After Slavery: Educator Resources

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9. A Charleston Newspaper on the 1868 Municipal Elections

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Two: Freed Slaves Mobilize in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

This excerpt from an article on Charleston's 1868 municipal elections illustrates the polarization that marked political contests throughout Reconstruction. Here the conservative Charleston Mercury provides an account of the raucous conduct of the mayoral elections, and of the celebrations and resentments that accompanied the announcement of Republican triumph. While it is difficult to know where the reporting of facts leaves off and sensationalism and racial animosity intrudes on the story, the assertion that freedpeople and white conservatives jostled for control of Charleston's streets and polling stations is consistent with a variety of accounts of clashes spanning the entire period.

A Charleston Newspaper on the 1868 Municipal Elections

[Charleston is] full of excitement on account 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...and became so turbulent at one time that [a 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 [voted the conservative ticket] 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, freedpeople paraded through the streets after Republican victory was announced] 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 and 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, hanging by his feet. As they walked, they continually cried, "the rooster's died that crowed so lustily this morning"..."tramp[ing] the city with the pole and the dead rooster 'wagging to and fro'."

a Gilbert Pillsbury, the [white] Republican candidate for mayor of Charleston, who ran on a platform of free schools for all, equal justice (including proportionate recruitment of blacks to the municipal police force), and employment for the city's large indigent population. Although he won the vote, Pillsbury was denied office by the incumbent mayor, a conservative who upheld white charges that the results had been obtained through "violence and intimidation." Republicans at state level eventually overturned this action and installed Pillsbury as mayor.

Source: "Election Day and Its Incidents," Charleston Mercury, November 2, 1868


Questions to Consider

  1. The 1868 elections would have been the first opportunity that freedmen had to vote for municipal officials. Why might this have been a particularly tense moment in Charleston's history?

  2. According to this article, black Republicans manifested open hostility towards African Americans who voted the conservative ticket. Why might former slaves decide to vote for the Democrats, and how might this effect their relationship to the city's African American community?

  3. The article offers a powerful commentary on political sentiment among the city's freedwomen. Why might they feel such a stake in an election in which they themselves were denied the right to vote? How might women attempt to influence the political situation in a legal context where they were excluded from voting?

  4. Although the article conveys the impression that the elections aggravated racial tensions, the Mercury correspondent notes the presence of a white man in the small procession 'tramping' through the streets after the results have been declared. If the city was as polarized as the article suggests, what might lead a white man to join in celebrating the Republican victory?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Two