After Slavery: Educator Resources

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13. Freedpeople Confront a Black Politician for Having 'Sold Out his Race'

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.

It is a mistake to assume that African Americans went into the struggles facing them during Reconstruction with a single, coherent outlook.

Although the bitter racial hostility infusing the conservatives made it unlikely that they could win large numbers of blacks to their side, there were nevertheless real tensions within black politics, and these tended to grow more pronounced as Reconstruction weakened and factional quarrels affected the Republican Party. In the early period, Charleston's large and somewhat prosperous free black population was uncertain whether to hitch its fate to that of poor, ex-slave plantation laborers and domestics. Later divisions also emerged between mulattoes and blacks, urban and rural freedpeople, and between those who had managed to acquire wealth and the large mass of former slaves that were still destitute.

The following letter (submitted by a correspondent using the initials "G. T. W.") to the Charleston News and Courier describes the hostility that greeted then-Republican politician Thomas Hamilton at a meeting held on St. Helena Island in the lowcountry. By this time Hamilton was a fairly prosperous rice planter and was moving towards an alliance with conservatives (he would soon join the Democratic Party). Just prior to the meeting he had spoken in opposition to the 'indignation meeting' organized by Republicans in Charleston to protest against a massacre of blacks at Hamburg, South Carolina. The wider context  of this letter was the critical 1876 election.

Freedpeople Confront a Black Politician for Having 'Sold Out his Race'

[Describing freedpeople attending a meeting at St. Helena Island]: ...rotting amid wreck, ruin, destitution, neglect and immorality-a population without life or industry, cast away from the anchorage of civilization, of reason and of common sense... a considerable degree of faction and party feeling is nurturing in opposition to the absorption of office by what are called "Yankee niggers," and in favour of distributing some of the lucrative offices among the native blacks, who have become jealous as well as ambitious...

Representative Thomas Hamilton commenced to speak, and was attempted to be interrupted by one of the bystanders, who charged him with having gagged Senator Sammy Greena upon the occasion when he was chairman of a meeting in Beaufort, and [insisted he] should not be heard until he apologized... He was further charged with being a Democrat, and with having written a letter to the News and Courier disapproving of indignation meetings, with having sold out his race, and with trying to popularize himself with the Democrats and white folks to the disparagement of his race and constituents.

[A]t the conclusion of these remarks Sammy Green commenced a bitter and incendiary speech. He took the Hamburg affair for his text, and called for vengeance. He stated that this was a negro country, and that the whites should be made to feel it...
The views of Thomas Hamilton, as expressed in his letter to the News and Courier a week ago,b has brought down upon him the bitterest and most unmeasured denunciation within the limits of his party... he is perfectly indifferent and is the most extraordinarily courageous and independent black man for his opportunities I ever saw...

aSamuel Greene was an ex-slave and a carpenter from adjacent Lady's Island

bIn which Hamilton denounced the organizers of the Hamburg indignation meting in Charleston

Source: [1] Carroll Neide to Bvt. Maj. H. Neide, June 30, 1868, , RG 105, BRFAL Papers; [2] William Stone to Bvt. Maj. H. Neide, July 1, 1868, , RG 105, BRFAL Papers; [3] C. P. Allston, Esq. and James Lesesne to 'Charley', Dec. 8, 1876, Allston Family Papers, Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina


Questions to Consider

  1. What is the tone of the correspondent's remarks about freedpeople at St. Helena's? Do they suggest that G. T. W. is hostile or friendly to the Republican Party? How might this color the account of the meeting which follows?

  2. What are the grounds for opposition to Thomas Hamilton? Why might these objections provoke hostility in the late summer of 1876?

  3. "T. G. W." describes Hamilton as "extraordinarily courageous" for standing up to his opponents. What are the grounds for lauding him in this way? How might others who attended the same meeting differ in their assessment?

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