Black History Month – 2106. First Black State Supreme Court Justice

In 1840, Jonathan Jasper Wright was born in Pennsylvania.  He attended the district school during the winter months and worked for neighboring farmers the rest of the year. He saved up enough money to attend Lancasterian University in Ithaca, New York. 

Wright graduated in 1860 and for the next five years taught school and read law in Pennsylvania. In October 1864 Wright was a delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse, NY. Chaired by Frederick Douglass, the convention called for a nationwide ban on slavery, racial equality under the law and suffrage for all males.

Wright then applied for admission to the Pennsylvania Bar but was refused due to his race. After the War he joined the American Missionary Association and was sent to Beaufort, South Carolina to organize schools for freedmen.

When the Civil Rights Act was passed, Wright returned to Pennsylvania and demanded a Bar examination. He was admitted on August 13, 1865, and became the state’s first black lawyer. By January 1867 he was back in South Carolina as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Beaufort where he became active in Republican politics. He was chosen as a delegate to the historic 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention that met in Charleston. As one of the few trained black lawyers in South Carolina, Wright had a great deal of influence in writing the Constitution and setting up the judiciary.

In a somewhat back-handed compliment, the Charleston Daily News called Wright a “very intelligent, well-spoken colored lawyer.”

There were 124 delegates to the convention, seventy-three of them black. The new Constitution bestowed voting rights and educational opportunities “without regard to race or color.” It also included universal male suffrage, forbade all property qualifications for office, outlawed dueling and legalized divorce.

Later that year, in the first election under this new Constitution, Wright was one of ten black men elected to the South Carolina Senate. In the South Carolina House seventy-eight of the 124 representatives were black. However, many whites had no intention of “obeying a Negro constitution of a Negro government establishing Negro equality.” The white-dominated press called it the “Africanization of South Carolina,” and most whites never accepted the 1868 Constitution as legitimate. They were determined to undermine all the gains made by blacks with the support of Yankee carpetbaggers.

Shortly after the election, Solomon Hogue resigned from the South Carolina Supreme Court to take a seat in the U.S. Congress. That left a vacant seat on the high court for the ten-month remainder of his judicial term,. The black Republican-dominated legislature was determined to elect a black man to join the two white men – Chief Justice Franklin J. Moses, a scalawag (Southerner who supported the Federal government), and Associate Justice A.J. Willard, a carpetbagger (Yankee involved in Southern  politics) – already on the court.  

In fact, Moses, a former governor, who was notoriously corrupt, picked up the nickname “king of the scalawags” and “the Robber Governor.”

The three candidates for the open seat were Wright, J.W. Whipper, a black representative, and one white candidate, former governor James Orr. The final legislative vote on February 1, 1870 was:

  • Wright, 72
  • Whipper, 57
  • Orr, 3

Jonathan Jasper Wright became the first black associate justice elected to a state Supreme Court. Ten months later, Wright was elected to a full term (six years). He was thirty-years-old.

Jonathan_Jasper_Wright - harpers weekly

Jonathon Jasper Wright, from Harper’s Magazine. Author’s collection.

Edward McCrady of Charleston was incensed by Wright’s election to the high court. He published a virulent pamphlet which claimed that had Wright been a white man, he never would have attained such a position with so little experience.

During his seven-year tenure on the bench, Justice Wright heard 425 cases and wrote eighty-seven opinions. However, during the heated election of 1876 (see entry #36), Wright voted to support the Republican victory against Democrat Wade Hampton. Four months later when President Rutherford B. Hayes pulled Federal troops out of South Carolina, the Republicans vacated their seats and the Democrats took charge of the state.

The new Democrat-controlled legislature quickly attempted to impeach Justice Wright for corruption and malfeasance based on trumped-up charges. He initially vowed to defend himself, but in August 1877 realized he could not win. He submitted his resignation.

Governor Hampton, in accepting the resignation, wrote to Wright, acknowledging the illegitimacy of the accusations:

Dear Sir:

Your favor of this date, covering your resignation of the office of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of this State, is at hand and contents noted.

I accept the same as a tribute on your part to the quietude of the State, and as in no sense an acknowledgement of the truth of the charges which have been made against you.

Wright moved to Charleston and established a law practice. He taught classes from his office and established the law department at Claflin College in Orangeburg. When he died of tuberculosis in 1885, his reputation in South Carolina was still viewed through the lens of racism and suspicion.

A century later, in 1997, the South Carolina Supreme Court unveiled a portrait of Wright, originally published in Harper’s Weekly magazine and a granite grave marker. Chief Justice Ernest Finney, Jr., the first black on the court since Wright stated:

[Wright’s] election to the supreme court marked a high point in a celebrated career of public service, as a teacher, a lawyer and as a statesman.

On Thursday, September 26, 2013, at the South Carolina Black Lawyers Association hosted a ceremonial unveiling of a South Carolina Historic Marker at the site of Justice Jonathan Jasper Wright’s law office on Queen Street in Charleston.

From the book, Charleston F1rsts. Available on Amazon. 

chas first cover - official - front cover

Today In Charleston History: June 22

1663-Founding of Carolina

Capt. Robert Sandford, exploring the Carolina coast for Sir John Yeamans, sailed five miles up a “fair river” and came across “a canoe with two Indians.” They informed Sandford that this was the country of “Edistoh.”

1722

The city of Charlestown was incorporated by Governor Nicholson.

1769

In the Gazette, Christopher Gadsden wrote:

It seems amazing, and altogether unaccountable, that our mother country should take almost every means in her power, to drive her colonies to some desperate act; for what else could be the motive (besides oppressing them) of treating them with that contempt she upon all occasions affects to do?

1781-American Revolution

The American prisoners in the British ships in Charlestown harbor were exchanged, and sent to Philadelphia.

1822-Denmark Vesey Rebellion

Frederick Wesner and Capt. William Dove arrested Denmark Vesey at the “house of one of his wives,” most likely his former wife Beck.

1864-Bombardment of Charleston
Gen. Samuel Jones

Gen. Samuel Jones

Gen. Sam Jones (CSA) angrily replied to Gen. Schimmelfenneg’s assertions that the bombardment was aimed at military targets:

The fire has been so singularly wild and inaccurate that no one who has ever witnessed it would suspect its object … the shells have been thrown at random, at any and all hours, day and night …

1917

 

Edmund Thorton Jenkins

Edmund Thorton Jenkins

Edmund Thornton Jenkins (Jenks) composition for grand organ and orchestra, Prelude Religieuse, was performed at the Queen’s Hall at the Royal Academy.  In a mere two years, Jenks had progressed to the point where his compositions were being performed at one of London’s leading concert halls. As the war raged across Europe, Jenks had something more important on his mind – his musical future.

Listen to one of Jenkins’ compositions, “Charlestonia: A Folk Rhapsody.” 

Today In Charleston History: June 20

1672

Lord Ashley Cooper wrote to Sir John Yeaman:

The Distinction of the Governor from the rest of our deputies is a thing rather of order than of overruling power, and he hath no more freedom thereby than any one of the council to swerve from these rules.

1695-Religion

Governor Joseph Blake gave £1000 sterling to the Independent (Congregationalist) Church.

1776-American Revolution. Battle of Ft. Sullivan

Gen. Clinton sent a brigade under Maj. Gen. Charles Cornwallis to pitch camp within sight of The Breach on Long Island (Isle of Palms). Cornwallis reported that the depth of The Breach at low tide, initially thought to be only half-a-yard, was in reality seven feet. Col. Willliam Moultrie had already stationed an Advance Guard of 400 men on the other side of the Breach to defend against the crossing, effectively stranding Cornwallis’s force.

1779-American Revolution. Battle of Stono Ferry

Under Lt. Col. John Maitland, the British had established their defenses at Stono Ferry, located on the Stono River. British troops were camped on one side with a detachment of Hessians camped on the other side.

The British rear guard force was attacked by Patriot forces under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln. Within a hour the Patriots had taken the British redoubts and the British and Hessian troops were falling back, with many causalities. The Patriots were on the verge of victory when fresh British reinforcements came up.

The Patriots attacked the Hessian camp they immediately came under fire from a British galley in the Stono River. The Patriots opened fire on the ship and forced it to withdraw from the fight. The South Carolina Navy schooner Rattlesnake had come down the river. It began to fire into the rear of the British and Hessain forces. They both turned from the Patriot force and fired upon the Rattlesnake. The Rattlesnake fired back at them, and repulsed the attack with heavy losses.

The American loss in the battle was 34 killed, 113 wounded and 155 missing. Among the dead was Hugh Jackson, brother of future President Andrew Jackson. The British casualties were 26 killed, 93 wounded and 1 missing.

Map drawn by British officer, 1780.

Map drawn by British officer, 1780.

1794-Slavery.

A writer named “Rusticus” wrote a letter to the editor about white anxiety over the presence Haitian slaves:

The circumstances which occasion’d their introduction gave new ideas to our slaves which the opportunities of conversation with the new comers could not fail to ripen into mischief. It may be perhaps true that the generality of those admitted were not immediately concerned in the revolt  – their hands were free from blood but they witnessed [sic] all the horrors of the scene – they saw the dawning hope of their countrymen to be free – the rapidity with which the flame of liberty spread among them …

1822-Slavery. Denmark Vesey Rebellion.

One of the incarcerated conspirators, most likely William Paul, finally broke down and identified Denmark Vesey as the “instigator and chief of the plot.” This set off an intense, frantic two-day long search of Charleston, from wharfs to streets and buildings.

Today In Charleston History: June 11

1747-Slavery
Henry Laurens

Henry Laurens

Henry Laurens returned from his internship London and opened an import and export business. Through his English contacts, Laurens entered into the slave trade with the Grant, Oswald & Company who controlled 18th century British slave castle in the Republic of Sierra Leone, West Africa known as Bunce Castle. Laurens contracted to receive slaves from the “rice coast” of Serra Leone, catalogue and market the human product by conducting public auctions in Charles Town. His company Austin and Laurens, in the 1750s, handled was responsible for the sales of more than eight thousand Africans

1754-Slavery. Executions

Two female slaves of Mr. Childermas Croft were burned alive for setting fire to their master’s main house and several plantation outbuildings in Charleston.

1766- Arrivals

 New royal governor, twenty-five year old Charles Genville Montagu, Duke of Cumberland, arrived. He presented a petition directing the Assembly to pay former Governor Boone’s salary for two and a half years. Montagu Street and Cumberland Street in Charleston are named after him. 

While in Charlestown, Montagu lived in the home owned by Charles and Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who were living in England at the time. The Pinckney’s house was located at the present corner of East Bay and Guignard streets (now Molly Darcey’s Irish Pub). It was destroyed by the 1861 fire.  

Ruins of the Pinckney mansion

Ruins of the Pinckney mansion, looking west from East Bay up Guignard Street.

1788-Executions

Five men and one woman – Robert Stacy, Josiah Jordan, John George, Edward Hatcher, Thomas Smith, and Ann Connely – were hanged for the robbery and murder of Nicholas John Wightman.

1818 –Slavery. Religion

“Black Priests” appeared before the City Council asking for permission to “allow them to hold their meetings in the way they wished.” The Council denied the request, claiming that the “Missionaries” of the Philadelphia AME church were “fire-brands of discord and destruction.”

They did, however, allow daylight meetings as long as a “single white person” was present to monitor the service.

Today In Charleston History: June 9

1739

“A Exact Prospect of Charlestown” an engraving based on a watercolor by Bishop Roberts, was printed in London and published in London Magazine.

An Exact Prospect of Charlestown, by Bishop Roberts

An Exact Prospect of Charlestown, by Bishop Roberts

1776-Battle of Ft. Sullivan-American Revolution

Learning of the construction of Ft. Sullivan, and the fact that the back (land) side of the fort was not completed, Sir Henry Clinton and 500 British soldiers landed on Long Island (present-day Isle of Palms) just north of Sullivan’s Island. Over the following days, Clinton increased his force on Long Island. His plan was to cross The Breach, an inlet between Long Island and Sullivan’s and attack the fort from its unfinished rear while Sir Peter Parker’s ships assaulted it from the sea.

 1818 – Religion-Slavery

Rev. Richard Allen, black minister from Philadelphia, conducted a service on Wednesday evening at the AME Church. The city guard was called out to break up the service. One hundred and forty black congregants were arrested – including Denmark Vesey, Peter Poyas, Monday Gell and Gullah Jack – and spent the night in jail. The next morning a judge lectured them on the particulars of the 1800 law that prohibited black religious meetings after dark with a black majority.

 1864-Bombardment of Charleston  

Gus Smythe, serving in the Confederate Signal Corps in Charleston, wrote to his mother:

Well the Yankees have succeeded at last in hitting St. Michael’s Church. NOT the steeple, just the base of it. The shell entered the South roof of the church on Tuesday, but did not burst nor do much damage … I do not consider the charm as broken now even until the Steeple itself receives a scratch

Today In Charleston History: May 16

1838-Slavery.

Angelina Grimke Weld gave a lecture at Pennsylvania Hall to the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, a gathering of mixed-race abolitionists, amid a hostile atmosphere on the streets of Philadelphia, packs of mobs parading through the streets protesting the “amalgamation” of people inside the hall. 

As Angelina took the podium bricks and stones were thrown through the windows, with jeering from the outside easily carrying inside the hall, but she lectured for more than an hour, addressing the mob outside the hall:

What is a mob? What would the breaking of every window be? Any evidence that we are wrong or that slavery is a good and wholesome institution? What if that mob should now burst in upon us, break up our meeting and commit violence upon our persons – would this be anything compared with what the slaves endure? 

The next day a mob stormed Pennsylvania Hall and burned it to the ground. The city’s official report concluded that the fire and riots were the fault of the abolitionists, saying they had upset the citizens by encouraging “race mixing” and inciting violence.

Pennyslvania Hall burning

Pennyslvania Hall burning

 

1918
Edmund Thorton Jenkins

Edmund Thorton Jenkins

Edmund Thornton Jenkins was awarded the Charles Lucas Prize for Composition at the Royal Academy. Jenks ( as he was called) was the son of Rev. Daniel Jenkins, of the Jenkins Orphanage House in Charleston. The Jenkins Band had been performing at the Anglo-America Expo in London, but the outbreak of World War I caused the Expo to shut down. Jenks remained in London and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music.

During his fifth year at school Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra played at London’s Philharmonic Hall. Jenks looked upon Cook as the type of musician he aspired to be – a serious black musician.

Today In Charleston History: May 2

1739

In a letter to a friend, Eliza Lucas wrote:

Charles Town … is a polite, agreeable place. The people live very Gentile and very much in the English taste … there is two worthy Ladies in Charles town, Mrs. Pinckney and Mrs. Cleland, who are partial enough to me to be always pleased to have me with them and insist upon my making their houses my home with in town. [Note: the Pinckney house was on Union, (now State) Street.]

1780-The Seige of Charlestown.

Loyalist Maj. Patrick Ferguson and sixty American Volunteers marched to Haddrell’s Point to attack a small fort that stood on a causeway that led to Fort Moultrie. The fort, about 150 yards from the mainland, was defended by Capt. John Williams and twenty soldiers of the South Carolina 1st Regiment. The British took the fort while the cannons from Fort Moultrie fired on them until dark. The British soon fortified the fort for a possible attack.

1822-Denmark Vesey Rebellion.

During a midnight meeting at his house on Bull Street, Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter, told the gathered crowd that:

we were going to have a war and fight the white people … those that did not join must be regarded as an enemy and put to death. Who made you – God – and then aren’t you just as good as your master, if God made him & you, aren’t you as free?

 During the meeting Vesey set Sunday, July 14 as the date of the revolution. Why Sunday? On Sunday, thousands of people came into Charleston by river for worship services or to sell and purchase goods at the Public Market. The blacks recruited for the revolution were instructed to bring “their hoes, hatchets, axes and spades, which might be used as offensive weapons, or as instruments to break open doors.” The leaders of the Rebellion were:

  • Ned Bennett: A trusted and loved slave in the household of Governor Thomas Bennett who lived at 19 Lynch Street (now Ashley Avenue), less than three blocks from Denmark’s home. On the night of the revolt, Ned’s job was to seize the State Arsenal and distribute the weapons, which included more than 200 muskets, bayonets and swords.
  • Rolla Bennett: Also a slave in service of Governor Bennett. Although Rolla admitted that governor treated him like a son, he volunteered to murder his master and his family on the night of the rebellion.
  • Batteau Bennett: Yet another trusted slave in the house of the governor. Batteau claimed he would rather murder his master or die violently resisting than continue his life as a privileged slave.
  • Monday Gell: Monday’s master, John Gell, owned a livery stable at 127 Church Street and regarded his slave as intelligent and dependable. Monday was an excellent harness maker and his master hired him out to a shop on Meeting street, letting his slave keep a portion of the earnings for himself.
  • Bacchus Hammett: An early and eager convert to Denmark’s vision. He stole a keg of gunpowder which was hidden for weeks at Denmark’s house.
  • Peter Poyas: A ship’s carpenter who “wrote in a good hand” and owned by James Poyas lived at 49 King Street and operated a shipyard on Bay Street. Peter had his own weapons and agreed with Denmark that “we are obliged to revolt.” Poyas may have been more eager than Denmark for the rebellion to take place. He often urged Denmark that “we cannot go on like this.”
1828
Thomas Tudor Tucker

Thomas Tudor Tucker

Thomas Tudor Tucker, a Charleston native, died in office as the Treasurer of the United States, a position he held for 26 years. He also was President James Madison’s personal physician.

1914

Rev.  Daniel Jenkins, who operated the Jenkins Orphanage House, received a telegram from Jules Hurtig that read “Bring with you the best musicians you have of small boys.

Hurtig was a booking agent on Broadway. He had seen a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which the Jenkins Orphanage Band played a role. Hurtig was quick to realize the band’s commerical potential. He was also responsible for supplying American acts for Anglo-American Exposition, scheduled to be held in London, and he thought the Jenkins Bands would be a major draw.

Jenkins Orphanage Band "The Pickaninny Bands"

Jenkins Orphanage Band at the Anglo-American Expo in London.

Hurtig offered Rev. Jenkins a contract that paid $100 a week for a ten-week engagement, in addition to new uniforms for the band, all transportation and board for the band and caretakers. Jenkins agreed immediately. He was smart enough to bring more than just “young boys” to the Expo. The band would be performing a rigorous five hour program each day in London, on a regular stage in front of thousands of people, so Jenkins decided to bring several of his older, more accomplished and seasoned players in their late teens. He recognized that this was the most significant opportunity for the Jenkins Band to prove they were a serious musical entity. 

doin' the charlestonFor the entire story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band history, read Doin’ The Charleston.