Ghosts of York, South Carolina

York, SC #1Downtown York, SC

           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.)

York, SC #2Fergus’s Crossroads Historical Marker

          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.

York, SC #3Elias Hill Historical Marker

            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.

York, SC #4Rose 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.

References:

Allison, Anne T. “History of York.” Yorkville Historical Society. http://yorkvillehs.com/v2/about-york-sc/history-of-york/.
Hill, Elias. “Elias Hill Testifies About the Ku Klux Klan before a Congressional Committee.” Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States (Washington, 1872). http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=513.
Lee, Eddie. “The White Rose City: A Brief History Of York, S.C.” http://yorksc.gov/history.
Reynolds, Michael S. “York.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/york/.
“South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials: 1871-1872.” Encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/law-magazines/south-carolina-ku-klux-klan-trials-1871-72.
“The Trial and Tribulations of the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan.” The History Engine. University of Richmond. https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/3899.
“York, South Carolina.” United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/yorkcitysouthcarolina,yorkcountysouthcarolina/PST045217.
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Robert F. Kennedy’s Two Speeches

      Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. Around the same time, Robert F. Kennedy — U.S. senator, former attorney general, brother of assassinated president John F. Kennedy, and presidential candidate – was on his way to a campaign event in Indianapolis, Indiana when he received word of King’s assassination. Kennedy’s relations with the Civil Rights Movement and the black community in general had moved from frustratingly bad in 1963 to unprecedentedly good in 1968, based in large part on Kennedy’s willingness to listen to what black activists and leaders were telling him along with his use of federal resources against white supremacists in the South. By 1968 despite all his limitations in being able to fully understand African-American experiences, Civil Rights leaders and black Americans were largely confident that Bobby Kennedy really wanted to help them in their struggle for equality. As such, after arriving in Indianapolis Kennedy was warned by the chief of police that it would be too dangerous for him to proceed to an outdoor rally he had planned in a predominately black inner-city neighborhood. Kennedy disagreed and went anyway, speaking extemporaneously for a few minutes to a crowd of about one thousand people.

RFK Photo #1Robert Kennedy speaking in Indianapolis, April 4, 1968

      Tensions were understandably high all over the United States with riots breaking out in dozens of cities over the country, but Kennedy stressed that it was a mistake to answer senseless violence with more anger and hate. In a particularly poignant moment, Kennedy addressed publicly for the first time his brother’s assassination five years earlier, remarking that “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.” Earlier in his speech Kennedy further stated that “we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.” In response to his speech, Indianapolis saw no riots in the aftermath of MLK’s assassination.

      Kennedy suspended his campaign until King could be buried but decided to continue on to Cleveland, Ohio to keep one of his planned appearances – this time to the affluent, white members of the Cleveland City Club on April 5. His remarks were brief, lasting about ten minutes, and his speech was mostly overlooked at the time, but in it he gives insights that are just as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

RFK Photo #2Kennedy speaking to Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968

    Kennedy began by saying that “This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity to speak briefly to you about this mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.” For him, the assassination of Martin Luther King was yet another incident in the division and suffering in the United States that had started with his brother’s murder in 1963 and had only increased in the following years. Kennedy proclaimed that “Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily – whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence – whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.” He continued that “we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike… We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire.” Furthermore, he concluded these initial reflections with his view that “Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others,” and that “Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”

    Kennedy’s remarks up to this point in his speech commented on the physical violence that was plaguing the United States, but he continued by addressing something that few white politicians ever had. He told his audience that “there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors.” He further explained that “This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all… When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.”

    Kennedy acknowledged that this intuitional and societal racism was morally untenable, but that there were no quick or easy solutions. He realized that the “question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence” and warned that “We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.” Finally, he affirmed that “Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land” and that “we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.” For Kennedy, “Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

    Kennedy’s two speeches, given on subsequent days in April of 1968 to two quite different groups – the first to black Americans who were reeling from the loss of one of their greatest leaders, the second to white campaign donors who paid to hear him talk about why he should be president – offer a glimpse into a unique man’s ability to relate to a wide range of people. His work as attorney general in support of Civil Rights activists and the personal tragedy he went through when his brother was assassinated helped him to achieve a level of trust among black Americans unheard of among other white politicians, and his family connections and privileged upbringing cemented his credentials among America’s wealthy, white elite. Kennedy found a way to talk to and with both groups as he helped black Americans to see that their cause was not lost among white Americans, even in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and as he reminded white Americans that their fates were intertwined with those of their fellow Americans, regardless of skin color, and that the United States’ current system of institutionalized racism and exploitation was detrimental to all in the long run, no matter how much it might have benefitted them in the short term. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968 and thus never lived to further promote his views of tolerance and social reform, but his two speeches from fifty years unfortunately continue to be relevant to us today while racism — both individual and systemic — are still problems, when gun violence still ends the lives of people whose full potential will never be known, and when some individuals would continue to espouse fear and cruelty to preserve a system that benefits them to the harm of so many others. Kennedy was far from a perfect man or politician, but he saw that what harms any of us, harms all of us and that we must all work together for peace or continue to suffer in our divisions.

References:

Larry Tye, “The Most Trusted White Man in Black America,” Politico, July 7, 2016. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/07/robert-f-kennedy-race-relations-martin-luther-king-assassination-214021

Robert F. Kennedy, “Statement on Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Statement-on-the-Assassination-of-Martin-Luther-King.aspx

Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Senator-Robert-F-Kennedy-to-the-Cleveland-City-Club-Cleveland-Ohio-April-5-1968.aspx

Legends of the Fall (of the Winter Palace)

Above: The Storming of the Winter Palace. Photograph from the mass spectacle staged in 1920. http://faberfantin.com/iconography/early/winterpalace.htm

 

The tyranny of the Tsar had ended in February of 1917 with his forced abdication, Lenin triumphantly returned from his exile in April, and the hearts of the Russian people beat once again with hope for a peaceful, joyful future. But the global war that was taking the lives many Russian sons in a pointless struggle started by the capitalist oppressors in the West and entered into by the hated Nicholas II still raged. The Provisional Government, headed by Alexander Kerensky, proved to be just as ineffectual — except in its oppressiveness — as the Tsar had been. Months had gone by, and it was now late October (early November in the West). The proletariat had finally been pushed to their breaking point. It was time for them, led by their Soviet Council, to take power. In Petrograd on the night of October 25 (November 7 in the West), they, accompanied by the elite Red Guards of the Bolsheviks, stormed the current seat of the Provisional Government and traditional residence of the Tsars (though Nicholas II rarely had stayed there) known as the Winter Palace with the signal to attack the Winter Palace being provided by a shot from the battlecruiser Aurora, anchored in the harbor. The noble workers of Petrograd soon overthrew the bourgeoisie administration and arrested the usurpers of the power that rightly belonged to the people.  The Revolution against authoritarianism and class exploitation was accomplished. All power now rested with the Soviets. History was now visibly moving in the right direction toward equality, dignity, and the improvement and perfection of not only Russia but of all humanity.

Or so one version of the story goes.

Another iteration of this tale says that after Nicholas II gave up his throne in February, Russia had seen the light of democracy from the West and was finally on a path that would allow them to take their place with all the civilized countries of the world. There were difficulties and setbacks to be sure, but the Provisional Government was the best hope Russia had to attain a system of government that could stand alongside the nations of Europe and the United States. That dream was murdered at the hands of the Bolsheviks who, led by the power-mad Lenin and the future icepick receptacle Trotsky, seduced the most destitute and poorly educated of the Russian people to give in to their anger, tear down all that remained of Russia’s honorable past, and thus destroy any chance of a free Russian future. The storming of the Winter Palace was then not a glorious beginning for a better Russia but a shameful and illegitimate coup, orchestrated by evil men, which would culminate in seventy years of oppression, misery, and death for millions of people all over the world.

winterpalace2

The Pogrom of the Winter Palace, painting by Ivan Vladimirov c. 1917 https://www.wikiart.org/en/ivan-vladimirov/the-pogrom-of-the-winter-palace

 

With the one-hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution occurring this week, it seems helpful to hear the story of what occurred so many years ago in so far away from a place in a less dramatic but hopeful more truthful way.

As with just about everything, the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917 is complicated, but perhaps its most intriguing aspect is how anti-climactically it played out, especially in light of later representations of it. To begin, increased pressure on the Bolsheviks by Kerensky in the days leading up to the October Revolution caused them to see that an insurrection to seize power was inevitable, and so they devised a plan in which Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Council (MRC), comprised of soldiers, sailors, and other militant workers, would take control of strategic buildings in Petrograd on the morning of October 25 and demand the Provisional Government’s surrender. If Kerensky and his ministers refused then the cannons of the Peter and Paul Fortress (which served mostly as a prison for political prisoners) would be fired as a signal for the Red Guards and the MRC to take the Winter Palace and capture the recalcitrant government officials. The first part of the plan went off rather well, and by noon the MRC was in control of the Mariinsky Palace and most of the communications of Petrograd. As far as things going according to plan though, that was about it. Unfortunately, when the Bolsheviks captured the Peter and Paul Fortress they realized that its cannons were more relics than anything else and did not actually fire so, given the Provisional Government’s decision to not give up, the plan’s timeline had to be pushed back a few hours until some functioning cannons could be found and hauled up to the fortress’s roof.

When these were located and laboriously brought up to the roof, the Bolsheviks couldn’t find anything to fire out of them so that part of the plan was scrapped and basically any hope of staying on the timeline that had been laid out was abandoned as well. As night was setting in, Plan B was to raise a red lantern up a flagpole on top of the fortress and let that be the signal, but red lanterns seemed to be out of stock at the moment so the commissar of the fortress, a man by the name of Blagonravov, went out to find one. The Gods who look out for such erstwhile revolutionaries must have already turned in for the night because Blagonravov soon found himself lost in the dark and then fell in a bog but finally located a lantern (which wasn’t red but at least it was something) and returned to the fortress. Unfortunately, the lantern he found couldn’t be fixed to the flagpole, and so no one surrounding the Winter Palace ever got a signal from the Peter and Paul Fortress.

All this worrying about was somewhat unnecessary though as most of the Winter Palace’s defenders had either joined the Bolsheviks or just went home. All that remained in the palace that day were about 3,000 soldiers including some Cossacks, a few cadets from the nearby military academies, and the Women’s Battalion of Death, and none of them were particularly willing to fight off the more many Bolsheviks. As the day turned to night and more Bolsheviks started to surround the palace, the defenders began to lose hope, and as it was getting close to dinner time, most decided it was as good a time as any to call it a day and go home. The MRC members and Red Guards outside the palace (some had already begun infiltrating it) just let the Provisional Government’s guards walk away mostly unmolested, and by that night only 300 defenders remained. Around seven that night the MRC gave the ministers the chance to surrender and come out, but this demand was rejected by what remained of the Provisional Government’s officials, and so the Bolsheviks outside the palace settled in to wait for the signal from the Peter and Paul Fortress, which of course never came. Eventually, the sailors of the Aurora in the harbor received word to start the assault and fired a blank shot to alert the Bolsheviks at the palace. The loud sound of the shot convinced the remaining defenders that, while the Winter Palace was undoubtedly lovely, maybe it wasn’t worth all this fuss, and so they left as well.

The Bolsheviks soon took over the palace after a brief shelling from the finally functioning and loaded cannons of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Aurora, and the Bolsheviks in the palace square (though few of the cannonballs actually hit the palace) and found the ministers awaiting their fate. Kerensky had already fled hours earlier in a car he stole from the American Embassy, but the rest of the ministers were arrested and taken to the fortress. The Provisional Government was no more, most of its last defenders made it home in time for dinner, the Women’s Battalion of Death hopefully decided to do the sensible thing and become a punk rock band, and the Bolsheviks found a fantastic supply of wine within the Winter Palace for their trouble in stopping by (though this wine would prove to be something of a problem in the coming days, that’s another story). And most of the people of Petrograd who were not in the immediate area of the palace were none the wiser that something happened until the next day.

Around the same time over at the Smolny Institute, which was the headquarters of the Bolsheviks and the Petrograd Soviet (a quasi-governmental body composed mostly of workers and soldiers from which many people in Russia took direction), Lenin had already announced that the Provisional Government had been overthrown, and all that was left was for the Soviet to seize power finally. The more moderate members of the Soviet, called Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), were less than pleased with how the Bolsheviks had orchestrated the assault on the Winter Palace and instead of working with the Bolsheviks (and Left SRs) to create a balanced Soviet government, decided to walk out instead. The remaining Soviet deputies that were opposed to the Bolsheviks were now outnumbered, and when they suggested a compromise, Trotsky ridiculed their lack of power and consigned them to the “dustbin of history.” There wasn’t much to say after that, and so the remaining opposition forces left as well. The Bolsheviks had won, the Petrograd Soviet was theirs, and soon (after a brutal civil war) all of Russia would also be.

 

 

Thus ends the story of the capture of the Winter Palace, the fall of the Provisional Government, and the ascent of the Bolsheviks. Blood didn’t flow from the former tsar’s palace. Petrograd didn’t erupt into chaos. All that was good and noble in Russia wasn’t suddenly and violently suffocated. Day broke on October 26th instead peacefully, but Russia had changed. Whether that was a good or bad thing is still up for debate.

Bibliography

Corney, Frederick C. Telling October: Memory and the Making of the Bolshevik Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Wade, Rex A. The Russian Revolution, 1917. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.