Phoenix election riot

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Newspaper article from the insurrection, titled "Race Riot in Greenwood"[1]

The Phoenix election riot occurred on November 8, 1898, near Greenwood County, South Carolina, when a group of local Democrats attempted to stop a Republican election official from taking the affidavits of African Americans who had been denied the right to vote. The race-based riot was the outcome of increasing tensions between not only the Republican and Democratic parties, but also White Americans and the area's African American population.

The riot ignited when white land-owner Thomas Tolbert began to take affidavits of African Americans who had been disenfranchised by the new Constitution of South Carolina. Thomas Tolbert, the brother of republican candidate Robert R. Tolbert, urged the African Americans to fill out and submit an affidavit if they were prevented from voting. Tolbert and his allies hoped to use the affidavits that they collected to challenge the legality of certain portions of the 1895 South Carolina state constitution that had enshrined in law the previously informal disfranchisement of African-Americans. On November 8, 1898,[2] Thomas Tolbert stationed himself outside of the entrance of the Watson and Lake general store and began to collect the affidavits of African Americans. Thomas Tolbert was quickly approached by a group of local Democrats, including Democratic party leader, J. I. "Bose" Ethridge, and his followers began to repeatedly beat and terrorize Tolbert for his actions.[3]

Violence and chaos ensued the outbreak of the riot, with an estimated twelve African-Americans were fatally shot or hung, one African-American lynched, hundreds injured by the white mob, and one white man murdered. Additionally, Tolbert's home, property and personal belongings were all burned in the days to follow the riot.

The altercation triggered four days of violence directed mainly at the black population.


Although much of the riot is still under speculation, the initial outbreak was a direct result of heightened political and racial tensions that resulted in physical violence. Increasing tensions between Republican and Democratic parties played a profound factor in the eruption of conflict. Thomas Tolbert, during this time, did not follow the then-common beliefs that surrounded African-Americans. Despite the fact that Tolbert was a white man, he believed that African-Americans deserved the right to vote, and disagreed with their disenfranchisement by the South Carolina State Constitution.

November 8, 1898, at around 9:00 in the morning,[4] Thomas Tolbert stationed himself outside of the polling office at Watson and Lake general store with Joe Circuit, Will White and a number of other African-Americans and proceeded to encourage African-Americans to submit affidavits.[5] Tolbert had hoped that the affidavits would help to expose the ongoing electoral fraud that had deprived African-Americans of the vote for the past twenty-two years.[6] Tolbert and his followers were quickly approached by a group of local Democrats, including J. I. Ethridge, the local Democratic party boss. J.I Ethridge and Robert Cheatham[7] asked Tolbert to stop what he was doing and upon his refusal, they overturned the box that he had been using to collect the affidavits with and began to beat him with the splintered wood and other various materials. Tolbert quickly responded to the violence by hitting Ethridge over the head multiple times with a wagon axle.

During the altercation, William White, one of Tolbert's followers, was pushed to the ground, is speculated to have grabbed a shotgun and fired the first shot, which hit J.I Ethridge in the middle of the forehead, killing him on impact. Outrage at the murder of their leader prompted Etheridge's followers to engage in conflict with Tolbert and his supporters. The gunshots, which were overheard by the white voters, prompted the majority of those who were at the polling stations inside the general store to engage in the conflict.

During the riot, Tolbert withstood several injuries and sustained gunshot wounds to the neck, arms, and his left side. The buckshot, which struck Tolbert during the riot, proved not to be fatal, however, they resulted in his retreat.[citation needed]

Aftermath and Consequence[edit]

The period shortly after the riot, experienced a dynamic of fear and speculation which resulted in the accusation of many black men for their supposed involvement in the conflicts. An uneasy peace spread over the area of Greenwood county as its inhabitant's dealt with the consequences of the riot, and the tensions that arose between political and social standpoints.[8] In the time to follow the riot, white Americans from all over Greenwood County flowed in to avenge Ethridge's death.[6] Groups of armed whites scourged the countryside and nearby areas in search of victims. The group drove the Tolbert family from their home, which they then destroyed, along with all of the family's personal possessions.[9] In addition, the mob lynched four black men near the local church, Rehoboth Church, which many local whites, including Tolbert, worshiped.[10]

A History of Race Riots[edit]

Race riots in the united states during this time was not uncommon, as many ethnic, political and social barriers were established between ethnic groups. Between the periods of 1700-1890's roughly 45 race riots took place.[citation needed] A few examples of the riots that occurred during this period includes:

The riots of the late 1800's, although provoked by a different cause, were all a result of the political disenfranchisement that followed the reconstruction period. In the time immediately following the end of Reconstruction, the Federal Government of the United States restored white supremacist control to the South and adopted a "laissez-faire" policy in regard to African-Americans and their political and human rights.[11] This change in policy resulted in African-American disfranchisement, social, educational and employment discrimination, and peonage. Deprived of their civil and human rights, African-Americans were reduced to a status of quasi-slavery or "second-class" citizenship. A tense atmosphere of racial hatred, ignorance, and fear bred lawless mass violence, murder, and lynching. To ensure and enforce blacks' second-class status, white Democrats enacted segregation and Jim Crow laws throughout the south. During the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lynchings reached a peak in the South. Florida led the nation in lynchings per capita from 1900-1930.[12]

Lynching, during the 19th and 20th century, was the practice of murder through extrajudicial actions.[13] Most commonly, the victims of lynching were African-American men, and between the time periods of 1882-1968, black Americans made up 72.7% of all people lynched.[12]

Racial Tensions in Politics[edit]

In the days to follow the Phoenix Election Riot, transpired the outbreak of a larger, more momentous Wilmington race riot. The riot, which occurred only two days after the Phoenix Election riot, was the culmination of a Democratic campaign to oust the state's Republican and populist fusion government from power.[6] The insurrection resulted in roughly 25 African-Americans murdered and countless more injured by the mob.[14]

The riot began after democratic party white supremacists overthrew the newly elected fusionist white mayor and biracial council.[15] The mob of around 2,000 white supremacists took to the streets and attacked the mainly black newspaper, Daily Record. The events resulted in a new government forming and changed the face of racial conflict forever.


  • Wells, Tom Henderson (1970). "The Phoenix Election Riots". Phylon. Clark Atlanta University. 31 (1): 58–69. doi:10.2307/273874. JSTOR 273874. (subscription required)
  • Wilk, Daniel Levinson (2002). "The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County". Southern Cultures. University of North Carolina Press. 8 (4): 29–55. doi:10.1353/scu.2002.0052.
  1. ^ "16 Nov 1898, Page 1 - The Watchman and Southron at". Retrieved 2017-05-23.
  2. ^ "Race Riots". Remember Your history. Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  3. ^ "Phoenix Riot - South Carolina Encyclopedia". South Carolina Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  4. ^ "16 Nov 1898, Page 1 - The Watchman and Southron at". Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  5. ^ Lab, Digital Scholarship. "History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes". Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  6. ^ a b c Wilk, Daniel Levinson (2002-11-27). "The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County". Southern Cultures. 8 (4): 29–55. doi:10.1353/scu.2002.0052. ISSN 1534-1488.
  7. ^ Norris, Pippa (02/12/2002). "Democratic Phoenix" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-05-05. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  8. ^ Dinnella-Borrego, Luis-Alejandro (2016-07-11). The Risen Phoenix: Black Politics in the Post–Civil War South. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813938738.
  9. ^ Lab, Digital Scholarship. "History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes". Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  10. ^ "10 Nov 1898, Page 2 - Keowee Courier at". Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  11. ^ Loren Schweninger. Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 34.
  12. ^ a b "Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968". Retrieved 2017-05-20.
  13. ^ Finnegan, Terence (2013). A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940. University of Virginia Press. ISBN 9780813933849.
  14. ^ "Wilmington Race Riot | NCpedia". Retrieved 2017-05-22.
  15. ^ "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . The Wilmington Riot | PBS". Retrieved 2017-05-22.

Further reading[edit]

Wilk, Daniel Levinson (2002). "The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County". Southern Cultures. University of North Carolina Press. 8 (4): 29–55. doi:10.1353/scu.2002.0052.

Wells, Tom Henderson (1970). "The Phoenix Election Riot". Phylon (1960-). 31 (1): 58–69. doi:10.2307/273874.