The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What we’ve gotten wrong about the history of Reconstruction

The erasure of Black leaders from the most misunderstood period in American history

Cameron Maynard stands at attention by the monument to Confederate soldiers at the South Carolina Statehouse on July 10, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. (Jeffrey Collins/AP)
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One of South Carolina’s most important historical figures is little remembered today. But this man — Henry E. Hayne — and his forgotten history shine a spotlight on the racism and racial inequality still plaguing society a century and a half after the politician and trailblazer made his mark on the state. Hayne’s life exemplified the promise of Reconstruction after the Civil War, its radical achievements and the tragedy of its defeat. His erasure from the history books further marks how racism brutally eclipsed the potential of Black political power, setting the United States on a course from which it has not yet fully recovered.

Hayne was born free in Charleston to a free Black mother named Mary and a White father, James Hayne. He obtained a formal education and worked as a tailor in Charleston throughout the antebellum period. Those who knew him remarked that he could pass as White, though he viewed himself as a Black man and held a deep investment in Black liberation at the time of the Civil War.

Using his ability to infiltrate White spaces, Hayne enlisted in the Confederacy with plans to defect to the Union Army as it occupied major sections of the South Carolina coast. In reflecting on his decision, Hayne recalled that it provided the best opportunity for him to go “through the lines” and defect: “I went with the South far enough to get out of it.” He eventually joined the Union’s all-Black 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under noted abolitionist commander Thomas Wentworth Higginson, earning the rank of commissary sergeant.

After the war’s conclusion, Hayne became involved in local politics and quickly moved up the ranks in state government. In 1868, he began his political career as a state senator for Marion County, and that same year he represented Marion at the convention responsible for drafting a new state constitution — one that expanded rights and privileges to South Carolina’s citizens, regardless of race. The 1868 constitution tore down the barriers that had previously blocked Black South Carolinians from participation, including entry into the state university.

Hayne also served in a number of clerical appointments, such as chairing the state penitentiaries’ board of directors, and serving as a member of the board for the state normal school.

In 1872, Hayne became South Carolina’s secretary of state. This elective position probably provided him the political and social capital necessary to personally disrupt the state’s last remaining icon of white supremacy — the University of South Carolina (USC).

But the revised state constitution brought institutional changes to the university that led toward its eventual desegregation. In 1869, two Black men had been appointed to the board of trustees, and they proclaimed the university was open to all qualified men, “regardless of race, color, or creed.”

On Oct. 7, 1873, Hayne capitalized on these changes and boldly applied for matriculation into the university’s medical school, a decision that proved to be one of the most consequential maneuvers in the state’s history. Citing his credentials as a politician and active public figure, the multiracial board of trustees enthusiastically approved his application, noting he was of the “highest character and the strictest integrity.”

White students and faculty, however, rose in outrage at the prospect of integrating the school. Faculty resigned and many students protested by loudly exiting the campus, some destroying property and physically blotting their names from the campus registry as they left.

Yet, Hayne’s calculation paid off. Not only was he the first African American to enter the university as a student, but Black men followed his lead in significant numbers over the next few years, becoming the majority of the student body in 1875.

The university was soon populated by Black men from throughout the South, both the formerly enslaved and those born free. The student body continued to include a significant White population, though many of the White students now came from the North. The southern Whites who attended USC from 1873 to 1877 were those committed to the Reconstruction project. Rather than a bastion of White elites reinforcing the entrenched power structure, USC now featured Black and White students studying together amicably. This period also saw the hiring of professor Richard T. Greener, the first Black man to graduate from Harvard College, as USC’s first Black faculty member.

But the Reconstruction project proved short-lived due to the schemes and violence of white supremacists who retook state governmental power in 1877, eventually establishing the era of Jim Crow racist brutality and segregation. White legislators accused Hayne and others in the Reconstruction government of corruption as a way to seek retribution for their political activism and their fight against White supremacy.

The resurgent white supremacist order placed Hayne in physical danger, and he fled South Carolina and settled in Cook County, Ill. Although there is no record of his later life, it seems he never returned to the state of his birth and probably remained in Illinois in until he died.

We know so little about Hayne’s later life in part because he was erased from South Carolina history.

And this erasure was no accident. Though the Jim Crow era is most well known for its manifestations of physical violence and the immobilization of the Black body politic, it also produced historians who were specifically trained to romanticize the “Old South,” misrepresent the period of Reconstruction as an abject failure, and deny that Black and White people could coexist in the same spaces or live in a state of equality.

Jim Crow’s revisionist historians never hid their true beliefs about Reconstruction’s goal of expanding opportunities for the South’s most marginalized populations. In fact, one historian clearly outlined his opposition to USC’s desegregation in 1925, saying it simply “fell victim to the mania for social equality” and was degraded in the process. These biased and bigoted historians invented the myth that Reconstruction was a failure.

Yet Hayne’s life shows the very different reality of Reconstruction history — and its significance within the broader American story. He represents what Black Americans could have achieved in this period, if only allowed to do so. At the same time, the fact that he is barely remembered alongside such contemporaries as Frederick Douglass exposes how many Americans are still uncomfortable with the Reconstruction era. But grappling with this history — and its legacy — is a crucial element to understanding why racism and racial inequality persist. It was a moment of great possibility dashed by bigotry and a lack of will with ramifications that shaped everything that came after it.

Today’s arguments about voting rights, the role of race in American history and the accessibility of higher education all trace back to the successes — and failures — of the Reconstruction era. Within the realm of education, African Americans at many White-majority institutions continue to struggle for acceptance and inclusion. But like Hayne and the other African American students at USC during the 1870s, they continue to excel despite the numerous obstacles thrown at them, knowing that their hard work is merely the continuation of Black progress and achievement. They move forward despite the many historical setbacks thrown their way. Henry Hayne’s own story is an example of that, and his life and legacy deserve greater attention.

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