South Carolina leaders

Montage created in 1876 showing the “Radical Members” of the South Carolina Legislature. (Click on images to expand them.) Courtesy of

I recently watched comedian Dave Chappelle’s powerful Netflix special 8:46, remarking on the death of George Floyd and several other recent events. During the performance, Chappelle mentioned that President Woodrow Wilson received a delegation of African Americans from South Carolina after a black man was lynched in that state. This delegation was led by the comedian’s great-grandfather, William David Chappelle (1857-1925), born enslaved, the 37th Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dave Chappelle also mentioned this ancestor’s wife was the woman Dave’s father called out to on his deathbed, and how that memory reminded him of when George Floyd called out to his mother knowing his death was imminent.

I had worked on the genealogy of Dave Chappelle over a decade ago, and biographies of Bishop William David Chappelle appear in Who Was Who and Who’s Who in the Colored Race. Dave Chappelle’s father William David Chappelle III was the last of three men of that name, with the second being his father’s elder half-brother, William David Chappelle, Jr. (1888-1957), a prominent physician. I had found a detailed biography of this last man in The A.M.E. Church Review, which mentioned the bishop’s second wife [the great-grandmother of Dave Chappelle], “Rosina Palmer, daughter of Columbian Robert J. Palmer, a large and wealthy land-owner and member of the state legislature in the post-Reconstruction period.”

South Carolina had a majority African-American population from 1708 to 1780, and again from 1820 to 1910. During Reconstruction, newly-emancipated African-Americans gained the right to vote as a result of the 15th Amendment. Following this and the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, black South Carolinians maintained a majority in the state legislature from 1868 until 1876.

The name of Robert John Palmer (1849-1928) appears on an application in 1994 to place his burial place, Randolph Cemetery in Columbia, on the register of historic places with the National Park Service. The form provides significant context for this period of history, which has been often mis-characterized by previous historians:

“For years many historians, influenced by the ‘Dunning School’ – named for the writings of prominent historian William A. Dunning of Columbia University – viewed Reconstruction as an aberration in Southern history. They viewed the creation of interracial governments as a mistake and viewed state Reconstruction governments, which were often interracial, as corrupt. The whites involved in these governments were considered to be ‘Scalawags’ if they were native Southerners, or ‘Carpetbaggers’ if they were outsiders,” and were thought to be primarily interested in wielding their political power for personal gain. According to this view, blacks involved in Reconstruction politics were portrayed as being childlike and unprepared for their new-found freedom, and were led along by unscrupulous whites who had no real interest in racial equality.

Robert J. Palmer. Courtesy Black America Series: Columbia, South Carolina

“Many more recent historians, however have a quite different view of Reconstruction, viewing blacks as active agents in the making of a postbellum Southern Society. Blacks, according to these scholars, represented themselves with ability and political acumen throughout the South in state constitutional conventions, in state legislatures, and in local politics. Nowhere was this truer than in South Carolina, where black representatives to the Constitutional Convention of 1868 were, according to historian Eric Foner, ‘mostly educated, articulate, and politically experienced freeborn’ blacks, who ‘often outmaneuvered white participants’ at the convention. The convention, at which Benjamin Franklin Randolph was a delegate and William Beverly Nash was vice-president, established the first state-funded system of free public education and made school attendance compulsory. The Constitutional Convention of 1868 also forbade segregation in public schools …” [Randolph, Nash, and six other black state legislators are buried at Randolph Cemetery in addition to Palmer. Randolph and Nash are pictured in the above photo montage of the first legislature after the war. Randolph was assassinated in 1868 a few months after he became chair of the South Carolina Republican Party].[1]

The convention … established the first state-funded system of free public education and made school attendance compulsory. The Constitutional Convention of 1868 also forbade segregation in public schools

Robert John Palmer was born enslaved in South Carolina on 9 January 1849, the son of Edmund Palmer and Adelaide Gardner (according to his death certificate, below). He is enumerated in Columbia in the 1870 census (age 22, occupation at home) with five other Palmer women, although kinships are not stated. He attended a Republican meeting in Columbia on 25 July 1870 and managed an election precinct for Columbia in the 1870 election. His daughter Rosina C. Palmer (mother Julia Simons) was born in Columbia in 1873 or 1875. Robert was appointed by the Governor of South Carolina as an election commissioner for Richland County in September 1874. He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives, representing Richland County, from 1876 to 1878. He is recorded alone in the 1880 census in Columbia, age 31, as a tailor.

He married Adelaide shortly after this census, and in the 1900 census in Columbia they are recorded with nine children, with the notation that two had died. In 1902, he is credited as speaking on the merchant tailoring business at the National Negro Business Men’s League convention in Richmond, Virginia. Robert’s wife Adelaide died by 1910, and he married again in Kershaw County, South Carolina on 12 January 1913 to Mrs. Leila P. Bruce of New York City. While Robert and Leila remained in Columbia, Robert was in Harlem (New York City) when he died on 9 May 1928. An obituary appears for him the Palmetto Leader on 12 May 1928. As mentioned above, he is buried in Randolph Cemetery in Columbia. [2]

This is a significant period of time for American history, one that is often overlooked. These leaders of South Carolina during Reconstruction have a lasting legacy through their descendants today.


[1] United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Randolph Cemetery, Columbia, South Carolina, received 12 December 1994.

[2] 1870 U.S. Census, Columbia, Richland Co., S.C., Leah Palmer household; “At a Republican meeting …” The Daily Phoenix (Columbia, S.C.), 26 July 1870, p. 3; “Notice of the Electors of Richland County,” The Daily Phoenix, 13 October 1870, p. 3; 1880 U.S. Census, Columbia, Robt. J. Palmer household; 1900 U.S. Census, Nashville Ward 5, Davidson Co., Tenn., household of William B. [sic] Chappell (wife Rosina b. May 1873); 1959 South Carolina Death Certificate of Rosena C. Chappelle (b. 31 July 1875); “City Matters,” The Daily Phoenix, 18 September 1874, p. 2; “Legislative Election Returns,” The Abbeville Press and Banner (Abbeville, S.C.), 15 November 1876, p. 2; “Roast the Parsons,” Richmond Dispatch, 27 August 1902, p. 8; 1910 U.S. Census, Columbia Ward 4, Richland Co., S.C., Robert J. Palmer household; 1912 Kershaw County marriage record R.J. Palmer and Leila P. Bruce; 1928 New York City Death Certificate of R.J. Palmer.

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

7 thoughts on “South Carolina leaders

  1. Thank you very much, Christopher, for writing this very interesting and informative account. It assists each of us in learning and understanding more about history and the leadership roles of African Americans.
    I noticed that the probate copy of the will of Robert John Palmer, written in October of 1925, is available on Ancestry ( Robert and Leila may have moved to New York City before Robert’s death. On May 15, 1928, Robert’s widow Leila renounced her appointment as executrix stating that she was not a resident of South Carolina and was residing in New York City. Robert had bequeathed to Leila their house in South Carolina, describing it as their present residence, and the rest of his property to his children.
    Robert’s obituary in the Palmetto Leader (, first column, only partially legible) also indicates that Robert and Leila had moved to New York City.

  2. Using the larger image of the montage available on the facinghistory web site, I was able to identify the man second from left in the second row (top) as Justus Kendall Jillson, senator from 1868-70, and the first SC State Superintendent of Education from 1868-76. He was born in Gardner, MA 17 November 1839 and was married to Ellen Amelia Gates, a sister of my great grandfather George W. Gates of Petersham and Worcester (post Civil War, 53rd Mass. Vol. Inf.). Justus was instrumental in working to establish free, tax-supported education for all children, regardless of race or class, in South Carolina. He and his wife returned to Massachusetts with their three children, born in Columbia, SC, in 1876. He remained in the field of education in Massachusetts, but unfortunately died by his own hand in 1881. He, his wife Ellen, and son Allan K. Jillson are all buried in Warwick, Mass.

  3. All of those men in the 1878 poster can likely be found and followed in the book listings from the Beaufort County Library special page on SC Reconstruction:
    such as
    1) At Freedom’s Door : African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina — Edited by James Lowell Underwood and W. Lewis Burke, Jr. ; introduction by Eric Foner
    This work seeks to rescue from obscurity the identities and contributions of black leaders who helped to rebuild South Carolina after the Civil War. It demonstrates the legal acumen displayed by prominent African Americans and their impact on the enactment of substantial constitutional reforms.

    2) Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction by Thos Holt (U of Illinois Press 1979
    The title is a deserved nod to Winthrop Jordan’s magisterial White Over Black on slavery from 1619 to 1860.

    3) After Slavery : the Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction, 1861-1877 by Joel Williamson.
    4) After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War by Gregory P. Downs

    5) After Lincoln : How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace by A.J. Langguth.

    6) Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery by Leon F. Litwack. Pulitzer Prize, History, 1980.

    7) Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy by Stephen Kantrowitz

    8) Black Reconstruction in America by W. E. B. Du Bois
    This Harvard graduate (his senior thesis was on Jefferson Davis) was a public intellectual, sociologist, and activist on behalf of the African American community. He profoundly shaped black political culture in the United States through his founding role in the NAACP, as well as internationally through the Pan-African movement. Du Bois’s sociological and historical research on African-American communities and culture broke ground in many areas, including the history of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Du Bois was also a prolific author of novels, autobiographical accounts, innumerable editorials and journalistic pieces, and several works of history. Black Reconstruction in America tells and interprets the story of the twenty years of Reconstruction from the point of view of newly liberated African Americans. Though lambasted by critics at the time of its publication in 1935, Black Reconstruction has only grown in historical and literary importance. In the 1960s it joined the canon of the most influential revisionist historical works. Its greatest achievement is weaving a credible, lyrical historical narrative of the hostile and politically fraught years of 1860-1880 with a powerful critical analysis of the harmful effects of democracy, including Jim Crow laws and other injustices. With a series introduction by editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and an introduction by David Levering Lewis, this edition is essential for anyone interested in African American history.

    9) Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865-1877 by John David Smith. Original source documents.

    10) Bloody Shirt: Terror after Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky.
    Focus on the careers of two Union officers, a Confederate general, a northern entrepreneur, and a former slave.

    11) But There Was No Peace : The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction by George C. Rable

    12) Capitol Men : The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen by Philip Dray. A Pulitzer Prize finalist.

  4. “This is a significant period of time for American history, one that is often overlooked. These leaders of South Carolina during Reconstruction have a lasting legacy through their descendants today.”

    Thank you, Christopher for drawing attention to this important history. I also thought David Chappelle’s commentary in 8:46 was very powerful.

    For those interested in delving deeper into this history from the perspective of descendants, I would highly recommend the following two books:

    There Is Something About Edgefield: Shining a Light on the Black Community through History, Genealogy & Genetic DNA, by Edna Gail Bush and Natonne Elaine Kemp (Rocky Pond Press, 2017).

    Virtue of Cain: From Slave to Senator Biography of Lawrence Cain, by Kevin M. Cherry (Rocky Pond Press, 2019). Senator Cain is pictured in the 1876 montage of “Radical Members of the South Carolina Legislature” that you featured in your article.

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