Erasing Black Leadership from Reconstruction History Still Distorts Our UnderstandingRoundup
tags: Reconstruction, African American history, Southern history
Robert Greene II is assistant professor of history at Claflin University, and the book reviews editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.
Tyler D. Parry is assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
One of South Carolina’s most important historical figures is little remembered today. But this man — Henry E. Hayne — and his forgotten history shine a spotlight on the racism and racial inequality still plaguing society a century and a half after the politician and trailblazer made his mark on the state. Hayne’s life exemplified the promise of Reconstruction after the Civil War, its radical achievements and the tragedy of its defeat. His erasure from the history books further marks how racism brutally eclipsed the potential of Black political power, setting the United States on a course from which it has not yet fully recovered.
Hayne was born free in Charleston to a free Black mother named Mary and a White father, James Hayne. He obtained a formal education and worked as a tailor in Charleston throughout the antebellum period. Those who knew him remarked that he could pass as White, though he viewed himself as a Black man and held a deep investment in Black liberation at the time of the Civil War.
Using his ability to infiltrate White spaces, Hayne enlisted in the Confederacy with plans to defect to the Union Army as it occupied major sections of the South Carolina coast. In reflecting on his decision, Hayne recalled that it provided the best opportunity for him to go “through the lines” and defect: “I went with the South far enough to get out of it.” He eventually joined the Union’s all-Black 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under noted abolitionist commander Thomas Wentworth Higginson, earning the rank of commissary sergeant.
After the war’s conclusion, Hayne became involved in local politics and quickly moved up the ranks in state government. In 1868, he began his political career as a state senator for Marion County, and that same year he represented Marion at the convention responsible for drafting a new state constitution — one that expanded rights and privileges to South Carolina’s citizens, regardless of race. The 1868 constitution tore down the barriers that had previously blocked Black South Carolinians from participation, including entry into the state university.
Hayne also served in a number of clerical appointments, such as chairing the state penitentiaries’ board of directors, and serving as a member of the board for the state normal school.
In 1872, Hayne became South Carolina’s secretary of state. This elective position probably provided him the political and social capital necessary to personally disrupt the state’s last remaining icon of white supremacy — the University of South Carolina (USC).
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