Published on: 01/31/1999
Section: FRONT
Edition: FINAL
Page: A1
By CHRIS ROBERTS, Staff Writer
Memo: See A10 for graph of changes in occupations and educational gains for black men, women over the last several decades. Also, see B3 and E4 for related stories.

Illustration: PHOTO: COLOR & BW

Caption: 1. Farmers plant Irish potatoes on turn-of-the-century Edisto Island. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SOUTH CAROLINIANA LIBRARY

2. Like this group of farmers at the Darlington tobacco grading room in the late 1890s, most blacks had farm-related jobs at the turn of the century. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE SOUTH CAROLINIANA LIBRARY

3. The Charleston Normal and Industrial School, founded in 1895, was among the first schools for blacks.

It's 1900. You're one of South Carolina's 782,321 black residents. You're a second-class citizen living in Third World conditions.

"If you or I were able to go back 100 years - and I'd only want to do that temporarily - you'd see that in many parts of the state, blacks weren't far removed from the Middle Ages," said William C. Hine, a history professor at South Carolina State University. "They were peasants working the land."

They have come a long way in the past century.

In every economic and quality-of-life measure, the state's black population has closed the gap since 1900. Blacks today still trail whites in most economic and education statistics, but by dramatically slimmer margins than a century ago.

"You can say there's tremendous progress, but there's much that remains to be accomplished," said George Devlin, Benedict College's associate vice president of academic affairs and an expert in black history. "It's important to remember how far we've come."

So, on this day before Black History Month and on the edge of a new century, step back a century and imagine yourself as a black in South Carolina.

If you were black in South Carolinian in 1900:

* The bonds of slavery still held you down.

The Civil War ended slavery in 1865, but many blacks remained in near-slavery. Most blacks were sharecroppers, unable to own land or save money. And laws not revoked until the 1920s made it illegal for sharecroppers to leave the land unless they paid off their debts, tying untold thousands to white landowners.

"Black Carolinians still lived in the shadow of slavery (in 1900.) Their two centuries of bondage left them with few of the resources of free Americans," I.A. Newby wrote in "Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968."

* You were part of the majority.

Blacks were 58 percent of the population in 1900, and blacks outnumbered whites by almost 225,000. Today, blacks are 30 percent of the state's population, and South Carolina has 1.4 million more whites than blacks.

In 1900, numerical superiority meant nothing when it came to political or economic power.

* Legalized segregation gnawed at you.

White men spent much of the late 1800s thinking of ways to keep you poor and powerless. A rewritten state constitution in 1895 took most of the few rights you received in 1865. The U.S. Supreme Court's Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in 1896 allowed "separate but equal" public facilities, paving the way for Jim Crow laws that kept blacks separate but unequal.

"What it meant was that in South Carolina, one of the states that could least afford it, built two of everything," Devlin said. "There were two sets of schools, hospitals, theaters, everything, in much of the 1900s. And we know they weren't equal."

* The thought of being lynched crossed your mind.

Rufus Salter and William Burts were the two black men killed by a white mob in 1900. There were 14 in 1898.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said 117 blacks were lynched between 1889 and 1919 in South Carolina. South Carolina had 6 percent of the 2,005 lynchings that killed blacks in that 30-year period nationwide.

* You were likely to be young.

The median age of a South Carolina black in 1900 was 17, the youngest median age in the United States. By contrast, the median age of whites was almost 24. In 1990, the median age of blacks was 29, younger than the median age of 36 for whites.

* You probably couldn't read this sentence.

Fewer than half of blacks 10 and older could read in 1900. The 53 percent illiteracy rate among blacks was the third-highest in the nation, higher than every state but Louisiana and Alabama.

Still, the 53 percent illiteracy rate was an improvement over the 64 percent rate of 1890.

"The gap has closed dramatically," Hine said. "If we had been talking 100 years ago, we could say the same thing about how many more blacks could read in 1900 than in 1860."

* Your lack of education was used against you.

One trick to keep blacks from voting was the Eight Box Law, with a separate box for each political office. If you couldn't read, then you couldn't put the right ballot in the right box. If you didn't put the right ballot in the right box, your vote didn't count.

That trick was among the many formal and informal ways that blacks were excluded from voting. Between 1902 and the 1960s, no blacks held elected office in the state.

* You probably didn't go to school.

Roughly one in four school-age blacks went to school in 1900, far below the 41 percent attendance rate of white children. Most children attended for a few months a year.

High schools for both races ended with 11th grade for much of this century, but few blacks went to high school. The state Department of Education didn't recognize any black high schools until 1930, when 104 diplomas were issued to graduates of three schools.

Orangeburg was a bright spot for black education, where what was to become South Carolina State University was founded in 1896. In 1901, there were 63 students enrolled in the college department of the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina.

"It was essentially a 12th and 13th grade," Hine said. "When many graduated, they were 19-year-olds who had teaching certificates. Lots of 19-year-olds were teachers."

The change is breathtaking. In 1998, nearly two in three black adults held a high school diploma, the highest percentage in state history, but still below national percentages or the graduation rates of white residents of South Carolina

* You probably lived in the country.

The 1900 census report said 90 percent of the state's black population lived in rural areas. The percentage for whites was closer to half.

Living in the country kept you in poverty. You had little access to education, electricity, health care or a decent job.

Although S.C. blacks tended to live in the country, one S.C. city had one of nation's highest percentage of blacks. Charleston had 31,522 black residents in 1900. Only 10 cities in the United States had more black residents.

* You worked.

Nearly 90 percent of black men older than 10 had jobs in 1910, the first year in which employment records were kept.

Nearly two in three black women older than 10 worked in 1910. Among white women, the figure was closer to one in five.

* You probably worked on a farm.

Nearly 80 percent of the state's working black men had agriculture jobs at the turn of the century. Among black women, it was 77 percent.

Jobs were limited for blacks. For 95 percent of the black women who worked, jobs were in farming, serving a white family or doing their laundry.

* You weren't likely to own the farm where you worked.

The 1900 census report said blacks were 55 percent of the state's farmers in 1900, but they had only 27 percent of the state's farmland. Black farms represented 29 percent of the value of farms statewide, and blacks operated 4 percent of the farms that produced $2,500 or more.

* Your social life revolved around church.

Most blacks in 1900 identified themselves as church members, and church was the mainstay of life.

"Life went on," Devlin said. "There were baseball games on Saturdays, and on Sundays the church was an extension of that social life. You went to escape. The religious emphasis was important to people, to let them know that tomorrow would be a better day.

"It (racism and difficulties) was all around you, but you didn't think about it 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

* Your world didn't exist outside South Carolina.

More than 98 of 100 blacks who lived in South Carolina in 1900 were born there. Nearly all the rest came from North Carolina or Georgia.

* You were thinking about leaving.

If the story of the 1800s in South Carolina was the underground railroad that helped slaves escape to the North, then the story of the 1900s was the real railroads that shuttled blacks to the North.

During the 1900s, the state's white population grew 364 percent. The state's black population grew just 44 percent.

"Voting with their feet, many blacks, untold thousands of them, have concluded that many things could be finer than Carolina," Newby wrote in 1973.

Blacks tended to follow railroad lines to the North, and thousands of S.C. blacks resettled along the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to New York.

World War I started the exodus.

"When the war began, it created job opportunities in the North," Devlin said. "You had soldiers going to war and the country moving to a full economy to produce the implements of war.

"Railroads, particularly, went South to get their recruits. Their sales pitch was that wages were higher, and they were, compared to the South. One member of a family would leave, and it began a domino effect."

By World War II, 25 percent of the 2.26 million people born in South Carolina didn't live there anymore. The flow didn't ebb until the 1970s.

Contact Database Editor Chris Roberts at (803) 771-8595 or by e-mail at

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