Last month I returned to South Carolina for the memorial service of my first English literature professor from my undergraduate days, and saying goodbye to an old friend tends to put me into a contemplative mood. As such and since I had a little while before I needed to return to Pennsylvania, I thought I would take a short trip to where I spent the first five years of my life – York, SC – to just see it again. In truth, I haven’t been back there since I left it twenty years ago so I wanted to see if I could stir up any long-forgotten feelings or memories. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as if almost everything in the South is haunted in some way, perhaps especially so with regards to its people, so I guess I was just curious to see if those old ghosts still sound the same. But this is a history blog so first some background on York, South Carolina.
The area that is called York today was originally inhabited by Cherokee and Catawba native groups until the 1750s when English, German, and Scots-Irish settlers — mainly from Pennsylvania – began to settle there, and two roads, one leading from Rutherfordton, North Carolina to Camden, South Carolina, and the other from Charlotte, North Carolina to Augusta, Georgia, met at a crossroads at the future site of the town. (Fun fact: The road that led from Rutherfordton to Camden is today called Liberty Street, on which I used to live.) Like any good Scottish folks would do, basically the first thing that was built in the area was a tavern, owned by the Fergus brothers, William and John. Thus, York began its life as Fergus’s Crossroads, and in 1785 was officially established as the county of York, with Yorkville (today simply called York) as its county seat. (Side note: The area that became York County after the American Revolution was the only part of South Carolina in which British forces did not win a single battle, and if you ask people in York, they’ll often tell you that the Revolution was won there in the South Carolina backcountry.)
The early nineteenth century was good to the white residents of York and the region became a major cotton growing center, with access to the central rail line in the area completed in 1852. Additionally, in 1860 York became the first town in the South Carolina Upcountry to have gas streetlights. Most white residents of York were supportive of secession before the Civil War, and many of them fought for the Confederacy during the conflict, with York having one of the highest per capita casualty rates in South Carolina. There were no actual battles fought in York during the war though. The South’s defeat and the ending of slavery did not go over well in South Carolina generally and York especially, and by 1868 York already had its own branch of the Ku Klux Klan, determined to drive out carpetbaggers, Republicans, and to maintain white supremacy. However, the election of 1870 granted significant victories to Republicans, owing to South Carolina’s large black population, which set off widespread violence perpetrated by the Klan all over York and the surrounding counties. In fact, York saw the most Klan terrorism in 1870 and 1871 of any other region in South Carolina as roughly 300 violent incidents were reported in just the first half of 1871 alone. After the passage of the 15th Amendment and the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1870 and 1871 respectively, President Ulysses Grant sent federal troops to end the violence in South Carolina and secure the voting rights of African-Americans, and since York was at the center of all the unrest, that’s where the federal forces set up their base camp. Grant suspended the writ of habeas corpus in South Carolina, and in York there were so many white people arrested that there wasn’t enough room in all the jails to hold them.
For some perspective, the U.S. government estimated in 1873 that 831 people were indicted in South Carolina from 1870 to 1871 with 195 of those just in York County. Additionally, 200 suspected Klansmen fled York altogether and 500 turned themselves in but since the federal and state authorities were so overwhelmed were released without being brought to trial. Grant’s use of federal troops and the ensuing court prosecutions (though only a small percentage of suspected Klansmen were actually found guilty) effectively broke the Klan’s hold over South Carolina, but violence against black South Carolinians continued in less organized ways. Today, a historical marker near the Allison Creek Presbyterian Church honoring Elias Hill, a formerly enslaved man who became a Baptist minister and who was physically disabled yet still tortured by the Ku Klux Klan, stands as the first and to my knowledge only memorial to the victims of Klan violence in South Carolina.
During the twentieth century, York was mostly known for producing textiles, but in the early twenty-first century many of those companies left the area and today current residents often find work either in Charlotte, North Carolina, or Rock Hill, South Carolina. The city’s population as of 2017 was 8,058 with 58% being white and 35% being black.
So back to my story, I used to live in front of an old Confederate cemetery, and I remember squeezing through the fence in my back yard, pushing my way past the vines and shrubs that obscured the view of the cemetery from my house, and jumping over this little ditch that was the last obstacle that needed to be faced if one wanted to play amongst the graves. Much to my delight, when I went back to the cemetery I found the little section that I would cross into from my back yard largely the same as I remember it, and the big magnolia tree that I used to like to sit under is still there. Thankfully, another thing I remember from those days was always getting stung by fire-ants, and this time I managed to avoid any of them.
Rose Hill Cemetery (photo by author)
Yet, as much as I enjoyed my short nostalgic trip, seeing the large Confederate monument in front of the cemetery reminds me of all the suffering that took place in York after the Civil War and is still mostly glossed over today. Even Elias Hill’s marker doesn’t expound upon the level of violence that was inflicted on black residents of York over the years, and you would never know of the city’s prominent role in the Klan’s terrorism during Reconstruction from just walking around its historical district. As such, being back in that cemetery gave me an uneasy feeling that I never had walking around it when I was five, but I’m glad I went back. I suppose that since my own story started in York, I’ve got a vested interest in understanding its history as best I can, especially its worst parts, and I like to hope that one day a more complete account of York’s history will be available to its people, and maybe the ghosts of so many innocent victims of white supremacist violence won’t have to haunt York anymore.