Reconstruction in Columbia, SC
The years 1865 through 1877 rank as the most controversial—and yet least understood—period in United States history. Reconstruction, as those twelve years came to be called, produced more than physical recovery in the wake of the Civil War. This era established the foundation on which modern citizenship is based.
- How did Reconstruction change South Carolina politically?
After the Civil War America stood as it had never had previously. Nationally the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, known collectively as the Reconstruction Amendments, granted formerly enslaved and free people of color social, political, and economic opportunities for the first time. Political affiliation largely fell along racial lines with the Republican party—considered the party of Lincoln—representing the interests of newly emancipated people of color and of whites determined to upset the antebellum status quo aligned with the Democratic party. In South Carolina, passage of the progressive 1868 State Constitution fueled tremendous change by removing barriers to voting. Later that year, South Carolinians elected the nation’s first—and only—Black-majority state legislature, which set about rebuilding an economy and infrastructure badly damaged during the war.
- What advancements did Reconstruction offer?
Following the passage of the progressive 1868 State Constitution, Black leaders and sympathetic white politicians realized a fully integrated state-supported university (the University of South Carolina) and created the state’s first chapter of the American Woman Suffrage Association. However, the constitution’s most impactful resolution was the creation of South Carolina’s state-funded public school system, which educated both Black and white children.
- Why did Reconstruction end?
While Black men experienced enfranchisement through the unprecedented right to vote, obstacles—covert and overt—increased as disenfranchised white citizens sought to regain the power they wielded before the end of the Civil War.
As Columbia flourished, white Democrats, led by former Confederates like Captain Martin Gary and Wade Hampton III, organizing to resistance. The militant nature of their efforts grew out of local rifle clubs and used rhetoric to paint Black people as corrupt and opportunistic. This strategy proved especially effective among poor, white farmers who did not see many economic gains in post-Civil War society.
Although violence against Black people was prevalent throughout Reconstruction (often symbolized by the assassination of Republican state party chairman Benjamin F. Randolph and the Ku Klux Klan trials of 1870-1871), it increased in the months before the gubernatorial election of 1876. With Hampton as their candidate, local white militiamen, now organized as the Red Shirts, terrorized and massacred Black militiamen and citizens in both Ellenton and Hamburg, S.C. During the election, Hampton’s supporters intimidated Black voters at polling stations and also submitted “tissue ballots,” a form that appeared as one piece of paper but, when shaken in the ballot box, would separate into several votes.
Both Hampton and the incumbent governor, Daniel H. Chamberlain, claimed victory, resulting in the formation of two competing governments. This stand-off lasted until 1877, when a compromise between the parties, brokered at the national level, sanctioned the inauguration of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as long as federal troops were withdrawn from the South.
The departure of these troops and subsequent collapse of support for Chamberlain’s Republican government in South Carolina marked the end of Reconstruction. Hampton and his disciples spent the next two decades consolidating power and denying Black men rights. White historians aided in this endeavor by smearing the accomplishments of Reconstruction-era figures.
- Why does Reconstruction matter?
The legacy of Reconstruction—the first civil rights movement—lives on in our everyday lives, through the constant negotiation of the rights of citizens and in how we perceive ourselves and others. But that journey continues as we invite you to explore further sites and contemplate issues that have remained contested for more than 150 years.
- Where can you learn more about Reconstruction?
Today, many of Columbia's historic buildings and sites provide connections to the Reconstruction era, several of which we invite you to explore below. For an immersive experience to understand how this period shaped Richland County and South Carolina’s capital city, book a tour of The Museum of the Reconstruction Era. Located in the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, a circa-1871 landmark built for the Wilson family while “Tommy” Woodrow Wilson was a teenager, this museum is now a 21st-century educational facility where visitors can explore the dueling narratives of this pivotal period in history.