Title Reviewed:
After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction, 1861–1877

Author Reviewed:
Joel Williamson

John A. Jenkins


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 62, Issue 1, pp 86-87

Article Type:
Book Review

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After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction, 1861–1877. By Joel Williamson. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965. Pp. ix, 442. Notes, bibliography, index. $7.50.)

Many of the individual state studies of Reconstruction derive from the Dunning school, although there have been important revisionist works, especially Francis Butler Simkins' and Robert H. Woody's South Carolina During Reconstruction. Professor Williamson's work is, as he admits in his preface, a revision of that "classic in revisionism"; but it is more than simply that. It displays both the strengths and weaknesses of the revisionist approach. Williamson believes that "it is possible that we have passed onto a new plateau … where slavery and Reconstruction fall beneath the horizon … and perspective rises a measure above personal passion" (p. vii). Thus the contemporary historian of Reconstruction approaches his materials "with new viewpoints." He asks "new questions" and ceases "to ask all of the old."

Based on exhaustive research in the extensive manuscript sources—many of which had not been fully utilized before—Williamson's book presents a detailed and complete account of the role of the Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Indeed, in After Slavery Williamson has given us a thorough reworking of the traditional story of the Negro in the Reconstruction history of South Carolina. He presents massive factual evidence and persuasive arguments to support his interpretation of the South Carolina Negro as an intelligent, responsible voter (p. 341) and an effective, sensible politician (pp. 345, 378), not simply an illiterate field hand raised by circumstances to political prominence and power (p. 376). Moreover, Williamson produces considerable information to indicate that the corruption of the radical government was not nearly so extravagant as many redeemers maintained (p. 417). He also credits the Republicans with much of the reform work that effectively put a stop to the worst corruption before the redeemers came to power (p. 397) and condemns the redeemers for their failure to deal "viciously" with the corruptionists (p. 416).

Not all of this is by any means new; but much of it tends to suggest that the experiences of the Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction deviated, in many respects, from the traditional view of the role of the Negro in the Reconstruction South. In at least one particular, however, Williamson seems to press for a conclusion that is more, perhaps, than is warranted. He challenges the widespread notion that the separation of the races and the establishment of a rigid code of segregation was a development of the late nineteenth century. Williamson feels that the separation of the races "was the most revolutionary change in relations between the whites and Negroes in South Carolina during Reconstruction" (p. 274). He also asserts that "well before the end of Reconstruction, this mental pattern was fixed; the heartland of racial exclusiveness remained inviolate; and South Carolina had become, in reality, two communities—one white and the other Negro" (p. 299). While this argument is not without merit and is supported by numerous examples which Williamson cites, it seemingly undervalues the rather obvious fact that Reconstruction was a period of fluidity in race relations and that many elements, old as well as new, were involved in the determination of the emerging pattern of race relations. One can doubt that by the end of Reconstruction conditions were so settled, even in South Carolina, as to produce two exclusive societies, one white and one black.

Without question there is much that is substantial and stimulating in this solidly researched, carefully written work. Not least among its virtues is its comprehensiveness and its integration of the Negro into the general story of Reconstruction in South Carolina. The period of Reconstruction remains one that is much debated among historians. There are still wide areas of disagreement. Williamson has enriched the quality of this debate and has increased the measure of our understanding not only of the South Carolina Negro during Reconstruction; but, in many ways, of most Reconstruction developments.

Colorado State University John A. Jenkins

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.