After Slavery: Educator Resources

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9. Freedpeople's Testimony on the Effects of Klan Violence

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Nine: Coercion, Paramilitary Terror & Resistance in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Though freedpeople resisted when and where possible, on the whole white paramilitary terror was effective in undermining the grassroots activism that had supported early attempts to radically alter relations between propertied white employers and the mostly destitute, ex-slave agricultural workforce. By 1870, violence was taking its toll, in both North and South Carolina, on the willingness of freedpeople to campaign and vote for the Republican ticket. The thin layer of support they could count on from white Republicans began to evaporate as terrorized former Unionists deserted the party ranks for safety. Especially in isolated rural communities where they were in a minority, black Carolinians found it increasingly difficult to express their political opinions, either openly in the public realm or at the ballot box during election time. The excerpts below—taken from the voluminous testimony heard by the Congressional Committee assigned to investigate the Klan—gives some sense of the difficulties that South Carolina Radicals labored under after Klan violence peaked in 1870.

Freedpeople's Testimony on the Effects of Klan Violence

[Severely disabled, Rev. Elias Hill was an influential Baptist minister in the vicinity of Clay Hill, York county, a schoolteacher and president of the local Union League. He gave the following testimony after being whipped by the Klan]:

Q: What effect did [widespread whippings] have on the colored people up there-are they alarmed?

A: Yes, sir; so alarmed that they did not sleep in the houses at night.

Q: How many people slept out?

A: I did not hear of any who did not sleep out-not at all; during last winter and spring all slept out from the effect of this excitement and fear... Men and women both. Some women would sleep out with their husbands. The woman would be so excited when their husbands left that they would go too with the children, and one stayed in a rainstorm while her husband was fleeing for his life, as they were about to kill him. There is June Moore; his wife went out with her little baby and rain every night until late in the spring, and many, many of them did the same.
[KKK Hearings, SC: 1409]

[Henry Johnson was a bricklayer and plasterer, active in the local Union League. Threatened with death by the Klan, he fled his home in Winnsboro, South Carolina, and moved to Columbia]:

Q: Do you feel at liberty to go [home] openly and publicly and address the colored people?

A: No, sir. I would not do it for the whole world.

Q: Could you do it with safety?

A: No, sir.

Q: What is the general feeling among the colored people?

A: I do not believe a meeting could be gotten up. They fear being killed, because some have been shot.
. . .

Q: Apart from the meetings, what is the sense of personal security by colored people in their own homes-do they feel safe?

A: No, sir. They keep moving away from up there, because they keep whipping and slashing them at night.
[KKK Hearings, SC: 318]

[Jack Johnson was a stonemason from lower Laurens county, South Carolina. The only freedman in his vicinity to own a mule, he was active in travelling the district speaking to Republican meetings, a role that made him a target for conservatives]:

Q: How is it there in regard to the other colored people? Do they feel at liberty to vote as they please, or has this system intimidation been carried on to any extent?

A: Well, they are down up there now, for all the Republican men that have been the leaders, speaking in going about through there, has left there-has come out and left them. My wife come from there about four weeks ago. She is just as well brought up as a white child. Her old master and mistress had no children, only her to take care of, and she was respected; and she said they refused to speak to her there, and told her she had better go away from there to Columbia, for that was a bad place for negroes, it was a harbor for negroes; nobody there seem to have no use for us-no old friends.

Q: What you know about the liberty of the colored people there to speak or do as they please? How was it at the election?

A: All voted that could vote, only they were persuaded to vote the other way... there were lots of threats. You could hear rumors of threats all through the settlement.
[KKK Hearings, SC: 1168]

[Alfred Wright was a lieutenant in the North Pacolet militia in Union county, South Carolina, before being visited and run off by the Klan; he was refugeed in Columbia at the time of his testimony]:

Q: How do the colored people up there feel about their safety?

A: Well, there is a heap of them run off in the-when they commenced what they did. They have left and gone to the West ["to Arkansas and Mississippi and Alabama" and Columbia]; even the captain of the North Pacolet [militia] company... They called for the captain [Fincher Foster] and he went. They called for him as they did for me...

Q: What makes you all come to Columbia?

A: I reckon they thought it was the safest place, and the most people here, and they make for the same place.

Q: Would not Charleston be a safer place, for the same reason?

A: They thought if they went further, they might strike a place where it was not so healthy as here. They wanted to be as near as they could to my people.
[KKK Hearings, SC: 1174-1175]

[Sam Nuckles described himself as a 'hard-down slave' before emancipation. Self-taught and barely literate, he was elected to the state legislature in 1868, and shortly afterwards threatened by the Klan, seeking refuge in Columbia]:

Q: Have many colored people left that county?

A: A great many.

Q: Where did they go to?

A: There are a great many refugees here and in Fairfield county, and in Chester too, and a good many at York; a great many have come here [Columbia]-a great not feel safe in going back...unless something is done.

Q: What has become of the republican party up there?

A: The republican party, I may say, is scattered and beaten and run out. And just like scattered sheep everywhere. They have no leaders up there-no leaders... If there are, they are afraid to come out and declare themselves leaders-colored men or white men.

Q: What is to become of you up there?

A: I give it up. Here's a gentleman named Mr. Burke Williams, professed to be a thoroughgoing republican with us. He is there, but I suppose he has gone back. I don't know what keeps him there; I suppose he has, maybe, agreed to sniff anything they say or do. That is the report that has been sent to us several times: if we come back and submit and resign being republicans and vote the democratic ticket, and take sides with them, we can stay there; but we do not propose to do that.

[KKK Hearings, SC: 1161]

[Harriet Hernandez and her husband were whipped by the Klan near Cowpens, Spartanburg county, in South Carolina. Local whites apparently became outraged when, after he rented some land, Harriett withdrew from domestic labor. Here she recounts being compelled to 'lie out' in the woods at night to avoid further violence]:

Q: Had he been afraid for any length of time?

A: He has been afraid ever since last October. He has been lying out. He has not laid in the house ten nights since October. [note: testimony July 10th]

Q: Is that the situation of the colored people down they are to any extent?

A: That is the way they all have to -men and women both.

Q: Were they afraid of?

A: Of being killed or whipped to death.

Q: What has made them afraid?

A: Because men that voted radical tickets they took the spite out on the women when they could get at them.

Q: How many colored people have been whipped in that neighborhood?

A: It is all of them, mighty near. I could not name them all... They have no satisfaction to live like humans, no how. It appears to me like all summer I have been working and it is impossible for me to enjoy it.
[KKK Hearings, SC: 586]

[Alberry Bonner was active in a Union League outside of Spartanburg, South Carolina]:

Q: That League is kept up yet?

A: No, sir; it is broken up.

Q: What broke it up?

A: The Ku-Klux got into such a way that they could not meet. They got to riding so that we just had to stop it. We were not safe at all.
[KKK Hearings, SC: 444-445]

Source: Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States [South Carolina], Washington, D.C., 1872


Questions to Consider

  1. How did white paramilitary violence affect the ability of the Republican Party to operate? What specific evidence can you find in the above excerpts?

  2. In the increasingly polarized context of the South after 1870, how might moderate Republicans respond to freedpeople's demands for fundamental changes in land and labor relations?

  3. What, if anything, do these targets of Klan violence seem to have in common? Is there a method to the Klan's campaign?

  4. What demographic changes does the paramilitary campaign seem to be producing? How do the personal decisions that individuals make in response to violence affect larger political changes?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Nine