Last year, my evidence board project for teaching Reconstruction was a solid project. I tweaked the original project just a bit to add a touch of theme and to improve the writing portion of the project.
It is vital that we teach Reconstruction and teach it well. At its core, this was an era in American History where the federal government attempted to protect the rights of the African American population in the former Confederate states. From about 1868 to the early 1870s there was some success in this effort. In this lesson South Carolina is used as an example of how Reconstruction failed and the white supremacist governments regained control of the state. During the high period of Reconstruction, when voting rights were protected, South Carolina had a majority Black population and was able to elect a majority Black and Republican state legislature. Yes, the southern Democrats were the conservatives of South Carolina politics and were seeking a return to white supremacist control of the state. Myths emerged that these were incapable politicians, and while Historians like Eric Foner have since debunked them as part of the Lost Cause, they continue to persist. Misinformation was part of a prolonged effort to discredit the “radicals” that were running the state. Because of the voting power of the Freedmen (formerly enslaved peoples) there was a brief “fusion” ticket effort where the conservative Democrats tried to convince the Freedmen to join their political efforts. This went nowhere. Then a new movement called the “Straight-out” party which was focused not on changing its views or ideology in order to win over new voters but to use violence, fraud, and other nefarious methods to prevent Black voters from going to the polls and to convince Northern Republican “carpetbaggers” and their Southern Unionist sympathizing “scalawags” to leave. They were not subtle:
This Evidence Board Lesson is an investigation into the Primary and Secondary source evidence for the specific plans and people that were involved in this effort to reinstall a white supremacist government into state government.
Prior to this lesson I had done an overview of the Reconstruction at the National Level. Contextual Vocabulary like Carpetbagger, Scalawag, Freedman, Radical Republican, etc were all discussed in the brief overview lecture. When the students walked into the classroom though I had placed laminated Corkboard posters on the wall and had a body outline on the floor.
Additionally I had these 4 SC Governor Election maps from 1874 to 1878 on the projector. While I took attendance students were to look at the maps and discuss based on the simple “what do you notice, what do you wonder” format. Then we had a whole group discussion.
Couple of quick things. First, students were confused about the coloring. Modern South Carolina is a “Red” state controlled by Republicans. The fact that it was a Blue Democratic state in 1878 was confusing. This was doubly true once the investigation starts and the facts and evidence emerge. It led to interesting conversations about how party politics evolves over time. I wish more people took a few minutes to learn about this… Second, “IR” was the fusion style ticket which was a stand-in for Democrats which didn’t really run in 1872 or 1874. Third, add the voting totals and students notice the numbers increase until a dramatic 60,000 vote decline in 1878. Finally, they (usually belatedly) notice that Hampton III ran unopposed in 1878 and took 99+% of the vote.
This invariably leads to the Main Question:
The Investigation and task
Once the students know the main investigation they are asked to open a folder with the documents below inside. They also have Scissors, tape, expo markers, and sticky notes. Their task is to create an Evidence Board using these tools to complete the Cold Case Investigation Report (below). I gave them about 60 minutes for the investigation and it could have been longer. Also, I quickly learned that the students needed to know that conservative = Democrats in this era of SC Politics.
These primary sources are from the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative. I did not use the questions at the end of the documents.
The links on this Google Doc are to the South Carolina Encyclopedia and/or Wikipedia pages. I gave the students hard copies of this google doc so they could cut out the pictures to put on the boards. They then used the expo markers to write and draw lines on the laminated boards to connect the pictures and facts they wrote on the sticky notes.
Martin Gary was the chief architect of the “Edgefield Plan” which was modeled on the Shotgun or Mississippi plan in other states. Essentially Gary’s plan was to use violence and intimidation to prevent African American and Republican voters from turning up at the polls. In the “conservative plan” document he clearly calls for this on voting day. He calls for Democrats to show up well armed to “monitor polls” and even goes further saying “12. Every Democratic must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one Negro, by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away…” Point 13 is that Democrats need to show up at Republican meetings, well armed, and shout down the speakers. The point is to cause a conflict that will lead to violence. Gary was supported by Butler at the Hamburg Massacre which you can read in the documents. The Hamburg Massacre was an orchestrated event to remove Black authority from the town and install white supremacist government. It’s success would lead to further Edgefield Plan riots in places like Ellenton and Cainhoy (linked on the Google Doc).
I had originally included the Charleston Riots (not on the doc) of 1876 in the investigation. In Charleston the Black population outnumbered the white population and was thus able to defend itself against this aggression. Other documents in the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative show that those voters were not intimidated by the domestic terrorists and voted their conscience. If you have an advanced group or more time you might want to examine that further.
Why does this matter? Ben Tillman, Hamburg Massacre participant and future SC Governor and US Senator, freely admitted to taking the election from them in 1876. Racism and white supremacy was at the heart of the matter. Remember the conservative plan to show up, armed, to Republican meetings and provoke a conflict? It was so that future Ben Tillman’s could say this under oath “he said we had taken their rights away from them. He asked me was it right to murder them in order to carry the elections. I never saw one murdered. I never saw one shot at an election. It was the riots before the election, precipitated by their own hotheadedness in attempting to hold the government, that brought on conflicts between the races and caused the shotgun to be used.” Yes, the desire to maintain their rights was “hotheadedness” and the Edgefield “Red Shirts” had to use the shotgun to calm them down. Just read through then Senator Tillman’s Speech in 1900.
This all matters because voter fraud in defense of voter “security” is still a thing. Showing up to meetings and protests you are opposed to while armed in order to intimidate and silence speech is still a thing. White supremacy is still a thing.
If I can get students to see how Reconstruction in South Carolina was murdered (it didn’t “somehow end” – it was deliberately killed off) then it might make them better members of our community.