After Slavery: Educator Resources

Exhibit Splash Image

11. Election Day Street Confrontations in Charleston

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Ten: Freedpeople and the Republican Party in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

With a large and restive black majority that grew larger after emancipation, Charleston was in some ways the epicenter of lowcountry black mobilization. This city became the nexus of transport and communication networks that spread southward to the sea islands and Port Royal, northward to the rice plantations at Georgetown, and westward into the interior of the state. The following document, an article from the conservative Charleston Mercury, conveys some sense of the polarization that the city experienced at election time, as well as the tensions between Republican officials and black voters, the public involvement of freedwomen in street mobilizations, and the air of defiance which black voters displayed toward the city's conservatives.

Election Day Street Confrontations in Charleston

[Charleston is] full of excitement on the part of the colored men, who hung around the polls, and particularly polls 1 and 2...indulg[ing] in demonstrations that at various periods threatened trouble. They made use of the most trivial causes to congregate in different parts of the streets, and brandish their clubs; draw their knives and gather brickbats...became so turbulent at one time that [Republican official] had to mount the railing of the city park and address them on their unbecoming conduct...
Their conduct to the colored men who sustained [the conservative candidate] was a shameful commentary on their alleged respect for the rights of others, who would not bow down and worship at their shrine.

Whenever an announcement was made showing a majority for Pillsbury,a they would give vent to hurrahing and the utterance of epithets, to say the least of it, disgraceful. Not an unimportant feature in the assemblage, was the number of women, who seemed vastly interested in the political conflict. They shook their skirts and twisted themselves, as though the millennium had dawned for their special benefit.

[Later, after the announcement of Pillsbury's victory]:

Up Meeting Street they went after procuring an American flag bordered with black, emblematic we fear of the future of our municipality, which was borne at the head of the disorderly column hilarious in the extreme... Pillsbury's remarks were temperate and full of promise to respect the rights of his "enemies" as well as his friends... On our way towards Rutledge Street, we saw a quartet of Negroes, led by a white man with his "shillalay" in hand, while they bore aloft a pole on which there was a dead rooster,b hanging by his feet. As they walked, they continually cried, "the rooster's dead that crowed so lustily this morning," [tramping the city streets with the pole and the dead rooster "wagging to and fro"].

aGilbert Pillsbury was a Massachusetts-born abolitionist and former Freedmen's Bureau official, selected with black support to stand in the election for mayor of Charleston.

bThe rooster was the symbol of the conservative or Democratic Party.

Source: "Election Day and Its Incidents," Charleston Mercury, November 12, 1868


Questions to Consider

  1. Are there any clear signs that this is a partisan account of events on election day? What aspects of the events are emphasized in the article and what details about the day, if any, are missing?

  2. How does the Mercury characterize freedmen's attitudes toward black Democratic voters? Why might some African Americans in Charleston be willing to vote the Democratic ticket?

  3. In some parts of the South at the same time, observers sympathetic to freedpeople portray them as timid or intimidated by white opponents of Reconstruction. Does this account portray them in that light? Why might they feel more confident in Charleston at this time?

  4. The account notes the prominent involvement of freedwomen in the street celebrations, suggesting that they were "vastly interested in the political conflict" being played out in Charleston. How do we account for their interest in an election in which they were denied the right to vote?

  5. The article reports that a white man accompanies the "quartet" of blacks parading through the streets of Charleston, an observation that seems to contradict the racial depiction of events surrounding the election. Where might the Republicans find support among the city's white population, and how might conservatives (like the editors of the Mercury) regard white Republicans in the city?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Ten