Contemporary Novel on Atlanta Race Riot of 1906

The Law of the White Circle: A Novel by Thornwell Jacobs (1877-1956). Foreword by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Supplementary readings by Paul Stephen Hudson, Walter White, and W. E. B. Du Bois. September 2006. ISBN 0820328804 paper. $19.95. 164 pp. 5 x 8 in. • 3 b&w photos Published to coincide with the centennial of the Atlanta race riot.

From the UGA Press page:

Long out of print, this is the only novel set during the infamous Atlanta race riot of 1906, in which dozens of African Americans were killed or injured. The “white circle” of the book’s title delineates a realm of freedom, opportunity, and equality into which no black person could enter. The tensions that exploded into three days of deadly mob violence are explored through the intertwined stories of a white journalist, a black college professor, and the woman they both love—an artist of mixed race who chooses to pass as white.
Until the riot, Atlanta had been touted as a place where blacks and whites lived peacefully, yet separately. Thornwell Jacobs tries to make sense of what happened by weaving into his story threads of thought on such issues as media sensationalism, interracial love, social Darwinism, and class divisions within black and white communities.

UGA is ascribing a progressivism to the author which must be exaggerated.

The author was raised in Clinton, Laurens County, SC, site of the of a riot in 1870 in a which a white mob successfully prevented enfranchised former slaves from voting. The inability or unwillingness of occupying Union forces to protect the freedoms of African-Americans was a serious reversal for Reconstruction.

 Thornwell Jacob’s father, Rev. William Plumber Jacobs, founder of Presbyerian College and Thornwell Orphanage characterized the attempts of freed slaves to vote in Clinton in this way:  

“A difficulty had also occurred at Chappells. But Sheriff Paysinger with a company of one hundred men captured sixty negroes there without bloodshed. The whites immediately began to assemble at Clinton, and by eleven o’clock yesterday over a thousand men had assembled on the public square, whereat the negroes became very much alarmed and agreed to go home and behave themselves. By night, however, a hundred negroes had again collected, the whites having dispersed, but they were notified by the guard of fifty whites who had been left in town that they would all be arrested unless they dispersed immediately began to scatter. So ends the affair, I trust. They have threatened to make a San Domingo of South Carolina, but no San Domingo here!”

Jacobs, Literary, pp. 19-20 ; Life, pp. 87-88

 The proximity of the riot to his father, and his father’s own observations obviously made quite an impression on the younger Jacobs.  Perhaps some success of The Law of the White Circle influenced the author as well.  A quick check reveals that two later novels Red Lanterns On St. Michael’s (1940) and When For The Truth (1950) both center on race riots, located in Charleston.  The latter book is dedicated with a warning on the dangers of democracy, a hearty thanks to Wade Hampton, and a declaration of friendship to reactionary Charleston Courier editor William Watts Ball.  He also dedicates Red Lanterns to Ball, thanking him for “holding Wade Hampton’s hat for him.”  Hampton was deeply implicated in the Redshirt Campaigns of 1876 and the subsequent official disenfranchisement of African-American voters.  The establishment of a one party state was complete by the gubernatorial election of 1878, in which Hampton was the only balloted candidate.  Violence continued through locally contested elections in 1880 , but did not abate when the political prospects of the African-American citizens of South Carolina were extinguished.  Hampton’s indimidations and reforms paved the way for racist demogogues Ben Tillman and Cole Blease, politicians who dominated the state from the 1890s until the 1910s.  I don’t know yet of Thornwell Jacobs wrote any accounts of the 1890s.  I imagine it would be harder for him to contrive a suitably noble racist narrative from the unopposed campaigns of lynching that followed Hampton’s victory.

Robert Smalls, famous as the pilot of The Planter, fought on as a U.S. Representative from the Beaufort region until 1886. He was elected as a delegate to Tillman’s Constitutional Convention of 1895, which produced a document that weakened state government and eliminated what remained of the African-American franchise.  South Carolina was a majority African-American, after all, until the 1910s, and the complete exclusion of Blacks from government was a laborious process.  In an article published in 1890, Smalls describes a typical electoral fraud.

If fortunate enough to obtain a certificate and he is in the low country or the Seventh Congressional District, which strikes nearly every republican centre, the Republican goes to the polls, if he can find them, early in the morning, as he is more or less acquainted with the delays there, especially if, there is a promise of a large Republican vote. The hour for the opening of the polls comes and goes, and neither managers nor boxes make their appearance. The crowd grows larger and soon there are four or five hundred Republicans. Anxious inquiries are made for the managers. It is learned later that, of the managers, Colonel Jones has gone to town, Mr. Brown has gone hunting, and Mr. Smith says he does not intend to serve, as there is no pay in it. Four or five hundred Republicans are disfranchised by the neglect of the managers, and not even the letter or spirit of the law is violated by the poll not being opened.

Within a few years of Small’s writing, legal protections for African-Americans in individual social, criminal and property rights were removed.   The campaigns of lynching and repression carried out under Jim Crow segregation would lead to a mass movement of Black citizens to the Northern cities.

Smalls spoke out in favor of democracy and against restriction of the right to vote at the convention, but could not overcome the outright racism of Tillman’s delegations.  Smalls himself lived until 1915.  I wonder what his last years were like and what he thought about the rising incidence of lynchings as Blacks became increasingly politically powerless.  It would make a better subject for a book than the Jacob’s ceaseless magnolia-flogging.

Contemporary, racially biased accounts of the 1870 Clinton Riot can be found here:

  • Columbia, SC, Daily Phoenix, September 7, 1870 and October 25, 1870

Memoirs of Rev. Thornwell and another contemporary SC figure:

  • Leland, John A. A Voice from South Carolina.  Charleston: Walker, Evans, and Cogswell, 1879. Pages 56 – 56
  • Jacobs, Thornwell.  The Life of William Plumer Jacobs.  New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1918.
  • Jacobs, Thornwell, ed.  William Plumer Jacobs:  Literary and Biographical.  Oglethorpe University:  Oglethorpe University Press, 1942.
  • Smalls, Robert. Contested election. [Washington]: Judd & Detweiler, printers, [1878?].
  • Smalls, Robert. Speeches at the Constitutional Convention. With the right of suffrage passed by the Constitutional Convention. Compiled by Miss Sarah V. Smalls. Charleston, S.C.: Enquirer Print, 1896.
  • Robert Smalls, “Election Methods in the South,” North American Review, CLI, (1890), 593-600

For further reference, these resources might be obtainable through InterLibrary Loan.

  • The Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina, 1868-1871. By Francis B. Simkins. The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1927), pp. 606-647. doi:10.2307/2714040
  • The Ku Klux Conspiracy: Testimony Taken By the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affaris in the late Insurrectionary States. Washington 1872. Vols. III, IV and V. Reprint editions: 1968 reprint of the Government Printing Office ed. of 1872. 1990 pages (?). Abridged reprint edition: Published 2001. Pelican Pub Co Inc. 636 pages.

Scholarly resources:

  • J.C.A. Stagg, “The Problem of Klan Violence: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1868-1871,” Journal of American Studies 8 (Dec. 1974): 303–18
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Posted on January 18, 2008, in books and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Sounds like an interesting novel, possibly in the Upton Sinclair mode. I’ll look for it at the library!

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