Most of the African Americans in the City of Greenville were house servants and artisans. Following the freeing of slaves, the local church quickly became a place of worship. Not only was the church a place to worship, it also served as the school, the Court of law, and a social club for African Americans. Opportunities for leadership and self-expression were nourished in the confines of the African American church. (John Wesley United Methodist Church pictured)
African Americans resided in almost every street and in every section of the city. After the coming of freedom, masters often gave land and homes to certain of their former slaves or permitted them to remain on the land for life. Other freedmen were permitted to buy their own homes and buy additional land from former masters. Freed men earned a subsistence by working as street cleaners , yardkeepers, porters, draymen, messengers, and other unskilled jobs.
During reconstruction, only four African American Greenvillians were elected to public office although African Americans equaled whites in population. W. B. Thompson ,Wilson Cooke (pictured), Charles T. Hopkins and Thomas Grier). Two of these four African Americans, Rev. W. B. Thompson and Mr. Wilson Cooke, a businessman, were elected to the State Constitutional Convention in 1868. The same Mr. Cooke and a Mr. W.H. Bishop were later elected to the S.C. General Assembly. Both served only one term.
Greenville in 1877 was a Democratic stronghold and Democrats “called the shots.”
During this same period, Emancipation Day Parades were held annually. One such parade was reported in the January 7,1891 issue of the Greenville Enterprise “as a parade that marched down Main Street from the African Methodist Church in West Greenville to the music of the Union Star Band.” The Band was composed of the Palmetto and Neptune Fire Companies, the odd fellows, the Home Mission Benevolent Society and Africans Americans in general.
In 1884, the African American workforce in Greenville consisted of farm laborers, males at 56%, women at 75%. The average wage paid to male farm laborers was $8 to $13 dollars per month, which included room and board. Females farm laborers were paid $3 to $6 dollars per month, which also included room and board.
In the 1900s, the enactment of the Greenville 1912 S.C. Code, “segregation” became the law of the city as part of the movement to separate the races in all areas. Spring and Broad Streets became the thoroughfares of entertainment and relations for African Americans in the 1920s.
The Liberty Theater located on Spring Street became the first cinema for African Americans in Greenville. The Theater opened around 1927 by Marion Frenchy Davis of Aberdeen, Mississippi. The Davis’ of Greenville worked at the Theater. It was the place of entertainment for movies and live presentations. Peg Leg Bates made his first appearance on this stage.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was organized in Greenville on September 12, 1938 in an atmosphere of fear. By this time, African Americans lived in constant fear of the wrath of the “night riders,” cross-burnings and the Klu Klux Klan. African Americans who supported the NAACP saw this organization as their only hope for a brighter tomorrow. Many African Americans were lynched, tarred and feathered for sport more often than for cause.
African American Athletes were allowed to display their athletic talents, but only in the shadows of segregated baseball diamonds, basketball courts, and football fields. Separation of the races in sports was the law. The favorite pastime for African Americans was the game of baseball. African Americans could only compete with “all negro” teams either in college or the Negro Baseball League. It was within this setting that we see the emergence of the Greenville Spinners Baseball Team, an African American team organized by Messrs. M.C. Clark (pictured) John Austin, and Mark Durham in the spring of 1923 until 1962. The Spinners drew huge crowds when they played before the home fans at Meadowbrook Park. Under the management of Snow Dean, Robert Johnson, Herbert Roberts and Ralph Shumate the team enjoyed impressive seasons.
African Americans in Greenville were allowed to register and vote in 1948, and in the early 1960’s, the student protest movement erupted with “study-ins” at the County Library, “sit-ins” at downtown lunch counters, and “pray-ins” at local churches. The protesters were local teenagers and high school students enrolled at Sterling High School. On February 17, 1970 a mass intergration of the school plan took place in Greenville.
African Americans continue to make their mark on Greenville’s history through sports, arts and entertainment, business and economics, education, and politics. African Americans in Greenville have left indelible marks on the history, growth and development of Greenville.
To learn more about African American history, visit the Greenville Cultural Exchange Center or Historic Richland Cemetery.