A sign just off the courthouse square in this old Southern town boasts that Edgefield has produced 10 governors and "more dashing, brilliant, romantic figures, statesmen, orators, soldiers, adventurers and daredevils than any other county of South Carolina, if not of any rural county in America."
It is a place of legends and larger-than-life figures. One Edgefield boy commanded the state militia attacking Fort Sumter. Three died as heroes at the Alamo.
But mostly, the town is known for its politicians and its racial strife.
The local high school (home of "the fighting rebels") is named after one favorite son, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
Another hometown senator and governor was Benjamin R. (Pitchfork Ben) Tillman, nicknamed for threatening to jab President Grover Cleveland with a pitchfork. Tillman, a Populist, led the fight to disenfranchise black voters in the state. He explained how on the floor of the Senate: "We took the government away. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it."
The United Daughters of the Confederacy maintains the mansion of another local hero, Gen. Martin Witherspoon Gary, CSA, as a historic shrine. Gary is best remembered for driving blacks from office in the last days of Reconstruction. Under his guidance, the county Democratic Party passed a resolution in 1878 declaring that "white supremacy is essential to our continued existence as a people."
For more than a century, whites retained control of Edgefield County, a peach-growing area about 60 miles southwest of Columbia.
Last fall, a political revolution, of sorts, occurred here: Three blacks were elected to the formerly all-white County Council.
Blacks, who make up about half the county population, earlier had won a 10-year legal battle against an election system that they said shut them out of political decision-making. Under a Supreme Court decision, the county's old at-large voting system was replaced with five single-member districts.
Three of the districts had black majorities, so the election results were expected.
But the new council's assertiveness has shocked many. In its first meeting, on New Year's Day, the council's black majority ousted the white longtime county administrator and white part-time county attorney.
Administrator H.O. (Butch) Carter was replaced by Thomas McCain, a black who initiated the legal battle that led to the Supreme Court decision.
This set off a wave of indignation among whites. "I was scared. A lot of us were. We were worried about what else they'd do," said Barry Ouzts, manager of B.C. Restaurant. "I thought it might be the first of 10 things they wanted to do."
Dozens of whites have packed into the two council meetings held since Jan. 1. "That doesn't intimidate me," said Willie Bright, the new council president. "I know some whites haven't accepted the results of the election. They don't like what happened. They don't worry me."
But the political survival of Bright and the other two black council members may depend on how they resolve two thorny issues.
The first is a lawsuit filed by Carter, who ran county government as its administrator for 12 years. He is seeking payment for a two-year contract he signed with the lame-duck council. Blacks argue that the contract is invalid because it was signed after white council members lost in the October primary election.
Carter was to be paid $26,204 a year, about $6,000 less than McCain, a former teacher who holds a doctorate degree in mathematics.
The other hot issue is what to do about legal fees resulting from McCain's legal battle with the county. McCain sued after he ran unsuccessfully for the council in 1972. He ran again in 1976 and 1980. His attorneys contend that the county is liable for his legal fees, and say they are willing to settle for $481,000. The county budget last year was $1.9 million. Bright, a telephone company technician and small businessman, worries that the two issues will dominate the council's attention so much it will handicap efforts to help county residents, in such matters as attracting new industry.
"I don't know how much we'll be able to get done as long as those two things hang over us," he said.
But others, including some whites, say they believe that the new council will resolve its current problems, and that a permanent political realignment has taken place here. W.W. Mims, editor of the Edgefield Advertiser ("Oldest Newspaper in South Carolina," according to its masthead) since 1937, is one.
"These blacks are very smart. They're well-educated and dedicated," he said in his office on the courthouse square. "They're going to try to be wise so they come up on top during the next election."
Meanwhile, blacks are euphoric about their new political power.
"For blacks, it meant everything. We've never had any representation," said Bright, who remembers having to pay a poll tax to vote in the county. "It means my kids can be elected to public office. Before, it didn't matter if you were good or bad, you couldn't hold public office if you had black skin."
"Somehow, some way, we want to give people hope that life can be different than it has been," said McCain, who also is the Edgefield County Democratic chairman.
Change is not easy in a place surrounded by so much history. But there are signs of it in unlikely places.
One is a bronze statue of a son of Edgefield in the courthouse square. It portrays Thurmond, as one visitor wrote, "fixed in what could be a pose from his 24-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
Among those voting for Thurmond last fall was McCain, this county's most controversial black politician. He said he did so because Thurmond voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1982.
"When [Thurmond] changed his philosophy, I figured he deserved my thanks," said McCain.