South Carolina’s Black Majority (1708-1920)

By 1708 South Carolina became the first British North American colony to have an African American majority. The first Africans to South Carolina likely came in 1526 as part of the San Miguel de Gualdape Colony. When the colonial settlement failed those Africans joined and became absorbed into the Native American population.

The first English settlers arrived in 1670 and founded Charleston. The early settlers by 1700 discovered that rice was the cash crop best suited for South Carolina’s semi-tropical climate. The first planters also discovered that Africans from Senegal and other traditional rice-growing regions of West African would be the best workers to produce this crop. Capitalizing on their extensive trade with Barbados which already had a well-established pattern of African slavery, the South Carolina planters began to import Africans from Barbados and other West Indian islands and eventually directly from West Africa.

By 1708, the number of enslaved Africans and their descendants in South Carolina had become the majority of the colony’s population of approximately 8,000 people. For the next two centuries, except for a brief period between 1790 and 1820, Black South Carolinians continued to be the majority of the Colony and then the state’s residents. Whites would finally outnumber blacks only after the 1920 census when thousands of Black residents had already begun leaving the state for Northern cities in the Great Migration.

This Black majority came about because white planters, recognizing the intricacies involved in rice cultivation, used the unpaid labor of these Africans and their descendants to perform the complex, arduous work of rice cultivation. The flooding necessary to grow rice in inland and tidal fields also created deadly working conditions that would take the lives of thousands of enslaved men, women and children who over the next two centuries perished in the stagnant, mosquito and disease infested swamps. They paid with their lives, the eventual riches of the planters in coastal South Carolina.

These black South Carolinians also built houses, cooked, gardened, raised cattle, and provided other forms of labor to grow the prosperity of this region. Black slaves were particularly concentrated in the Sea Islands along the coast of South Carolina from Charleston south where they often comprised 90% of the population. Nonetheless the black majority remained for the entire state until well into the 20th Century. Its presence shaped the society both in terms of servile resistance (including insurrections in 1739 and 1740, the latter being the famous Stono Rebellion, and in the passage of “slave codes” designed to control and limit black life in the colony and then after the American Revolution, the state. Its presence also shaped Reconstruction after the Civil War and its bitter, violent aftermath including racial violence in Hamburg (1876) and other places in the late 19th Century and the forcible removal of most African Americans from office, after 1876. South Carolina’s Black majority through most of its history has been the major force in shaping the political economy of the state well into the 20th Century.

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