For Juneteenth, visit South Carolina’s Reconstruction History


From 1868 to 1874, South Carolina had a majority black legislature, the only state to do so to date.

In South Carolina, the post-Civil War era, the Reconstruction Era, was a time of tremendous progress in racial equality. In fact, the predominantly black legislature was the first to occupy the South Carolina state house that still stands today. Black churches became centers of community, social life, and political power, and in 1870 Benedict College was established for recently emancipated people of African descent.

90% of the students at South Carolina College – now the University of South Carolina – were black.

All of this progress has been undone by violent opposition, political bickering and financial interests. But for a brief period, Southern Carolinians saw the possibility of a mixed race and equitable society.

The era of reconstruction spanned from 1865 to 1877 and marked the difficult post-Civil War period when the United States struggled to reintegrate the seceding states and determine the legal status of the Afro -Americans.

Today a new Reconstruction Trail tells the story of those years. Organized with the help of Historic Colombia, each site or person offers connections to understand the important events that shaped the period.

The tour begins at the Reconstruction Era Museum at the Woodrow Wilson family home. After a complete rehabilitation of nine years, the site has 21st century-old exhibits that interpret the racial, social and political landscape of Columbia and Richland County during the Reconstruction era.

He moved to Benedict College and from there visited four rebuilding churches: First Calvary Church, Bethel AME Church, Ladson Presbyterian Church, and Zion Baptist Church.

Stop number four is the Phoenix Building, home of the influential and hyper-partisan newspaper, the Phoenix of the day. Owner and publisher Julian Selby used his newspaper to amplify the voices of newly destitute Democrats seeking to restore some semblance of their pre-war past. Selby indulged in the Democrats’ tales of the false “lost cause” narrative. Many of these published stories, while biased and even misleading, have shaped the general public’s perspective on civil war and reconstruction for generations.

Nearby are stops five and six, the South Carolina State House, and the University of South Carolina. Number seven is the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens, located in the historic Robert Mills district. This site is most often associated with the social elite and politically powerful families who owned it from 1823 to 1873.

The eighth and final stop on the Reconstruction Trail is at Randolph Cemetery at the western terminus of Elmwood Avenue. Reverend Benjamin F. Randolph was instrumental in the South Carolina State Constitutional Convention in 1868, where he successfully promoted universal public education for all. He then briefly served as a Republican state senator before being assassinated in October 1868 by a group of armed white men. In 1871, 19 local black lawmakers and businessmen purchased land and established this cemetery as a more dignified final resting place for African Americans in Colombia. They named it after Randolph, who was reburied under the monument dedicated to him. Eight other Reconstruction Era lawmakers are also buried here along with other figures from the civil rights movement.

Many Americans have learned to associate the Age of Reconstruction with sordid “carpet stalls”, corrupt politicians, financial opportunists, and authoritarian lawmakers. A visit to Columbia can tell us that it was a time of progress and hope here in South Carolina.

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