|The Clinton, SC, Square.|
In Laurens County and throughout South Carolina, as the 1870 fall election season approached, tensions continued to increase, fomented by outside political influences and internal racial fears.
On a dark night in mid-August, Dr. William P. Jacobs of Clinton, SC, was in for a real surprise on his way home from Cross Hill after marrying a couple.
As Dr. Jacobs was crossing Mudlick Creek just south of the Little River, his horse suddenly sprang forward up the hill, and he heard a rifle fire through the woods. Dr. Jacobs was being ambushed by an unknown party. He later wrote, “Naturally I was a little excited as I did not know that I had an enemy in the world, white or black.” Thankfully, the pastor of the Clinton Presbyterian Church and future founder of both Thornwell Orphanage and Presbyterian College made it home safely that night.
About nine o’clock the next morning, August 20th, 1870, three young men came into Clinton also reporting being “fired at by unknown parties, but fortunately escaped without injury.” The talk was that groups of white and black men had collided the night before when a party of blacks fired on some whites. Returning fire, the whites wounded four negroes. Later, Jacobs writes, news arrived that “a difficulty had occurred at Chappells. But [Newberry County] Sheriff Paysinger with a company of one hundred men captured sixty negroes there without bloodshed.”
Rumors estimated two hundred freedmen had gathered during the night at Joseph Crews’ mill in Clinton with four days' rations, “entered Joe Crews' armoury and armed themselves.” Dr. Jacobs continues the story: "That night or the next day the negroes began to assemble in force on top of the hill [where the former M.S. Bailey & Son, Bankers main office now stands], opposite the old steam mill [belonging to Joseph Crews], where there was an armory, with some fifty or sixty rifles, belonging either to the state or National Government.”
Jacobs in his diary states that “the whites immediately began to assemble at Clinton, and by eleven o'clock yesterday [August 20, 1870], over a thousand men had assembled on the public square.” Jacobs’ continues the startling story in his diary.
All of the ladies and children in the town were collected at Mr. Phinney's [a home which Lynn Cooper demolished to expand his car dealership in late 1980's] and guards were stationed about the house. The [seventy‑five] men assembled in the town, arranged along Mr. Foster's hotel front [the storefront on Musgrove Street from Adair’s Men’s Shop up to the old Belk store building. The buildings now between Musgrove and North Broad had not been built, so it was an open area]. A colored democrat was sent up on horseback to the armory, to notify the negroes to disperse, but owing to the sharp volley of musketry, he decided to disperse himself, and came rushing back. As he was between us and the enemy, the musket balls peppered the side of Mr. Foster's hotel, considerably above our heads, and nobody was injured. Rumors were sent out, however, throughout the country and up into Spartanburg. By ten o'clock about a thousand armed men were here in force. The blacks concluded it was better to leave a town like that, and it was not long before the whites had the town all to themselves. This was the closest we ever came to a battle in Clinton. The races are in a highly excited state, and I fear that evil will yet result from it.
Jacobs adds from his diary,
By night, however, a hundred negroes had again collected, the whites having dispersed, but they were notified by the guard of fifty whites who had been left in town that they would all be arrested unless they dispersed. They immediately began to scatter. So ends the affair, I trust. They have threatened to make a San Domingo of South Carolina, but no San Domingo here!”i
Racial tensions continued to be high strung, and the plot was about to thicken. About two weeks later, on September 1, 1870, in Clinton, William Hunter had two colored men arrested for stealing wheat. Trial Justice Freeman living at Joe Crews' mill was persuaded by several black men and Joe's son, Adam, to let them go.
“As Hunter returned home, he was cursed and abused and told to ‘try it again.’” Two days later, between twelve and one in the morning, W.F. Beard's store on the northwest corner of the Clinton Square burned. “The colored people, who were present, worked faithfully and deserve great credit for their conduct. It started between the weather‑boarding and corner casting. Matches and lightwood kindling were found; hence there can be no doubt as to the origin of the fire, as it was doubtless the work of an incendiary.” The next night a white lawyer murdered another in a boarding room on the Clinton square.ii