Phoenix, South Carolina (1898)

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November 1898.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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People who were charged for the aforementioned deaths.

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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.

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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.

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

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