Phoenix, South Carolina (1898)


November 1898.



Black to white ratio in the general area of Greenwood County, South Carolina.


Years since changes to the South Carolina constitution that raised the voting requirements. One needed to be able to answer any questions about constitutional provisions asked and one needed to pass a literacy test. Anyone whose grandfather had been able to vote, however, did not need to pass the new qualifications.


The Tolbert family was a Republican family which was virtually unheard of in white post-Reconstruction South Carolina. While the Tolberts had served their time during the Civil War in the Confederate army, they had disagreed with secession and had been known to vote for President Grant in the 1868 election. Additionally, this family owned considerable land, paid higher wages than other landowners did, and even had black tenant farmers in a community where some whites were unable to achieve the means to farm. These factors meant that the Tolberts were well-known (infamous?). This also meant that the Tolberts, at times, suffered threats and property damage, including arson, at the hands of other community members.

One of them, Robert R. Tolbert  was running for a seat in Congress during this election. Other Tolberts planned to, on election day, station themselves at polling spots and take affidavits from black would-be voters who were not allowed to vote in the election. At this time, blacks tended to vote overwhelmingly Republican. The intention here was to use the affidavits in order to challenge Robert Tolbert’s expected defeat.


Types of affidavits being collected.

  • One for illiterate people.
  • One for those who had not been allowed to register.
  • One for those who, though registered, had not been allowed to cast a vote.



Judges from a nearby polling place who traveled to Phoenix in order to persuade Thomas Tolbert to leave the polling place and stop taking affidavits: J. I. “Bose” Ethridge and Robert Cheatham.


A scuffle ensued. During this scuffle, Thomas Tolbert was hit in the head. Another man, fell off of the porch. Shots were fired. During this scuffle, J. I. “Bose” Ethridge was murdered, and Thomas Tolbert repeatedly shot.


Accounts of who likely shot those first shots:

  • Will White, one of the black men who was on the porch of the store with Thomas Tolbert on election day.
  • Joe Circuit, one of the black men who was on the porch of the store with Thomas Tolbert on election day.
  • Robert Cheatham, one of the white judges who came to the scene to persuade Thomas Tolbert to stop taking affidavits.

questionRumors that influenced the outcomes of this event.

  • There were hundreds of armed blacks who were hiding out intending to murder the local whites.
  • Joe Circuit, the man who by some accounts fired into the crowd on election day, was going to be appointed to some office.


White men who were shot at from the surrounding woods as they rode home from Phoenix, South Carolina on election night. Many local whites believed that the shooters were part of a group of armed blacks who were preparing for battle with the local whites.


Black men lynched near Rehoboth church, the church where the Tolberts worshipped, in retaliation for the murder of Mr. Ethridge.


Estimated count of other blacks who were killed in the following weeks.


People who were charged for the aforementioned deaths.


Places where telephone lines were cut the evening that the above events transpired, which hampered the communication that had been effective in convening a mob.

The next morning there was a mob of between 600 and 1,000 men looking to kill Thomas Tolbert and blacks from the area who were associated with the election day events.


Blacks driven from Tolbert farms and other big landowners during this time of turmoil.Eventually, the out-migration of many black people from the area began to impact the local economy. It created a labor shortage. Here, the narrative of the story shifted, many more explicitly blaming the Tolbert family more directly for the violence that had occurred.


The result of the vote that gave birth to this incident. A.C. Latimer, Democrat defeated Robert R. Tolbert for a congressional seat.

People injured during the events of this riot.

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An Interview


I asked a friend who is familiar with the variety of my writing and creative projects to ask me 10 questions about this project. I liked to be challenged, and he obliged me. Gotta love having great friends!

Terry T: If you allow me to put you in a box for a moment…I would categorize your writings and projects as very race-blind in a very Shonda Rhimes-like way. What made you interested in such a powder keg of an issue as race riots?

Sherlonya: I have to start by saying that I am so honored that you would ever even put me in the same sentence as Ms. Rhimes. As you know, my familiarity with her work was born with the creation of Scandal, and I find her work, and what I have read of her to be very creatively inspiring and interesting.

I have to tell you that in a conversation that I had with another friend about this project, she expressed that she was surprised to see me treat this topic. And, yes, I have avoided such topics because of the powder keg dynamic that you mention. I like calm. I’m not into explosions. As a child, I’d cry at fireworks. All of these things are probably why you asked the question.

I suppose the most direct answer to your question is: Facebook.

I was fascinated by watching a few hundred people react to, or not react to the recent events surrounding, particularly, the recent events in Ferguson. The memes. The articles. The click bait. I watched all of these things swim through my feed and while I saw some people grappling seriously with the current events, I saw very few people trying to decipher the context.

Let me get real for a moment. Most people who are doing deep work to try to understand something aren’t running straight to Facebook to think about the complicated questions or the difficult questions or the layered questions, are they? I’m a nerd, but I know that everyone isn’t a nerd. But some of my favorite nerds were out there thinking away, asking themselves hard questions.

Anyway, watching all of these reactions made me want to look into the topic. If I’m going to invest the time, I might as well share, no?

So, do you want to hear my fake answer?

My fake answer, my slightly disingenuous answer is this: I don’t see this project as very different than my Head of State Cakes project. There I looked at the history of our country through the lens of the men who held the office of president. Here, I look through the history of our country through the lens of mass race-based violence.

It’s sort of the same thing, but it’s not.

Terry T: I’m curious about the history of the word riot and has the definition or the context in which its used, shifted over time?

Sherlonya: Yeah, me too. This is almost like you anticipated some of my first steps in this project. One of the things that I have done was consult the Oxford English Dictionary in order to help me to start to understand a bit more of the context of those words.

Now, that said, I do think that there is a particular thing that comes to mind when one considers race riots. I think that if I could go into many people’s minds and see what they see when they envision race riots, that I would see black people, looting and fires. But, maybe I’m wrong about that. What I do know is that this type of race riot, the type that I think that people see in their minds, is a relatively recent thing. So in that sense, I do think that the context of the word has shifted. Or maybe the thing itself has shifted?

I do know that when we look at some of the earlier race riots, they seem to be, I don’t know, cousins to what we’re seeing today. They favor each other in that destruction follows. In the earlier riots I’ve examined (on the surface) it often looks like blacks were the target of the violence. However, like their more modern cousins, these riots often a common thread of economic strife or a feeling or fear of disenfranchisement.

Terry T: Is there something inherent in the word riot that implies that all participants have to be regular people. For instance does a majority  white police force vs majority  black protesters qualify as a race riot? Does a slave revolt qualify as a race riot?

Sherlonya: I don’t think so. But maybe this is something that I’ll change my mind about as I become more informed. I do think that there are some other things implied, though, by the word riot. I think that riots are always about other things, something more longstanding, than the inciting incident.

Some of the riots that I have chosen to explore go by other names. For example, there is an event that is called both the Colfax Massacre and the Colfax Riots. I think that this fact, these names, suggest that the question that you’re asking has been around for a while.

I have to be honest with you. It never occurred to me to consider a slave revolt as a race riot. I guess I’m going to have to add that to my list of things to think about. I guess I’ll put that on my list right after lynchings.

Terry T: Does being a mother of black child create a unique experience when researching these stories?

I don’t think so. I do everything as the mother of a black child. Wash my hair. Brush my teeth. Sing Rod Stewart songs in the shower (well, one Rod Stewart song). Bake tribute cupcakes in tribute to the US presidents. Watch Adventure Time. Do pocket scrapbooking. That, mother of a black child, is just is one of the things that I am. However, if this part of my identity did create a unique experience when researching these stories, would I know?
Terry T: What other ethnic groups beside black and whites have been involved in race riots in the US?

Sherlonya : A lot of people. There were some riots that I like to think of as the riots involving white people before they got to be white. There was a lot of nativist or anti-immigrant sentiment during different times in our nation’s history. So there are riots involving the Irish and the Germans. To take this in another direction, out west there have been a number of riots involving the Chinese and I believe other Asian ethnic groups. The Zoot Suit riots, gotta thank The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies for bringing that title to popular culture, involved Mexican Americans. These are the ones that I am aware of. This is not to say that there aren’t more.

Terry T: Does  the research you’ve done so far, leave you more optimistic or pessimistic concerning race relations today?

Sherlonya So, here’s the thing. I know that I have many opportunities that, say, my grandparents did not have. That makes me optimistic.  I am glad that I live in the time that I live in. I am glad that I live where I live.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, I guess I’m pretty patriotic.

I do think, though, that there are some elements in the conversation about race relations that get…muddy. Emotions are involved. Any time emotions are involved, this get tricky quickly.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, I guess I’ pretty optimistic, too.
This research doesn’t change that. If anything listing closer to 200 incidents than 100 makes me feel like this is just one of those things that happens, and happens. For that reason, it doesn’t do anything to what I think about race relations.

Terry T: What roles do women play in any of the race riots you’ve researched so far?

Sherlonya :Which women?

I know that the inciting incidents for some riots were allegations that a black man raped a white woman.  I’ve seen that enough in cursory research that I think it bears mention.
Other than that, I don’t know. I look forward to learning more here.

Terry T: Since segregated living conditions have a long history in this country, did the riots tend to occur in one particular ethnic area over another?

Sherlonya: There are some areas that have suffered riot after riot. Chicago, LA, New York City, Detroit, Cincinnati, New Orleans. These are all paces that seem to take a beating. But that’s not what you’re asking me. I just don’t know yet.

Terry T: Are there instances of race riot causing positive change?

Sherlonya: This one is a difficult question for me just because of where I come from philosophically. I would say not by themselves (from what I know at this early juncture). Some of the black-white violence that took place during the Civil Rights Movement years was very eye-opening to people in the North, and were able to influence politics, but that isn’t because of the violence alone. That is because of television.

Yep, that is a bit of a dodge, but I’ll be in a better position to answer that question later in the process. Talk to me 25-40 riots down the road?

Terry T: I’ve read that after slavery there was concern that the newly freed population would take revenge. Is there any statistical correlation to show evidence that this occurred on any level?

Sherlonya: I don’t know. What I do know is that there were places in the South, the slave states, the rebellion states, whatever you want to call them where black people vastly outnumbered white people. So, statistics or not, it seems that  is a reasonable fear, no? Isn’t that why voting districts are redrawn? There’s a fear about what will happen because of demographic changes? What happens when the population shifts? What if they’re voting? Weighing in on lawmaking?

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Words, Words, Words

A writer, I often like to turn to a dictionary when I’m attempting to learn about something. This project is no different. So, I consulted, first, the Oxford English Dictionary, widely accepted as the authority on the English language. The OED not only defines words, but digs into their history. I wanted to understand a bit about the history of the word, “riot.”

Here, the definition of riot that is most appropriate to this project is this:

  • A violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd; an outbreak of violent civil disorder or lawlessness. Formerly also: a violent attack (obs.).

The first evidence of the word in use comes from middle English sometime before 1393.

The term, “race riot,” on the other hand was first documented in 1880. “Saturday night a race riot broke out in the lower part of Newcastle..between gangs of Irishmen, Poles, and Slavacks.” This comes form a September 10 article in the Davenport Morning Tribune, an Iowa publication.

I imagine that what comes to mind when one things race riot depends on your experiences, what you’ve read, what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen. The first thing that comes to my mind upon thinking about race riots, for some reason is Watts, which, frankly, has as much to do with my abnormal love for President Lyndon Johnson than anything else. Then, my mind will jump to the LA riots of 1992. See, I was in middle school during that time. This event happened during my formative years. Finally, remembering that I’m a Michigander, I think “Detroit!” It’s a toss-up between 1943 or 1967. Either might come up.

But, the history major in me knows that the history is much longer, and both the entries for “riot,” and “race riot,” help paint that picture.

One of the things that I noticed as I pulled together the preliminary list of riots is that some of them had multiple names. In fact, you may have noticed, upon examining the list, that I didn’t often give one of these occurrences a name; I just state the location where it took place and the year it took place. Some of these events were described as disturbances or massacres. Some of them are described differently based on which account of the event you’re reading. I left them all on the list, as I couldn’t really tell how a riot differed from a massacre, especially for most of the events that preceded 1900.

The other thing I can’t quite figure out what to do with for this project are lynchings. In the cursory preliminary research that I did in order to come up with my preliminary list, I can’t tell you how many times I came across tales of lynchings. Nor knowing what to do, I consulted the OED again.

  •  trans. To condemn and punish by lynch law. In early use, implying chiefly the infliction of punishment such as whipping, tarring and feathering, or the like; now only, to inflict sentence of death by lynch law.

I was surprised to find this. I thought that I was going to find a reference to a Charles Lynch here. I thought that I was going to be lead directly to some definition that helped to frame the phenomenon of American lynchings. I moved on over to the definition for lynch law. Here’s what I found:

Forms:  Also Lynch law; in early use Lynch’s (Linch’s) law.

Orig. U.S.

  •   The practice of inflicting summary punishment upon an offender, by a self-constituted court armed with no legal authority; it is now limited to the summary execution of one charged with some flagrant offen[s]e.‘The origin of the expression has not been determined. It is often asserted to have arisen from the proceedings of Charles Lynch, a justice of the peace in Virginia, who in 1782 was indemnified by an act of the Virginia Assembly for having illegally fined and imprisoned certain Tories in 1780. But Mr. Albert Matthews informs us that no evidence has been adduced to show that Charles Lynch was ever concerned in acts such as those which from 1817 onward were designated as “Lynch’s law”. It is possible that the perpetrators of these acts may have claimed that in the infliction of punishments not sanctioned by the laws of the country they were following the example of Lynch, which had been justified by the act of indemnity; or there may have been some other man of this name who was a ring-leader in such proceedings. Some have conjectured that the term is derived from the name of Lynche’s Creek, in South Carolina, which is known to have been in 1768 a meeting-place of the “Regulators”, a band of men whose professed object was to supply the want of regular administration of criminal justice in the Carolinas, and who committed many acts of violence on those suspected of “Toryism”.’ (N.E.D.)
First, I can’t help pointing out that this term originates here in the United States.
Everything is more complicated than it seems, isn’t it? Perhaps complicated isn’t the right word. Layers. There are always layers.
The other thing I wrestle with is what I’m talking about when I talk about a riot. How does this differ from a battle? How does this differ than a massacre? How does this differ form a rebellion?
  • A hostile engagement or encounter between opposing forces on land or sea; a combat, a fight.
  • The indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people or (less commonly) animals; carnage, butchery, slaughter in numbers; an instance of this.
  • An organized armed resistance to an established ruler or government; an uprising, a revolt
How will I learn to distinguish among them?
How much will words help?

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How does one go about a project to learn about American black-white race riots? One answer is that you just jump in. You just get started. For me, that first step is to figure out the scope of the project.


Number of incidents that this project will cover.


How sure I am that this list will change.


I have a confession.

I am a little afraid of this project.

I know that I cannot unlearn whatever I learn as I explore the topic of racial violence. I also understand my own tendencies. A poem that I wrote several years ago turned into a project to read a biography of each United States President. 2-3 years later, I finished that project and still wasn’t done with the presidents, so I have spent nearly the past two years inventing cupcakes about them. Some projects grip me for years at a time. This could very well be one of those projects.

I am a bit worried about  the space that this project will consume. I have already spent hours on this project. Out of those hours I barely have a plan. I don’t know what this will look like. These are the types of things that I like to know before I embark upon a project.

It seems rather appropriate, however, that educating oneself about the long history of American black and white race riots would entail some entropy, no?

I suspect that this project will morph as I learn more and I am resolving to be okay with that. This is a project about educating myself.

But for now, I have put up some basic ground rules for myself.

Based on a couple of sources, yes Wikipedia is one of them, I have composed a list of race riots to explore.

I’ve numbered them.


The chance that I will add to or subtract from this list of events.

I will use a random number generator to determine the order of my learning.

I will research these events as I move through this project. It’s likely that I’ll share other things I learn along the way as I go through this process. This blog serves as a record of this experience.

I haven’t been this excited about a project since I started Head of State Cakes.

Let the learning begin!


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