Thursday, March 22, 2007
History Month feature
Shaw University was the first public or private university for African-Americans in Mississippi, established by the Methodist Episcopal Church North in the city in 1866. It developed into a comprehensive educational institution with an elementary, secondary and college department. The first two African-Americans to graduate from any Mississippi university did so from this university in 1878. The Mississippi State Normal School, an outgrowth of Shaw University, was established in Holly Springs to train African-American teachers for the state’s new public school system in 1870. This state-supported school was located where Holy Family School is today.
Baptist College and Mississippi Industrial College in the city were not established until the first decade of the 20th century. These schools led to an African-American professional class populated by teachers, physicians and lawyers who lived the city to the present day.
The Reconstruction Act of 1867 brought for the first time African-Americans into the political arena in Holly Springs and the South. This act was designed to transform the social and political elements of the old South and offer immediate protection and opportunities for inclusion of the newly freed African-Americans in a new South. Republicans and Democrats alike competed profusely for the African-American vote and promised almost anything to get it. Alexander Phillips was the first African-American appointed to serve as a public school board director (member) for Holly Springs/Marshall County in 1870. In 1871, African-Americans had 350 of the 552 registered voters in Holly Springs. Two men, Logan Gorman and Mack Hill were the first African-Americans elected to the board of aldermen in Holly Springs in 1871. Hiram Revels became the first African-American elected to serve in the United States Senate in 1870 after a close ballot race with Republican, Judge J.W.C. Watson of Marshall County.
George Washington Albright was the first African-American to serve in the Mississippi Senate from Marshall County; he was elected twice: 1874 and 1878. To achieve this, he had defeated a young E.H. Crump in 1873 wholater moved to Memphis, Tenn. and became the city’s mayor and a successful political boss. Ben Phillips served on the county board of registrars, while Joseph Tunstall, Jerry Dean and Anthony Tate served terms on the Board of Supervisors. Seven African-Americans served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from Marshall County between 1872 and 1883. They were Robert Cunningham, James Hill, Alfred Peel, A.A. Rodgers, G.C. Shelby, Adam Simpson, and R. Williams.
African-Americans in Holly Springs established several mutual aid societies, political and social-oriented organizations for themselves. African-American secret societies and local “coffin clubs” grew in strength during this decade to counter an incipient threat from the white supremacists. Among them were the Loyal or Union League, the Freedman’s Aid Society, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the Free African Society, the Elks, the Emancipated Order, Knights and Daughters of Tabor and several Masonic organizations. Over the years these organizations helped African-Americans to run for public office, build schools, colleges, churches, and organize a host of civic and social organizations. They also raised funds for various charities. During political seasons, these social organizations would gather and have long daylight and torchlight parades around town with their pageantry and colorful regalia in support of the Republican or Democratic ticket. These parades were a show of political might and overwhelming strength expressed for those who had aided them in their freedom and for that they would surely elect.
In 1875 the political fate of African-Americans changed in Holly Springs, and the South was fraught with many problems. Segregation, and the enduring violence to enforce it, reigned unchecked on African-Americans for nearly a hundred years.
Violence became commonplace throughout the rest of the 19th century. The federal troops stationed at Holly Springs had been withdrawn in 1877 and trouble to disenfranchised African-Americans brewed all across the South. African-Americans were threatened with violence when they attempted to vote. In Holly Springs, Tyler Williamson, an African-American Republican, was murdered on the square after a dispute with a disgruntled Irish plantation overseer. Several African-American leaders were run out of town, and sharecroppers were being grossly cheated and abused.
Historian Adam Fairclough contends that after the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877, northerners and the Republican Party “had lost faith in the capacity of black people to rise to the level of whites” therefore, giving northern whites reasons for acquiescing in the disenfranchisement of African-American voters and allowing the ill treatment they received.
Historian Buford Satcher perhaps gave the best assessment when he said that: “Reconstruction did not end in Mississippi during Democratic return to the state government in 1875, nor did it end when occupation troops were withdrawn altogether from the South in 1877…it did end in great part for blacks as voters and office holders…when the federal government upheld the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, the same constitution that was never ratified by the people…”
By 1890, African-Americans had been disenfranchised as voters in Holly Springs when the Mississippi Legislature passed new voting laws. There was a powerful hidden construct unleashed, thereby countering the idea of an “inclusive society” and derailing any long-term goal for African-Americans and white southerners to live together. Jim Crowism – another term for laws and practices governing African-Americans – became a tradition of corrupt and shameful attempts to deprive African-Americans of their constitutional, social and economic rights, which threatened their livelihood and very existence. The 19th century ended with a mixture of opportunities and hopelessness, but the African-American community in Holly Springs emerged a wiser community because of its travails.
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