Every year Alan Russell and I do some sort of ramble or exploration on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. This tradition started when both of us were in education and had a rare winter Monday that we didn’t have to work. This year we invited my brother, Houston, and Dwight Moffitt to come along with us. We would be exploring sites associated with Dr. Benjamin Mays, a mentor of Dr. King, and sites associated with the Phoenix Riots of 1898, of which Dr. Mays was a witness.
First a bit of background…
Like so many of my explorations, this one started by spotting a curious name on a map. An 1894 township map of Abbeville County indicated a town of which I had been unaware. The small town of Phoenix was located on the then county line between Abbeville and Edgefield.
This area is now in present-day Greenwood County. Now that I had a new town name I had to do some digging. That’s when I came across a dark event in the history of South Carolina, the Phoenix Election Riots of November 8, 1898. I started doing more research into both the history of the town and the riots.
In the late 1800s Phoenix was a small farming community with several churches, a school, and at least one general store. I couldn’t find an origin for the name of the community and it doesn’t appear on Robert Mills’ 1825 map of Abbeville. Then again, neither does the city of Greenwood.
Carolana.com gives conflicting information about when the first post office was established. It was either in 1871 with Thomas J. Ouzts as postmaster or in 1878 with Johnson S. Watson as postmaster. Regardless, John Watson’s store, the Watson and Lake Mercantile served as a gathering place, post office, and polling place for the community.
The Tolbert Family was one of the largest landowners in the area and they were an anomaly. The Tolberts had been slave owners until the Emancipation Proclamation and had served in the Confederate Army. However, after the Civil War they voted for the Republican candidate Grant for president and became heavily involved with the political party. Despite their previous alignments, the Tolberts supported voting rights for the newly freed slaves.
The Democratic Party headed by Pitchfork Ben Tillman was doing everything possible to disenfranchise black voters and establish segregationist Jim Crow laws. The South Carolina Constitution of 1895 codified new voting regulations with rules for literacy and land ownership that would deny voting rights for most blacks.
In 1898 Robert Red Tolbert ran as a Republican for Representative of the Third Congressional District against Democrat A. C. Latimer. On election day Red Tolbert’s brother, Thomas Payne Tolbert, arrived at the Watson and Lake Mercantile to collect affidavits from blacks that were being denied the right to vote. The affidavit read in part as follows:
This certifies that the undersigned, being over the age of 21, male resident of the votive precinct ______ of Ward ____ and legally qualified to register and vote therein, did, on this the 8th day of November, 1898, present himself at the said voting precinct to vote for R. R. Tolbert, the Republican candidate for congress in the Third district of said State, desiring and intending to vote for the said R. R. Tolbert, and, upon his attempting to vote, was denied the right to so vote, and his vote thus offered to proper officers was rejected.
Tom Tolbert collected his affidavits in a “ballot box” in the upstairs room of the store where the election was held. He was forced to move his activities from that location, but the store proprietor, a relative of the Tolberts, allowed him to continue collecting affidavits on the front porch of the store.
The local Democrat chair, J. I. “Bose” Etheridge, and Robert Cheatham and a group of followers accosted Tolbert and turned over his ballot box. A fight ensued, with Etheridge and Cheatham hitting Tolbert with sticks. Tolbert purportedly hit Etheridge over the head with a wagon axle. Someone fired a shotgun, hitting Etheridge in the forehead and killing him. That caused a general melee between the Democrats and Tolbert supporters with multiple shots fired. Tolbert was hit by gunfire as many as twenty times, but somehow survived. Badly wounded, he was taken to a nearby relative’s home.
Robert Cheatham and a group of armed white men began rounding up black men and also began to search for Thomas Tolbert. The evening of the riot Tolbert was located, but was left alone as it was thought that he was near death anyway. The next day several black men who were thought to be participants in the riot were taken to Rehoboth Methodist Church where they were shot and killed.
In the days that followed there was more violence against the black population of the community and against the Tolberts, in particular. Tolbert properties as well as the property of random black residents were destroyed and burned. The newspapers of the time laid the blame for the riot squarely at the feet of the Tolbert family. One report went so far as to say that the Tolberts had hidden weapons for the black residents in the tall grass next to Phoenix School in preparation for the election riots.
The Tolberts were driven out of the region. Wyatt Aiken (Alan’s great-grandfather) wrote out warrants for the Tolberts’ arrests. On November 14 Red Tolbert actually traveled to the White House and spoke to President William McKinley about the riots. McKinley declined to offer any federal aid to secure the peace. Joseph Tolbert was removed as postmaster of the McCormick post office and John Tolbert and his son Joe fled to Columbia, where they were arrested.
Ultimately, no one was held accountable for the violence by the courts. The Tolberts were not tried and those arrested were released. None of the white riot participants were ever accused or arrested. The only “justice” to be had was the vigilante justice of the mobs with their lynchings. It’s also important to note that those rioting were always considered to be the disenfranchised blacks, led by the Tolberts, never the white vigilante mob.
The Tolberts were persona non grata for decades to come. Ten years later Joe Tolbert was a resident of the town of Ninety Six, but was driven out by the town’s people in 1908
Thomas Payne Tolbert survived his injuries, but was permanently scarred by the events of 1898, both physically and mentally. He had witnessed the homes of his family torched by the mobs. In 1904 another Tolbert house was burned, so he decided to built a fireproof home, one that could not be so easily torched. The result was the Rock House, constructed entirely of stone, concrete, glass, and steel, and built on his farmland not far from the Phoenix community. However, Tom Tolbert never lived in the Rock House. He lived in a detached kitchen and stored family heirlooms in the house. Thomas Payne Tolbert died in 1940 after getting sick from drinking bad eggnog with whiskey. The Rock House is still privately owned by descendants of the Tolberts.
And so we arrive at the present, sort of…
The year was 2020 and it was the height of the pandemic. It was also the height of the Black Lives Matter protests across the country. I had just finished most of my research into the events of 1898 and the George Floyd protests in June of that year seemed like a good time to visit the locations associated with the Phoenix Election Riot.
I located the community of Phoenix, Rehoboth Church, and the Rock House and took photos of these locations. I visited the Greenwood County Museum and traveled to the Dr. Benjamin Mays Historic Site. The site was closed, but then director Loy Sartin let me in and gave me a tour. It turns out that he was a resident of Phoenix and had lots of additional information about the community.
I had fully planned to write a blog post after that visit, but the pandemic and life got in the way. Not long after that we traveled to Washington State, then we lost a brother-in-law. My trip to Phoenix fell by the wayside and I just didn’t feel like completing that writing project. Fortunately, that would be corrected with this year’s MLK Day visit.
Continued on the next page…