Thursday, February 19, 2015

Emerging Black Leadership in Reconstruction-era Laurens County, SC

Fleming Cain Colored School, Laurens County, SC
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues, exploring the emerging African-American leadership in Laurens County.
War’s end and the beginning of Radical Reconstruction brought massive social change. In Laurens County, freedom brought opportunities for local former slaves to develop as community and political leaders. Most whites did not hate the freed blacks. They just wanted them to stay in the same condition as before the war.  However, some freedmen did not fit the prescribed mold. Here are a few you might like to know:

Born on June 25, 1865, in Laurens County, SC, two months after the War Between the States ended, Martin S. Cunningham did not know the difference between white and black until he was eleven years old. He became aware of the difference "when his playmate's mother, whose family had owned his mother and father told him that he was a Negro and could not play with her son as an equal, but should now call him Mister and come in the back door."[1]  Cunningham was taught to read and write by his parents’ former owners and later attended Benedict College, after which he became a teacher and minister. In 1912, he would found the Tumbling Shoals High School, a thorough education for many African-American children in the western part of Laurens County. 

Former Laurens County slave Pratt S. Suber (1843‑1929) was the county's first Commissioner of Education at the office's inception in 1871. He held this office and that of County Superintendent of Education until 1876.  Suber may have also served in the South Carolina House.

He kept a pistol on his desk, but so did everyone else in those days.  Pictures were drawn on his house in contempt, and he was harassed.  Suber was one day walking along a road at the outskirts of Laurens when several armed men (white) rode up on horses and threatened him.  Suber replied, "Gentlemen, you are more than me, you have guns, and you are on horses.  Do what you wish."[2]

Suber's cool reserve nixed their pugilant plans. 

Columbus White's (1857‑1945) accomplishments as a contractor and architect remain as his legacy in Bethel AME Church and the Brown‑Franklin Buildings in Laurens which are now on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Henry or Harry McDaniel served in the South Carolina Legislature (1868‑ 1872) and pushed for the establishment of more roads in Laurens County and the incorporation of churches.[3]  He was the son of Sink and Alice McDaniel of Laurens and the grandson of Matthew McDaniel, a Scot who came to America before the War and established a plantation in the Rabun community on which Sink lived and worked.  Harry was reared by a white family at Ekom and grew up at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church (white) "where a small back room was provided for Negroes who were born into white families."  In 1877 he bought 110 acres for $560.  He is buried at Union Baptist Church.  His sons were Wister and Sam Wright.[4]

While most whites did not hate the freedmen, there was considerable fear and concern about what the future held. Change was difficult for them, and they felt a need to assert authority to put this group back in their social place. William Watts Ball gives his white perspective on the racial divide in Laurens County, writing that whites

did not greatly blame the negroes, the leaders excepted, even in Radical times.  Not all the leaders were bad.  Pratt Suber, coal black, was school commissioner and a good man according to his lights.  He could read a little, and write a little less, but he might have been worse, as many of them were.  Some, not many (the number has been grossly exaggerated) got hurt or were killed, but most of the negroes worked for the white people and, barring a year or two when the 'hep men,' or militia were parading, behaved pretty well.  In Laurens they were permanently sobered by 'the riot' of October 1870.[5]

[1]Mrs. Peter L. Robinson, "The M.A. Cunningham Family," Scrapbook, p. 150.

[2]Byran Shelley, "The Times of Pratt Suber:  First Laurens County School Commissioner was Black," The Laurens County Advertiser, February 12, 1975, p. 10.

[3]South Carolina Libraries, South Carolina Counties, 1989, "Laurens County," p. 2; Marianna W. Davis, et. al., South  Carolina's Blacks and Native Americans 1776‑1976, (Columbia: State Human Affairs Commission, 1976), p. 116.

[4]Harry McDaniel Manuscript, unpublished, n.d.

[5]Ball, State, p. 139.