For Juneteenth, Tour South Carolina Carolina’s Reconstruction History

From 1868 to 1874, South Carolina had a majority black legislature, the only state to do so to this day.

In South Carolina, the post-Civil War era, the Age of Reconstruction, was a time of tremendous advances in racial equality. In fact, the black-majority legislature was the first to occupy the South Carolina state house that still stands. Black churches emerged as centers of community, social life and political power, and Benedict College was established in 1870 for the recently emancipated people of African descent.

90 percent of students at South Carolina College — now the University of South Carolina — were black.

All that progress was reversed by violent opposition, political deception and monetary interests. But for a short time, South Carolinaians saw the possibility of a biracial, just society.

The Reconstruction Era stretched from 1865-1877 and marked the challenging post-Civil War period as the United States struggled to reintegrate states that had seceded and determine the legal status of African Americans.

Now a new Reconstruction Route tells the story of those years. Curated with the help of Historic Columbia, each site or person provides connections to understand important events that shaped the period.

The tour begins at The Museum of the Reconstruction Era in the Woodrow Wilson Family Home. After nine years of extensive rehabilitation, the site boasts 21st century exhibits interpreting the racial, social, and political landscape of Columbia and Richland County during the Reconstruction Era.

It moves to Benedict College and from there it travels to four Reconstruction churches: First Calvary Church, Bethel AME Church, Ladson Presbyterian Church, and Zion Baptist Church.

Stop number four is the Phoenix Building, home to the influential and hyper-partisan newspaper, The Daily Phoenix. Owner and publisher Julian Selby used his newspaper to amplify the voices of newly disarmed Democrats seeking to restore some semblance of their antebellum past. Selby surrendered to the Democrats’ stories of the false ‘Lost Cause’ story. Many of these published stories, while biased and even misleading, shaped the general public’s view of the Civil War and Reconstruction for generations.

Nearby are stops five and six, the South Carolina State House and the University of South Carolina. Number seven is the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens, located in the Robert Mills Historic District. This site is usually associated with the socially elite and politically powerful families who owned the site from 1823 to 1873.

The eighth and final stop of the Reconstruction Trail is at Randolph Cemetery at the western terminus of Elmwood Avenue. Reverend Benjamin F. Randolph played a major role in the South Carolina constitutional convention in 1868, where he successfully promoted general public education for all. He then served briefly as a Republican state senator before being assassinated in October 1868 by a group of gun-toting white men. In 1871, 19 local black legislators and businessmen purchased land and established this cemetery as a more dignified final resting place for African Americans in Columbia. They named it after Randolph, who was reburied under the monument dedicated to him. Eight other Reconstruction-era lawmakers are also buried here, along with other figures of the civil rights movement.

Many Americans have learned to associate the Reconstruction era with dowdy “carpet bags,” corrupt politicians, financial opportunists, and heavy-handed lawmakers. A visit to Columbia can teach us that this was a period of progress and hope here, in South Carolina.

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