Improving Education in South Carolina

Samuel J. Lee, elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868, describes improvements to the state education system made during Reconstruction. This reading is available in Spanish.
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  • History
  • Equity & Inclusion
  • Racism

Freedman Samuel J. Lee was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in the elections of 1868, the first elections in which African Americans voted in the state. He became Speaker of the House in 1872. In 1874, he reported on the improvements to the state education system made by the Republican legislature during Reconstruction. 

Permit me, now to refer to our increased educational advantages. It is very pleasing, gentlemen, to witness how rapidly the schools are springing up in every portion of our State, and how the number of competent, well trained teachers are increasing. . . .

Our State University has been renovated and made progressive. New Professors, men of unquestionable ability and erudition, now fill the chairs once filled by men who were too aristocratic to instruct colored youths. A system of scholarships has been established that will, as soon as it is practically in operation, bring into the University a very large number of students. . . . The State Normal School is also situated here, and will have a fair attendance of scholars. We have, also, Claflin University, at Orangeburg, which is well attended, and progressing very favorably; and in the different cities and large towns of the State, school houses have been built, and the school master can be found there busily instructing “the young idea how to shoot” [a quotation from poet James Thomson, who uses shoot to mean “grow” or “advance”]. The effects of education can also be perceived; the people are becoming daily more enlightened; their minds are expanding, and they have awakened, in a great degree, from the mental darkness that hitherto surrounded them. . .  1

The Birth of a Nation was a sensation after its release in 1915. Describing the Reconstruction era, the film adapts quotations from a history book written by Woodrow Wilson, an adherent of the Dunning School. One such quotation went, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” Wilson praised the movie and made it the first film ever to be screened at the White House. In New York City, The Birth of a Nation promoters sent white-robed horsemen riding through the city to advertise the new film about heroic Klansmen. Civil rights organizations such as the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People challenged the film’s portrayal of African Americans and unsuccessfully attempted to have it banned or censored. 2 The most ambitious film ever made at the time, The Birth of a Nation was a popular success. African American writer James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1915 that The Birth of a Nation did “incalculable harm” 3 to black Americans by creating a justification for prejudice, racism, and discrimination for decades to follow. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan, inactive since the trials of 1872, reemerged across the country to terrorize African Americans and immigrants.

  • 1 Excerpt from Final Report to the South Carolina House, 1874, Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of South Carolina, for the Regular Session of 1874–1874 (Columbia, 1874), 549–553. Reprinted in William Loren Katz, Eyewitness (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995). Available at American Experience.
  • 2Ibid.
  • 3 James Weldon Johnson, March 1915, quoted in introduction to “Birth of a Nation, the NAACP, and the Balancing of Rights,” EDSITEment! website, National Endowment for the Humanities project.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "Improving Education in South Carolina," last updated May 12, 2020.


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