On June 4, 1870 Joshua C. Legree opened an account with the Savannah, Georgia branch of the Freedmen’s Bank. Three years earlier, Legree had been among the first to register to vote under the terms of the 1867 Reconstruction Act. Both his political activity and his desire to save the fruits of his labor underscored his determination to establish an independent life for himself, his wife Mary, and daughter Rina. For four decades, Legree remained politically active in Lowcountry Georgia, consistently paid poll taxes to retain voting rights, and built an economic foundation which included land and other forms of property. Elected as the first mayor of Burroughs, Georgia in 1898, J. C. Legree relied on a network of men and women who shared the same collective experience of dispossession to build a political base. During Reconstruction, Lowcountry Georgia, a five-county region that extends from Savannah to St. Mary’s Georgia, served as the territorial nexus for African American social, political, and economic activism.
Throughout Lowcountry Georgia, African Americans marshaled against native southern power, as well as federal policies that did not serve their interests. African American opposition included both individual and community resistance, formalized organizational protest, and armed resistance. Through organizations such as the Union League and the Farmers’ Alliance, African Americans developed a deft understanding of their political and social identity. In fact, the pursuit of self-governance, kinship, labor, and networks of communication transformed the political and social consciousness of African Americans during this period.
Historian Eric Foner identified land ownership as the central component of the Black economic agenda. Black land ownership would have a transformative impact on the southern economy and foster self-sufficiency. However, only in the Lowcountry rice region did the ideal come to fruition. Although rice production in the Lowcountry never regained its prewar profitability, the power of local Black politicians was paramount to establishing the region as a symbol and stronghold of Black economic and political clout through land ownership.
During the waning years of Congressional Reconstruction, the use of force through intimidation and violence by vigilante organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Jayhawks, and the Regulators proscribed the tenets of free labor ideology throughout the South. The activities of the Klan had its origins in labor troubles, which emerged with the destructions of slavery and the enfranchisement of African American men, which politicized the Klan’s reign of terror and led to the success of what John Hope Franklin termed “counter Reconstruction.” In the 1874 Georgia elections, only three counties maintained a Black voting majority and elected African American men to the state legislature: Liberty, McIntosh, and Glynn counties. The redemption of the state government, which consisted of 41 Democratic senators and 156 Democrats in the House, succeeded in diminishing the Republican presence in state politics as evidenced by the fact that only Liberty and McIntosh counties elected an African American representative to the state legislature by 1884.
In the Lowcountry, African Americans remained the demographic majority and continued to hold office at the local and state level during the post-Reconstruction period, despite a decline in the size of the African American vote. Indeed, the year 1877 was a watershed year for African American voting as the new state constitution disfranchised all persons who owed city taxes levied since 1876, the year in which the new state constitution was adopted. By 1888, the number of African American legislators was cut to two: Anthony Wilson of Camden County and S. A. McIvor of Liberty County. Wilson and McIvor were among the first to register to vote in 1867 under the Reconstruction Acts. Both men had carved a political niche for themselves in their respective counties, by serving as school teachers and political leaders in Camden County and Liberty County.
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, local African American leaders labored to ensure the longevity of the Republican Party by organizing rallies and attending state Republican conventions to not only ensure voter turnout in local elections, but to foment support for national elections. In McIntosh County, Republican voters assembled in front of the old courthouse in Darien in July 1876 to choose two delegates to attend the district convention scheduled to convene on August 10th in Savannah, Georgia. The meeting was called to order by Allen C. Gould whom the convention elected as chairman of the convention. The committee elected Samuel Russell and Allen C. Gould as delegates. The biracial convention adopted strong resolutions endorsing Rutherford B. Hayes and William A. Wheeler for president and vice president of the United States. The convention’s executive committee consisted of Hamilton Curry, Allen C. Gould, Lectured Crawford, P. C. Dollie, and Peter Maxwell. Each of these local leaders and least two local white leaders W. H. Way and J. W. Corker attending the convention made a series of copacetic speeches in support of the Republican Party.
Local leaders in Chatham, McIntosh, Liberty, Glynn, and Camden County were connected to leaders in Savannah through political and fraternal networks. The region’s African American newspaper, the Savannah Tribune provided access to public community space for political activism. Political networks derived from inter-island ties, which local leaders such as former slaves J. C. Legree of Chatham County and William A. Golding of Liberty County helped to establish. Golding, who served as a “delegate” of local freed men and women through his employment by the Freedmen’s Bureau, held court sessions in Liberty County in which he, along with other former slaves, wrote letters complaining of the conditions in the Lowcountry. In one such letter Golding stated:
We cannot labor for the landowners and know that our infirm and children are not provided for and not allowed to educate or learn more than they were permitted in slavery. We are a working class of people and we are willing and are desirous to work for a fair compensation. But to return to work upon the terms that are at present offered to us would be we think going back into the state of slavery.
Like other Lowcountry leaders, such as Aaron A. Bradley and Tunis Campbell, Golding wedded politics with a desire for social and economic justice. His service in Georgia’s constitutional convention of 1867, the Georgia House of Representatives in 1868, and the Georgia labor convention reflected a trope of leadership committed to the advancement of fair compensation. Although the Georgia House of Representatives expelled Golding, along with other African American legislators, on the grounds that the right of Black men to vote did not necessarily translate into a right to hold office, Golding continued to give voice to the labor concerns of African Americans in the Lowcountry.
Leaders, such as Bradley and Golding, used their social capital to promote identity politics in the Lowcountry. Through organizations such as the Union League and the Georgia Colored Farmers’ Alliance, they endeavored to push against neo-dependency and neo-paternalism. Since the end of the war, the Union League provided former slaves with a platform to express their views on political, social, and economic matters. Men, such as Dandy Stewart, relied upon these organizations to maintain political spaces for their own intellectual praxis. Elected to the Darien County Board of Commissioners in 1878, Stewart, who remained an engineer and blacksmith during the 1870s, along with his son Dandy Stewart Jr., who labored as a farmer, remained commissioners throughout the 1880s.
During the late 1880s and early 1890s, the Georgia Colored Farmers’ Alliance became the principal vehicle for welding free labor ideology with fair compensation. Organized in Troup County in 1884, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance at its peak boasted a membership of 90,000, which included a significant number of women. The significance of this movement became evident in the construction of a Farmers’ Alliance Hall on Sapelo Island during the 1880s, where residents held political meetings to discuss the community’s economic concerns. African American Alliance members elected African Americans to local county positions and were instrumental in electing two African Americans, Lectured Crawford of McIntosh County and J. M. Holzendorf of Camden County, to the Georgia state legislature in 1890. The gradual decline of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance in 1893 was coeval with deteriorating race relations throughout the state.
Dandy Stewart lived on Butler’s Island throughout the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods. He remained politically active in Lowcountry politics throughout 1890 until his death on May 23, 1891. His service on the Board of Commissioners for Darien, Georgia and his duties as coroner for McIntosh County, a position he assumed in 1879, had earned him the respect and admiration of Black and white citizens. Like other former slaves, Stewart carved out liminal spaces of freedom from former plantation lands and through his labor as an engineer and blacksmith earned wages to purchase 30 acres of land on Butler’s Island. Stewart, like many other African American men in the Lowcountry, continued to pay a poll tax until his death to remain politically active in the county and give voice to the region. Not unlike other late-nineteenth-century African American families, Dandy Stewart left a legacy for his son who continued his father’s political activism as the economic and political challenges of the 1890s continued unabated.
Excerpted from Karen Cook Bell’s Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018); A recipient of the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council Excellence in Research Award.