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The Phoenix Riot and the Memories of Greenwood County
November 8, 1898, was election day in the small town of Phoenix, South Carolina. Inside Watson and Lake's general store, local citizens cast their ballots. Out on the porch, a white man, Thomas P. Tolbert, set up a small box and began taking affidavits from African Americans who, for one reason or another, had not been allowed to vote. Tolbert was a political anomaly. In a state where being white had become almost synonymous with being a Democrat, he was the Republican son of a prominent Republican family. His father, John R. Tolbert, was collector of the port in Charleston, and his brother, Robert Red Tolbert, was Greenwood's Republican candidate for the House of Representatives.
The Tolberts and their allies hoped to use the affidavits that he collected to challenge the legality of certain portions of the 1895 South Carolina state constitution that had enshrined in law the previously informal disfranchisement of African Americans. Although black males outnumbered white males in Greenwood County, few had voted in the area since 1876, when the Democratic Party violently "redeemed" the state from Republican government. Republicans from the area hoped to expose the ongoing electoral fraud that had deprived African Americans of the vote those past twenty-two years.
They never got the chance. That morning, as Tom Tolbert sat on the porch outside the polling place with Joe Circuit, Will White, and a number of other African Americans, a band of white Democrats approached. Led by local party leaders J. I. "Bose" Ethridge and Robert Cheatham, they ordered Tolbert to collect his things and leave the polling place. When Tolbert refused, Ethridge kicked the affidavit box over. The affidavits scattered and ink spilled in the dirt, but Tolbert stood his ground. Ethridge picked up a piece of board, perhaps from the splintered affidavit box, and began to beat Tolbert about the head with it. Tolbert fought back, hitting Ethridge over the head with a wagon axle. As the two men struggled, a third man, possibly Will White, was pushed from the porch, fell over, and began firing his gun from the ground. No one saw who fired the first shots—some claimed it was White, others insisted it was Joe Circuit, and still others suspected [End Page 29] that it was Cheatham shooting wildly—but Bose Ethridge fell dead with a bullet through the forehead. Outraged, his fellow Democrats opened fire on Tolbert and the African American men. At the sound of gunfire, other white men ran from the polling place and joined the fight. White, Circuit, and the other African Americans briefly returned fire, but they soon beat a hasty retreat, with only minor injuries. Tolbert, on the other hand, was hit again and again, with one charge of buckshot in his neck, another in his left arm, and a third in his left side. He remained standing, though, and just before he ran, he reportedly turned to the crowd and shouted, "I have not a friend left at my back. You have shot me nearly to death, but you have not changed my politics one iota." 1
Over the next few days, whites from across Greenwood and surrounding counties converged on Phoenix to avenge Ethridge's death. Bands of armed whites scoured the countryside in search of victims. They drove the Tolberts from their homes and lynched four black men in the shadows of Rehoboth church, where the Tolberts and many other local whites worshipped. At least eight African Americans, and perhaps many more, were killed in the following weeks. No one was ever charged with the crimes.
Although there are scholarly accounts of the Phoenix riot, it has generally been overshadowed by the more momentous Wilmington race riot, which began just two days later, over the border in North Carolina. The Wilmington riot has received much attention from both historians and the public for good reason; it was the culmination of a Democratic campaign to oust the...