Birth of A Conscience

May 31, 2019

On March 23, 1869, a Virginia newspaper editor announced the arrival of a new word to the American political lexicon: scalawag. “Living languages grow,” the editor of Staunton Spectator opined. “With new exigencies fresh words are coined or old ones receive new application to answer the demand.” [1]

In 1869, the Staunton Spectator announced the arrival of a new word: scalawag.

For centuries ‘scalawags’ were the weak or diseased livestock that had to be culled from a herd. The Meridian Mercury referred to scalawags as the “inferior milch cows in the cattle markets of Virginia and Kentucky.” The Richmond Enquirer applied scalawag “to all of the mean, lean, mangy, hidebound, skinny, worthless cattle in every particular drove.” To the editor of the Staunton Spectator, however, the word captured perfectly the “disgusting phenomenon” of southern-born whites who supported equal rights for African Americans. The scalawags were “impure” and “ill-conditioned,” “prone to corruption and eager to contaminate others”; they were the black sheep of the white herd, carrying a kind of genetic infection that could not be allowed to spread. Having “turned his back on kith and kin and color,” the scalawag “advocates uniformity of political privileges to all complexions and conditions,” the editor concluded, and “what must be the worshipper, when a monkey is the God.” [2]

There is a rich, too-often-forgotten history of the southern whites who met in common cause with African Americans and attempted to erect a foundation for true racial equality in the Deep South during Reconstruction. One of the most radical and successful attempts was made a century and a half ago, at the South Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1868. Gaveled in at the sumptuous Charleston Clubhouse, the majority black delegates—elected in a majority black state—went to work redrafting the laws that all South Carolinians would live under. “Nothing quite like this had ever been tried before,” historian Lerone Bennett has rightly noted, “and nothing remotely approaching it has happened in America in all the years since.” As a show of racial solidarity, the African American majority unanimously elected a scalawag, Albert Gallatin Mackey, as president and chair. Mackey was gracious in turn: The Convention, he said, demands “the commendation of every lover of liberty and respecter of human rights.... It is the first Constitutional convention in this State, in the selection of whose members, the ballot box, the true palladium of rational liberty, has been made accessible to every man.” [3]

The work before the convention was the most portentous since George Washington had gaveled in the Founding Fathers at Philadelphia. Against the backdrop of a country scarred by four years of war, Mackey and company hoped to strike “every vestige of serfdom… from our institutions in so emphatic and unambiguous a way, that no doubt can be entertained of our determination that this relic of barbarism shall never again, in any form, pollute our soil.” [4]

We know that these men mostly failed. We know that Klan violence, debt peonage, chain gangs, segregation, lynching, and disfranchisement relegated the South’s African American population to many more years of “slavery by another name.” We know that even today, the heirs to these practices—the prison-industrial complex, resegregation, and voter suppression—continue to leave unfulfilled the promises of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Even so, it is worth dwelling on what almost happened; it is worth recalling and honoring the radical traditions of interracial cooperation that we inherit along with all our racial problems.

Through the whole first month of the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868, the white delegate from Kershaw County—Solomon George Washington Dill—sat in almost perfect silence. He attended every session and occasionally called for a vote or suggested tabling a resolution, but he had nothing substantive to say. Perhaps, like many first-time legislators, he distrusted his own understanding of parliamentary procedure. Perhaps, he hadn’t made up his mind on the issues. Dill, after all, was a former Confederate soldier. Though he would not have put it this way, he had fought for four years for a cause that sought to perpetuate racial slavery and suddenly he found himself fighting for a new racial future for his state.

And yet, on the thirty-ninth day of the convention, Dill rose to argue in favor of a motion that all public offices should be answerable to all the People, white and black alike. “I have consumed as little time on this floor as any man in this house,” Dill admitted, but “I am tired of seeing the people of South Carolina robbed of their rights.” [5]

From that moment forward, Dill became one of the most outspoken proponents for progressive reform. In addition to full legal and civic equality for African Americans (including no prohibition against interracial marriage), Dill backed a uniform system of free public schools, the mandatory maintenance of the state university at a high level, the abolition of property qualifications for voting, and the abolition of debtor’s prison. All of these measures passed, leading W.E.B. Du Bois to later pronounce the convention a more radical experiment than 1871’s Paris Commune.

‘When once you have your foot on the enemy’s neck,’ Dill advised in his speech before the Convention, ‘twist.’

Dill wanted to go farther, however. All elected offices in the state, he said, should be immediately vacated and new elections held so that South Carolina could make a truly new beginning. And to ensure that African Americans would be full participants in that new beginning, Dill said the state should first pay the freedmen back wages from the moment of the Emancipation Proclamation and then establish a land bank to pay out much larger reparations. Forget 40 acres and a mule; Dill thought it should be 100 acres and several thousand dollars. For Dill, this wasn’t just ‘fair,’—it was the only way forward. His colleagues were naive if they thought the franchise would be enough to protect former slaves from their former masters. Real change would need to be rooted deep or it would be swept away. “God help the people of South Carolina,” Dill said, “if they allow the power they now have to again slip out of their hands.” [6]

Even as he spoke these words, the opposition forces were organizing outside the convention doors. The Charleston Mercury led the way with a series of vicious “Sketches of the Delegates to the Great-Ringed-Streaked-and-Striped-Convention.” (Like ‘scalawag,’ ‘ring-streaked-and-striped” was another animal metaphor, meant to conjure an image of a mongrel circus.) When complete, the Mercury sketches were collected into a single convenient edition—a political ‘hit-list’ of sorts. Delegate “W.J. Whipper,” for instance, was “a genuine negro, black and kinky headed, who, in the days of slavery, would be esteemed a likely fellow for a house servant.” “Albert Clinton is a backwoods negro of whose antecedents we have not been informed.” “James Henderson, alias Johnstone alias almost anything … is a half-and-half [who] severely handles his wives on provocation; yet, when a dangerous man comes about him, he is said to … betake himself to the bushes.” “Prince Rivers is … frightfully black, ignorant and impudent [and] talks like a low country ‘gulla-n----r.’” The paper was just as savage in its assessment of the white delegates. Albert Mackey, for instance, was a racial turn-coat drunk on sour grapes, having endured a young adulthood “so completely over-shadowed by the forest of great men around him.” [7]

When the editors got around to writing their assessment of Dill, he pounced. “The Mercury calls us a ring-streaked-and-striped Convention,” he told his colleagues. “I admit it is all that; but who made it ring-streaked-and-striped but just such men as conduct the Mercury? It would not have been ring-streaked-and-striped if such men as manage the Mercury office and newspaper had been exterminated long ago. They put the stripes into it.” Dill knew exactly what he was saying: If the editors of the Mercury didn’t like race-mixing, maybe they shouldn’t have raped their slaves. At this, a delegate named Randolph leapt up to demand that Dill be ruled out-of-order. Dill was just getting started, however. What did it mean, he asked rhetorically, that “such men as conduct the Mercury” both raped their slaves and compared them to animals? Weren’t such men, by their own racist logic, guilty of bestiality? “I know as much about the men who call us ringed-streaked-and-striped as any body,” Dill said, “and if I choose to tell, I could astonish you with a revelation of secrets that would account for some of these streaks.” The implication was clear; Dill would stop at nothing, not even exposing the secrets of the Charleston elite, to create a new politics for the state. “I want to get [us] out of the old channel,” Dill said, “and I intend to fight to the day of my death.” [8]

“If it’s the last thing I do, I'll kill Dill.”

Ratified by popular vote on April 6, 1868, South Carolina’s new constitution conferred full suffrage and civil rights for African Americans. Dill returned to Kershaw County to run for county commissioner and to oversee the construction of a new Loyal Union League building, a place where African Americans and whites could mingle freely. Watching Dill’s new interracial world become a reality, some of his neighbors were consumed by gall. “Our men put old Lincoln up Shit creek,” Emanuel Parker was overheard to say on May 15, “and we’ll put old Dill up.” On May 22, one Abraham Rabon met a Dill supporter in the street who told him he was “going down to Mr. Dill’s to hear a speech.” “Yes, you are all going to hell as fast as you can,” Rabon retorted. And “that damned [Dill] will be knocked into a cocked hat before many days.” William Kelly was overheard on multiple occasions threatening Dill’s life. Quarrelsome and likely intoxicated, he got into a shouting match with a Dill supporter on the public square in Camden. “Yes, by God! you all take old Dill for your god,” Kelly yelled, “and God damn him! I’ll kill him.” When he heard that Dill was elected, Kelly said simply: “If it is the last thing I do, I’ll kill Dill.” [9]

While promising violence themselves, such men appalled themselves and their listeners with stories that Dill was preaching violence among the blacks, telling crowds that if he were killed “the freed people must rise and avenge him, and kill from the cradle up, for 20 miles square.” This specific language, “from the cradle up”—a clear allusion to Nat Turner and a war of racial extinction—became so stuck in the minority white mind that it was still being reported as fact in local histories well into the twentieth century. Witnesses who actually heard him speak, however, say that Dill preached a political gospel of self-help, patience, forbearance, and peace. None of Dill’s speeches is known to survive.

At sunset on June 4, William Kelly and his brother met at the home of Emanuel Parker where they purchased two bottles of whiskey and probably rendezvoused with other conspirators. They then proceeded to Dill’s house under cover of darkness. The election over, Dill appears to have let his guard down. Though his life had been threatened many times, he may not have expected anyone would go through with it. Perhaps, as some of his supporters would later say, he “expected to be killed, but that so long as he lived he would stand firmly to his avowed political principles because he believed them to be just to all men.” Regardless, the house was poorly defended. Nestor Ellison, an older black man and by some accounts infirm, had insisted on serving as Dill’s bodyguard and was the only one on watch. At the sound of whispers outside the house, Ellison rose from his chair and opened the door to investigate. He was shot in the head. Simultaneously Dill was fired upon through a window, the bullet crashing into “the cervical portion of the spine.” The mob now opened fire on the house generally, more than ten rounds in all. Rebecca Dill was shot in the leg. Her guest, Nancy Burnett, ran out of the house to beg not for her own life but for the lives of her three children who were still inside. From the darkness an exultant voice answered, “By God, I’ve got all I want,” and the mob withdrew. [10]

Dill’s was one of the first major political assassinations in Reconstruction-era South Carolina. His followers were an unsteady compound of despondence and rage. The state Republican Party blamed not just the assassins but the steady stream of hate speech emanating from the opposition press. The murder, they said, is “mainly due to the daily utterance of the Democratic press of South Carolina, and are the natural and bloody fruits of the teachings of some of the leaders of the Democratic party.” Perhaps it was strictly true that such leaders did not directly order the murder of Dill. Perhaps it was strictly true that the opposition papers occasionally printed tepid disavowals of violence. (“It matters not how obnoxious a man may become,” reported the Columbia Daily Phoenix on the Dill case, “there is no excuse for parties, either white or black, thus taking the law in their own hands.”) The same papers and leaders, however, had for months painted a proverbial target on Dill’s back. Dill was a “bitter enemy of the white race,” said the Charleston Courier, and “an object of general loathing, execration, aversion, and hate.” The question for the Loyal Union Leagues, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the Union Army, was what to do about all this. If they could not successfully prosecute a case of clear political murder, the Klan and its allies would be further emboldened to embrace violence all across the South.

Assigned to investigate Dill’s case was George Frederick Price, First Lieutenant, Fifth United States Cavalry and Assistant to the Judge Advocate for the Second Military District (North and South Carolina). Born in 1835 in Newburgh, New York, Price had relocated to California before joining the Second California Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War. He would remain a career cavalry officer after the war until he was “severely wounded in a fight with the Sioux” in 1876. In his regimental history, Across the Continent with the Fifth Cavalry, Price gives spare attention to his South Carolina years, partly because they were so unlike everything else he had done in his career. In an operational sense, fighting rebels and fighting Sioux had been what he was trained to do. By contrast “the duties devolved upon [us]” in Reconstruction, Price noted, were “in many respects foreign to the profession of arms.” The occupying U.S. troops were in a delicate position, needing to “win the hearty commendations of the citizens” even as they compelled them to obey the law. [11]

To Price it was perfectly clear that “the killing of Mr. Dill was a political assassination. This fact stands out in bold relief and is beyond dispute.” The question was how to compel the civil authority to act. The local coroner had performed a perfunctory inquest but clearly seemed in league with the conspirators. Aided by the Bureau agent stationed at Camden and two detectives assigned by the provost marshal’s office, Price and his team quickly gathered a mountain of circumstantial evidence, especially from local African Americans. “The blacks have given me all the assistance in their power,” Price noted, “and have uniformly exhibited good conduct under circumstances well calculated to arouse their worst passions, for Dill was their trusted and proved friend.” [12]

The local whites were another matter. Most of them “professed to denounce the assassination,” Price said, but “no white citizen ... (excepting Judge W. G. Leitner) has approached me with any information.” Price was somewhat confounded by this. He knew that many of the whites living in Camden’s Kirkwood suburbs “view with disfavor the measures devised by Congress for the reorganization of the governments of the States lately in rebellion.” But surely it crossed the line of Christian decency to gun down a neighbor in his own home in front of his wife and child over a political disagreement. “My associations with the citizens of Kershaw district have been heretofore pleasant,” Price confided to his superiors. “They are now pleasant; and I regret that the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Dill compel me to say that I am convinced that the neighbors of Dill can, if they choose to do so, give information which would lead to the arrest and conviction of every person engaged in his assassination.” [13]

Ultimately Price and his team went around the civil authorities one last time to make their own arrests, sending twenty alleged conspirators to the Citadel in Charleston. These men were questioned, but Price probably wasn’t expecting them to implicate themselves. Rather, he hoped that by sending them away he could convince some of the local whites with first-hand knowledge of the crime to come forward without fear of reprisal. When they failed to do so, Price’s case fell apart, and with it his hopes for Reconstruction. In the end, he decided, the problem wasn’t the assassins. It was the “pleasant” people. “It is my belief,” he wrote in his final report, “that when all the truth becomes known in regard to this assassination, the parties committing the crime, together with the accessories before and after the fact, will be counted by scores.” A minority of whites was willing to kill their own neighbor. A majority was willing to look the other way. Price was neither the first nor the last to find such a situation hopeless. In the fall, he learned that the fifth cavalry was moving out. “The rank and file of the regiment,” he wrote in his memoir, “were well pleased when [reassigned] to the western frontier of Kansas for service against the hostile Indians of the Plains.” Combat seemed easier; politics seemed hard. [14]

Solomon Dill gave his ‘last full measure’ for black equality, but his life is no more important than the lives his black brothers and sisters gave by the score. Indeed, for every Solomon Dill there are a hundred African Americans who gave their lives, and gave them more effectively, in the fight to ensure equal rights for all. Dill is important, however, because he reminds us that time and again, even in the deepest south, whites and blacks have marched together. Certainly we are heirs to staggering racial violence, but we are the heirs also of interracial traditions of cooperation that stretch back hundreds and even thousands of years.

Dill is important, moreover, because he is proof that people can change. Others certainly did more than Dill, but few grew more, or gave more, if we take into account where they started from. Dill may have seen some intellectual consistency between first fighting for the Confederacy and then fighting for black rights, but I can’t see it. All I can see is a man who really changed, a man who made massive mistakes and sought to rectify them.

As a Reconstruction historian I often lament that my colleagues and I have been forced to rely on the vocabulary of people we don’t really like. We routinely use the word scalawag, for instance, even though we know it is a pejorative term. The same holds true for carpetbagger. In all the years since Reconstruction, we’ve never developed a suitably short set of terms to stand for “northern-born whites who voted Republican in the South between 1865 and 1900,” the technical definition of scalawag, and “southern-born whites who voted Republican in the South between 1865 and 1900,” the technical definition of carpetbagger. Instead we use the terms by which these men were insulted and run out of power. Of all the words we’re forced to use in discussing the history of this period, however, none is more galling than having to call the fall of Reconstruction governments under relentless Klan violence redemption. I can certainly see why the Klan and their allies preferred this term. They were, as they understood it, engaged in the most important “What Would Jesus Do?” guerrilla movement since the Cleansing of the Temple. But why would we give them this victory in perpetuity? What if we reclaimed the word for white men and women like Dill? And, indeed, what other word should we use for a Confederate who died in the fight to secure black rights? When it does finally come time to reimagine the memorial landscape of the South, I hope we will first build monuments to the (too many) African Americans who laid down their lives on the altar of equality for all. But I hope, later, we will build some for the (too few) whites who fought by their side. And I hope we will save a smaller monument for a man who had a giant change of heart, and I hope it will say, “here lies a man redeemed.”

It’s always the ‘pleasant’ people who always kill the chance for change.

Jesse Williams was right in his much-quoted jeremiad, delivered at the 2016 BET awards. Speaking to all skeptics of Black Lives Matter, he noted: “If you have a critique [of] our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression…. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”

If you do have an interest, however, stand up. Stand with the scalawags. Stand with Solomon George Washington Dill. After all it’s the “pleasant” people who always kill the chance for change.

  1. Staunton Spectator, March 23, 1869, p.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina (Charleston: Denny & Perry, 1868) [hereafter Proceedings], p. 16.

  4. Proceedings, p. 925.

  5. Proceedings, p..

  6. Proceedings, p. 639.

  7. "Sketches of the Delegates to the Great Ringed-Streaked-and-Striped Negro Convention," Charleston Mercury, 1868.

  8. Proceedings, p. 638.

  9. "The State of South Carolina vs. the Dead Body of S. G. W. Dill and Nestor Ellison," June 5, 1868, South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

  10. Ibid.

  11. George F. Price, First Lieutenant Fifth United States Cavalry, to Louis V. Caziarc, Assistant Adjutant General, June 22, 1868 published in Annual Report of the Secretary of War, Volume 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1868, pp. 467-473.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.

  14. George F. Price, Across the Continent with the Fifth Cavalry (New York: D. Van Nostrand, Publishing, 1883), p. 129.

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