Gen. Sickles took pains to require outward shows of deference and submission from southern whites and he was deeply hated for his efforts. In an infamous incident, Gen. Sickles demanded that Charleston’s fire companies carry the United States flag alongside that of their own companies when marching in an annual parade. When one of the firemen removed a star from the flag to represent South Carolina’s desire to withdraw from the Union, Gen. Sickles had the man jailed for one month.[v]

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans rejected South Carolina’s 1865 Constitution as a blatant effort to circumvent the emancipation of blacks and ordered the creation of a new one. Over President Johnson’s veto, Congress also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. A precursor to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Act, enacted 9 April 1866, rejected any effort to deny citizenship based on race or previous condition of servitude and required that all laws apply to citizens equally. In accordance with the act, Gen. Sickles declared South Carolina’s Black Codes invalid.[vi]

General Edward R.S. CanbyIn August 1867, President Johnson removed Gen. Sickles from office, citing his heavy-handedness in dealing with southern whites. Johnson chose political conservative, Gen. Edward R.S. Canby, to replace him. Despite his political leanings, Gen. Canby placed his duty to uphold the law above any personal considerations. The Fourteenth Amendment contained a clause, termed the ironclad oath, which required political officeholders to swear that they had never taken up arms against the United States nor aided the Confederacy. On 20 February 1868, Gen. Canby removed Mayor Gaillard from office because of his role in the war. He filled the position of mayor with a series of military appointments, each of whom served less than four months.[vii] 

Reverend Richard H. CainIn May 1868, Gen. Canby again intervened in Charleston’s politics when he replaced all but one of the city’s aldermen because of their refusal or inability to take the ironclad oath. The men he chose to replace them included seven African Americans. Two of the men, Rev. Richard H. Cain of the A.M.E. Church, and Rev. Ennals J. Adams, a Presbyterian minister, came to the South with the goal of assisting newly freed men and women gain the tools necessary to obtain independence from their former owners. The other five men: Richard E. Dereef, Robert Howard, William McKinlay, Edward P. Wall, and William O. Weston were local to Charleston. Gen. Canby probably chose the latter group because they were members of the city’s antebellum “free brown elite” and generally held respected positions in society. Despite any effort on Gen. Canby’s part to lessen the impact of military political interference, white Charlestonians considered these appointments the most egregious affront yet to their way of life.[viii] 

Prior to the Civil War, the South operated under what some historians have termed a three-caste system of social stratification. Whites occupied the upper societal tier, free blacks fell somewhere in the middle, and enslaved people occupied the bottom tier. Any blurring of the lines between these social groups, whether between whites and blacks, or free blacks and slaves, was a source of deep consternation and anxiety. The role of Denmark Vesey, a free black, in the slave insurrection of 1822 was never far from the minds of white Charlestonians who feared the very system of inequality they created may come crashing down upon their heads. Amidst sectional conflicts between slave and free states, and in the aftermath of the failed Vesey plot, lawmakers passed a series of laws designed to control free blacks. These laws prevented slaveholders from manumitting slaves without the approval of the legislature. They also called for the re-enslavement of free blacks who did not have a white patron and prevented free blacks from leaving the state. As the Civil War loomed, the “free brown elite” occupied an increasingly precarious position in Charleston society. Despite close ties with the white patrons they relied upon for their status and livelihood, individuals in this group often identified with the suffering experienced by less privileged members of their race.[ix]

The local men Canby chose to represent black Charlestonians present an interesting subset of Charleston’s “free brown elite.” They included men who tended toward conservative ideals like William J. McKinley, Richard E. Dereef, and Robert Howard. These men took their financial interests into account and may have felt more in common with white Charlestonians than newly freed men and women. They generally supported laws that maintained the social distance between themselves and newly freed people, while simultaneously supporting the notion that citizenship should not be based on race. Other members of the “free brown elite,” like Edward P. Wall, a well-respected tailor before the war, eagerly sought to exercise their newly acquired political rights despite the damaging toll it took on their livelihood. Meanwhile, men like William O. Weston, the youngest of the group, longed for the opportunity to use the education acquired through their elite status to uplift the black community and gain the prestige and authority so elusive to black men prior to the war.[x] 

In the coming months, the staff of Records Management will post a series of biographies detailing the lives these men led and the challenges they faced. Stay tuned for more information.

 

Citation Information:

Schultz, Rebecca L., “The Path to the Council Chambers: African Americans Aldermen in Charleston, 1865-1868,” City of Charleston Records Management Division, 3 May 2021, https://www.charleston-sc.gov/182/Records-Management-Division

 

[i] “The Surrender and Occupation of Charleston,” The Glasgow Herald, 18 March 1865, 2, https://www.news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2507&dat=16503188&id=0EJEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5737,3657238

 

[ii] Powers, Bernard E., Jr., Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1885., (Fayetteville, A.R.: University of Arkansas Press, 1994), 81-82.

 

[iii] Proceedings of the Colored People's Convention of the State of South Carolina, held in Zion Church, Charleston, (Charleston: South Carolina Leader Office, 1865), 23–26.

 

[iv] Simpson, Brooks D., The Reconstruction Presidents, (Lawrence, K.S.: The University of Kansas Press, 1998), 46-47.

 

[v] Fraser, Walter J., Jr., Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City, (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), 285. 

 

[vi] Jenkins, Wilbert E., Seizing the New Day: African Americans in Post-Civil War Charleston, (Bloomberg and Indianapolis: I.N.: Indiana University Press, 1998), 55.

 

[vii] Grant, Ulyses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4367/4367-h/4367-h.htm#ch69; Simpson, The Reconstruction Presidents, 116-118.

 

[viii] Fraser, Walter J., Jr. Charleston! Charleston!, 285-286; Powers, Bernard E., Jr. Black Charlestonians, 96.

 

[ix] Drago, Edmund L., Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute, (Atlanta, G.A.: The University of Georgia Press, 1990), 29-31; Powers. Black Charlestonians, 3-4.

 

[x] Drago, Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations, 38-40; Holt, Thomas, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1979), 146, 150; Powers, Black Charlestonians, 48-50, 93.

 

 

 

References:

 

Drago, Edmund L. Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute. Atlanta, G.A.: The University of Georgia Press, 1990. 

 

Fraser, Walter J., Jr. Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

 

Grant, Ulyses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4367/4367-h/4367-h.htm#ch69.

 

Holt, Thomas. Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

 

Jenkins, Wilbert E. Seizing the New Day: African Americans in Post-Civil War Charleston. Bloomberg and Indianapolis: I.N.: Indiana University Press, 1998.

 

Koger, Larry. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Company, Inc., Publishers, 1985.

 

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

 

Proceedings of the Colored People's Convention of the State of South Carolina held in Zion Church, Charleston. Charleston: S.C.: South Carolina Leader, 1865.

 

Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. Lawrence, K.S.: The University of Kansas Press, 1998.

 

“The Surrender and Occupation of Charleston.” The Glasgow Herald. 18 March 1865, 2.  https://www.news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2507&dat=16503188&id=0EJEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5737,3657238.