Congaree National Park: Gateway to a Historical Legacy

By Robert Greene II

The history of Columbia, and of South Carolina more generally, would look markedly different if it were not for the existence of the Congaree Swamp. Being a home for Native Americans, a place of mystery for Europeans, and a refuge for escaped slaves, Congaree Swamp—now a National Park—is a unique part of Columbia’s history. Working alongside colleagues at the University of South Carolina and Congaree National Park, we’ve chronicled the multiple stories of Congaree and related them to the history of Columbia for a Historic Resource Survey. Here, I shall tie in Congaree’s story with that of the African American population of South Carolina, a unique story with consequences for the state and the entire United States.

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Large group of African Americans, possibly enslaved persons, standing in front of buildings on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1862, Timothy O’Sullivan, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Slavery shaped South Carolina in incalculable ways, and Congaree was no exception. For example, Congaree National Park includes the cattle mounts, installed by enslaved Africans, used to herd cattle during moments of severe flooding.[1] However, slaves in Congaree, like enslaved Africans across the Western Hemisphere, struggled to hold on to their culture and history from Africa. In addition, slaves often performed everyday acts of resistance in another form of defending some semblance of autonomy. However, the growth of Maroon communities in Congaree during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries demonstrates how some Africans desired not merely autonomy but freedom and a new community. South Carolina was rocked by a Maroon named Joe, who in 1821 became a wanted man by the South Carolina state government. He was unique in being recognized as a “leader” among the Maroon community in the region. The two-year manhunt for Joe and his band of escaped slaves—coinciding with aborted Denmark Vesey slave uprising centered in Charleston—made the government of South Carolina deeply concerned about how best to keep slaves from fomenting future revolts.[2]

African American political and economic independence became the theme of black history in Congaree after the American Civil War. Once the war was over, the question of how best to get African Americans ready for post-emancipation life would dominate Congress and Southern legislatures. Despite the success of the 1862 Homestead Act, Congress’ 1866 Southern Homestead Act failed to do for African Americans what the Homestead Act did for thousands of white Americans and European immigrants: provide useful land with which to farm and be self-sufficient. By 1868, African Americans at South Carolina’s constitutional convention knew that the black citizens of the state desperately needed land to have a voice in state and national politics. To that end, the South Carolina Land Commission was proposed and came into effect in the spring of 1869.[3] South Carolina was the only state in the South to undertake the audacious experiment of giving land to African Americans—a version of the “forty acres and a mule” once promised by General William T. Sherman’s Field Order Number 15.[4]

The Land Commission’s mandate was simple: sell land that once belonged to the state’s powerful plantation owners to anyone willing to buy—and work—the land. Those who bought the land had to own it for a certain length of time and pay the debt accrued to purchase the parcel. Once the debt was fully paid off, the land belonged to the buyer. Although the program was open to all South Carolinians, most poorer whites in the state declined to enroll in the program, joining instead with members of the planter class to boycott the Republican state government.[5] Congaree itself provided some of the land sold via the Land Commission, with the present-day Hunt Tract including parcels of land that were sold via the Commission in the late 1860s. It was an example of what state Republican leaders insisted on: that African American political power needed the solid foundation of land ownership.

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South Carolina–The November election–The dead-lock in the state legislature at Columbia, 1876, Harry Ogden, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Eventually, despite attempts by Secretary of State Francis Cardozo to salvage the program, the Land Commission would be continually savaged by white Democrats in the state. After Democrats returned to political power in Columbia in 1876, they would target fiscal wrongdoing in the Land Commission during the 1860s and 1870s in politically motivated hearings. While poor whites would also purchase parcels from the Land Commission by the late 1870s—owning 68,355 acres of land (compared to 44,579 acres owned by African Americans)—the Land Commission was dead by 1889 due to political decisions.[6]

However, the African American political leaders of Reconstruction-era South Carolina were eventually proven right—land ownership would secure a class of black citizens who would remain politically active for decades to come. The relationship between African Americans and Congaree would come to be symbolized by the community of Lower Richland. Located within Richland County, the location of Columbia and also Congaree National Park, Lower Richland has long served as an example of strong African American familial, economic, political, and economic self-determination in South Carolina. For instance, most of the leadership of the Lower Richland chapter of the Colored Farmers Alliance, an organization born in the late 1880s as part of the broader Populist movement, were African Americans who purchased their land through the Land Commission.[7] The stories of people such as Samuel and Harriet Barber are also important here. Owning land in Lower Richland, the Barbers would also create St. John Baptist Church in 1875 and continue to practice economic self-sufficiency for decades.[8]

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Plowing in South Carolina, Oct 1866, Jas. E. Taylor, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The experience in Lower Richland and the Congaree area for African Americans from 1865 until 1900 was unique in comparison with African Americans in other parts of the state. It would bear a strong comparison with African Americans living on the coast as part of the Gullah-Geechee culture. Both groups practiced self-sufficiency and held on to some modicum of independence during the era of Jim Crow segregation. However, what makes Lower Richland’s community unique compared to even Gullah’s community was their importance to African American political fortunes during the Reconstruction and Populist periods. While African Americans in the rest of South Carolina struggled to exercise power, the Lower Richland community practiced outsized influence in the Legislature and in black political groups.

Understanding the story of African American resilience in Congaree is key to knowing more about the history of African American freedom in South Carolina and across the United States. For African Americans, land was power. Self-sufficiency and free labor meant freedom. All of this was proven time and again in Congaree.

robert greene photo.jpgRobert Greene II is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of South Carolina. He is currently finishing a dissertation on African Americans and Southern political history, and is a graduate research assistant in the Institute for Southern Studies. He is also a blogger and book review editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians, and has been published at Politico, Dissent, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. (@robgreeneII)

Photo at top: Gervais Street Bridge, Gervais Street spanning Congaree River, Columbia, Richland County, SC, 1986, Jack E. Boucher, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] “Cooner’s Cattle Mount, Richland County,” http://www.nationalregister.sc.gov/richland/S10817740118/index.htm

[2] Tim Lockley and David Doddington. “Maroon and Slave Communities in South Carolina in 1865,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 113, No. 2, April 2012, pp. 125-145. See also, Ryan Quintana, “Planners, Planters, and Slaves: Producing the State in Early National South Carolina,” Journal of Southern History, Volume LXXXI, Number 1, February 2015.

 

[3] Almlie, Elizabeth, et. Al., “Prized Pieces of Land: The Impact of Reconstruction on African-American Land Ownership in Lower Richland County, South Carolina.” University of South Carolina, May 2009, pp. 14-15.

[4] “Sherman’s Field Order No. 15,” https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/shermans-field-order-no-15

[5] Bleser, Carol K. Rothrock. The Promised Land: The History of the South Carolina Land Commission, 1869-1890. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969, p. 30.

[6] Bleser, 144.

[7] Rebecca Bush, “Owning Home: African American Agriculture in Lower Richland County, South Carolina, 1868-1890,” MA Thesis, 2011, p. 21

[8] Aimlie, et. Al., p. 65-67

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