Published on: 01/01/1999
Section: FRONT
Edition: FINAL
Page: A1
By CHRIS ROBERTS, Staff Writer
Illustration: PHOTO, CHART: COLOR 1. Hampton and Main streets in Columbia, 1905. FILE PHOTOGRAPH/THE STATE

2. Hampton and Main streets today. RENEE ITTNER-MCMANUS/THE STATE

3. Examples of change: South Carolina statistics, 1900 and 1998. SCOTT FARRAND/THE STATE

Strom Thurmond's first home had indoor plumbing, although he says "it didn't work well." Faulty pipes - and an irksome lack of electricity - led his family to a new house in 1906, when he was 4.

Sabra Kittrell was born a year later, and she lived without indoor plumbing until she was 14, when her family left the farm and moved to Bamberg.

"That's just the way it was," she said. "We didn't know any different. We lived in the country and worked hard."

Thurmond, 96, is South Carolina's senior senator. Kittrell, 91, spends her mornings rocking newborns at Palmetto Richland Memorial Hospital.

Both have lived through an amazing century in South Carolina, one that has seen the Palmetto State shuck its agricultural roots to join an international economy.

The new millennium technically begins two years from today, but this first day of a new year brings a good time to consider South Carolina's evolution during this soon-to-end century.

"I think in the last 100 years, this state has changed dramatically in terms of its society, economy and politics," said Walter Edgar, author of "South Carolina: A History" and director of the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina.

"We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go."

Many of the changes since 1900 came from new technology - or by bringing existing technology to the state's shrinking rural areas. Airplanes and air conditioning, computers and cars, medicine and microwaves, telephones and television have transformed South Carolina and the rest of the world.

Other changes are specific to South Carolina and its Southern neighbors: the end of legalized racism, black flight to the North, the demise of King Cotton, the rise of the Republican Party, the influx of outsiders.

One history professor attributes some changes to the influence of outsiders whose new ideas and inventions filtered into South Carolina. The number of non-natives living here boomed this century - including 135,000 this decade alone, roughly the population of Columbia, West Columbia and Cayce.

What made South Carolina unique - for better and worse - has melted away this century.

"South Carolinians have a sense of land and a sense of place," said William Steirer, who teaches South Carolina history at Clemson University. "I think South Carolinians would admit that they don't have that like they did years ago.

"There's been a diminution of those senses. . . . It goes back to finding a sense of identity - if you lose sense of land and place and family, what landmarks do you find to identify yourself? I think it would help to explain why so many people return to South Carolina."

Counting the change. It would take another century to spell out all the changes this century. Some of the more significant changes this century include:

* Moving off the farm. South Carolina in 1900 was still rattled by the Civil War. Before the war, nearly every county's per-capita wealth was above the national average. "After the war, all that wealth - which was mostly human property - disappeared as wealth," Edgar said.

A century ago, 64 percent of all workers had jobs in agriculture. Today, it's a mere 2 percent.

Farms still pump billions of dollars into the state, but the state doesn't live solely off the land anymore.

"The only future for a lot of folks was to work on the farm or in the mill," Edgar said. "Now the sky's the limit."

Kittrell's family was one of thousands that made the move from farming to industry in the early 1900s. Her father left the farm to become a carpenter in a textile mill in 1920. Their house had indoor plumbing - and a phone.

"I was just learning how to plow when we left the farm," she said. "I figured that was better than other types of work in the field."

* Better times for blacks. Slavery was illegal, but the state still had laws and customs that added up to "pseudo-slavery," said Cleveland Sellers, associate director of USC's African-American studies program. Sharecropping and "peonage" - a system that tied poor blacks to landowners in year-to-year contracts - held back many former slaves and their children. The state's 1895 Constitution stripped many rights that blacks earned after the Civil War.

The peonage system was declared unconstitutional in 1907. That ruling - along with Jim Crow laws and a slump in agriculture - sent thousands of blacks to the North to improve their lives. The exodus reached its peak by 1940.

Nearly 60 percent of South Carolina's residents in 1900 were black. Today, it's closer to 30 percent.

"Huge numbers of African-Americans left," Edgar said, "and still more left after World War II. That has been reversed some, with middle-class blacks moving back. When you mix the agricultural depression with segregation, lots of people left. You can follow the railroad lines and see how they went North."

* Technology and longer lives. Things as common now as phones and cars were rarer than Republicans in South Carolina at the turn of the century.

Thurmond said his uncle Will was the first person to buy a car in Edgefield County. Thurmond's family didn't have one until 1910.

"We had horses and buggies," he said. "We had a big carriage, and every Sunday we went to church in a carriage."

The first car Kittrell saw belonged to the mail carrier. Another belonged to the doctor who brought her 3-year-old sister home to die. A heart ailment killed her sister, Gertrude, making her one of thousands of small children who didn't survive until adulthood.

"Look at the diseases that affected South Carolina in 1900 - pellagra (caused by poor diet, which was tied to poverty), tuberculosis and smallpox. They're all gone now," Steirer said.

* Better education. Thurmond, in an interview Wednesday, said he milked three cows every morning. During his bicycle ride to school, he led the cows a mile out to pasture.

He was lucky. Unlike more than 2 in 5 school-age children in South Carolina, he went to school.

Most farmers' kids saw little time in schools in 1900. Black kids saw even less. The result was that nearly 40 percent of South Carolina residents couldn't read.

South Carolina's schools rarely meet national averages now, but they've come a long way since 1900.

"You had a whole series of education reforms in the 20th century," Edgar said. "Some came right at World War I, but some of the main ones began in the 1940s when Thurmond was governor."

More than half of all S.C. blacks couldn't read in 1900, and only Alabama and Louisiana had higher black illiteracy rates that year.

"It was high then, and compared to where it was at the turn of the century, we have done a marvelous job at getting rid of illiteracy," Sellers said. "But we still haven't done as well as we can do. In rural areas, it's alarmingly high - and not just for African-Americans but all people who live in rural communities in South Carolina."

* Political changes. As a child, Thurmond shook hands with "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, then a U.S. senator and an ex-governor.

"Think about it," Edgar said. "Strom heard Tillman, and Tillman knew people who had heard the founding fathers."

By 1947, Thurmond was governor of a state that was no home to Republicans. A collection of reforms changed South Carolina during Thurmond's term, including the 1949 votes that ended a 62-year ban on divorce.

"I was a very liberal governor," Thurmond said. "I think you can be liberal at the state level, but you need to be conservative at the federal level."

Thurmond switched to the Republican Party in 1964 as a U.S. senator. The final gubernatorial election of this century ends with a two-party system in place.

"There is less of an inclination to blame Washington for everything that's wrong in the state," Steirer said. "There's more of a willingness to confront the issues, to face up, and to accept responsibility for many of the problems being home-based.

"That's not to say we have a love affair with the federal government - you know very well we don't - but there's been a sea change to recognize that all our problems aren't caused by outsiders."

* Landscape. Even ignoring the growth of cities and suburbs, South Carolina doesn't look like it did a century ago.

"In 1900, there wasn't a single man-made lake in South Carolina," Steirer said. "Look at the state now: It's filled with man-made lakes. Rivers have been dammed up. . . . I suspect that a lot of South Carolinians of 1900, if they were alive today and flown over the state, would have a hard time knowing the geography and topography."

Still last. After seeing all the progress in South Carolina, it's easy to forget that the state still trails the rest of the nation in many important measures.

"We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go," Edgar said. "Take mortality statistics - how do we compare to Third World countries? How do we compare in literacy rates and other measures?

"We have significant problems. We've come a long way, but it's foolish for us to think we can stop here because things are better."

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

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