After Slavery: Educator Resources

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12. A White Schoolteacher on the 1876 Elections in the South Carolina Lowcountry

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.

The letter below, almost certainly written by schoolteacher Martha Schofield, offers a rare and compelling account of the 1876 election in the South Carolina lowcountry. The stakes in this critical election could hardly have been higher. The outcome not only sealed the fate of the Republican state government, it also led to a national 'deal', often called the Compromise of 1877, which ended the project of Reconstruction in the South and returned the region to "white home rule." A victory for the conservative candidate for Governor Wade Hampton was eventually declared after months of intense wrangling, but this outcome was, as his own supporters later admitted, the result of widespread fraud and intimidation directed against African Americans. Schofield's account suggests not only that these tactics had little effect in the South Carolina lowcountry, where freedpeople wielded such a clear majority, but that they also hardly dented Republican confidence in the area.

A White Schoolteacher on the 1876 Elections in the South Carolina Lowcountry

The whites tore away about the soldiers being sent down, but let me tell you, where they thought the soldiers could help them they were in hot haste to avail themselves of them. For instance, on Monday afternoon, before election, up comes a squad of soldiers, under the command of a Lieutenant, to my school-house, accompanied by two native whites. I gave them the recitation-room in the schoolhouse.

They (the whites) represented to the General that they were a great many colored men who wanted to vote the Democratic ticket, but their lives were threatened in case they did. Not long after the soldiers came the news spread over the island like wild-fire, and the clans [freedpeople] began to gather. On they cameon horse-back, mule-back, and "foot-back," and wanted to know of me "what dis yere ting mean?" and "how de rebel bring em?" Their first thought was to put them off the island. Of course, I set them all right, and told them all violence will only damage ourselves. In the meantime, seeing the gathering, the Lieutenant came up, told them when they saw the blue it was alright. One man said, "I know de blue cloths, Sir, but dese are tricky times, and the rebs can buy blue cloths." The Lieutenant smiled at the idea of tricky times. Well, next morning the polls opened at six o'clock-before daylight. The whites came with everything cut and dried...[but] the result of our poll was 585 solid Republican votes and only sixteen Democratic votes... During the day one fellow that the Democrats had been trying to persuade to vote their ticket, and as an argument laid all the hard times to the Republican Party, as he put his ticket in the box said: "There goes a straight Republican ticket, if I have to eat hay the next six months." Another old man hobbled along and as he put in his ticket said: "There goes a good 'Publican ticket, and may de Lord prosper him!" "Amen!" said I, in good Methodistic fashion... We insisted [the Democrats] keeping their own count, so their was no unfairness the whole day. But the whites were a sick crowd... We have carried this county by over 6,000 majority.

The women went to the polls to see how their husbands voted. At one place, a woman saw her husband about to put in a Democratic vote, and she sprang on him like a tiger and dragged the shirt off his back. The "brudder" left for repairs, and didn't vote that day. The News and Courier now complains that the women intimidated the men.

Source: "More Light: How the Negroes Vote When they Have a Chance," New York Times, November 25, 1876


Questions to Consider

  1. Why do you suppose this correspondent is eager to point out the contradiction in whites' attitudes toward federal troops? How do lowcountry whites try to encourage military intervention in the area?

  2. According to this account, word spreads rapidly about the discussions taking place between the military and local Democrats. How might we account for this, and for the mobilization of freedpeople that followed?

  3. What is the attitude of local freedpeople towards federal troops? In what sense are these "tricky times" in South Carolina?

  4. Is there any evidence in the document as to whether freedmen are intimidated by lowcountry conservatives? How would you describe their reaction to Democratic attempts to win their votes?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Ten