South Carolina had a black-majority legislature from 1868 to 1874, the only state that still does so to this day.
In South Carolina, the post-Civil War era, the Reconstruction era, was a time of tremendous advances in racial equality. In fact, the black majority legislature was the first to occupy the South Carolina statehouse, which still stands today. Black churches emerged as centers of community, social life, and political power, and in 1870 Benedict College was established for the recently emancipated people of African descent.
Ninety percent of the students at South Carolina College – now the University of South Carolina – were black.
All of this progress has been undermined by violent opposition, political harassment and monetary interests. But for a short time the South Carolinians saw the possibility of a multiracial, just society.
The era of Reconstruction stretched from 1865 to 1877, marking the challenging post-Civil War period when the United States grappled with the reintegration of the breakaway states and the determination of the legal status of African Americans.
Now a new Reconstruction Trail tells the story of those years. Curated with the assistance of Historic Columbia, each place or person provides connections to understand key events that marked that time.
The tour begins at the Museum of the Reconstruction Era in the Woodrow Wilson Family Home. After nine years of extensive renovation, the site now has 21st Century exhibits interpreting the racial, social, and political landscapes of Columbia and Richland Counties during the Reconstruction era.
It moves to Benedict College and from there 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 of the influential and non-partisan newspaper, The Daily phoenix. Owner and publisher Julian Selby used his newspaper to bolster the voices of the recently disempowered Democrats trying to recreate a semblance of their prewar past. Selby indulged in the Democratic tales of the “Lost Cause” fake narrative. Many of these published stories, while biased and even misleading, shaped the 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 in the Robert Mills Historic District. This site is most commonly associated with the social elite and politically powerful families who owned it from 1823 to 1873.
The eighth and final stop on the Reconstruction Trail is Randolph Cemetery at the western terminus of Elmwood Avenue. Reverend Benjamin F. Randolph played a significant role in the 1868 Constitutional Convention of the State of South Carolina, where he successfully promoted general public education for all. He then served briefly as a Republican senator before being assassinated by a group of armed white men in October 1868. In 1871, 19 local black lawmakers and businessmen bought land and established this cemetery as a more dignified final resting place for African Americans in Colombia. They named it after Randolph, who was buried again under the monument dedicated to him. Eight other lawmakers from the time of the reconstruction are buried here along with other figures from the civil rights movement.
Many Americans have learned to associate the reconstruction era with filthy “carpet diggers,” corrupt politicians, financial opportunists, and clumsy lawmakers. A visit to Columbia can teach us that this was a time of progress and hope here in South Carolina.