“At today’s equivalent of first grade, Artis dropped out of elementary school to help on the farm and pick cotton.”
— Scott, in his book, “Opportunity Knocks,” published 2020
“Like many other black children at the time, he dropped out of elementary school to work in the fields and pick cotton.”
— Scott, in his book “Unified,” written with Trey Gowdy, published 2019
As regular readers know, we’re often interested in the “origin stories” of politicians — regular lines that they use over and over to explain their political motivations.
For Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, it’s the story of his grandfather, Artis Ware, who left school at an early age to pick cotton and, according to Scott, never learned to read and write. The tale of his grandfather fits in with a narrative of Scott moving up from humble circumstances to reach a position of political power in the U.S. Senate.
But Scott separately has acknowledged that his great-great-grandfather, Lawrence Ware, once owned 900 acres in South Carolina.
Census records are released 72 years after they are collected. So we dug into the South Carolina census records that are available between 1870 and 1940 — the 1890 census was lost in a fire and we could not locate relevant 1900 records — to close this gap in Scott’s narrative.
We were aided in our search of census records and death certificates by Carmen V. Harris, a history professor at University of South Carolina-Upstate who has conducted extensive research on African American farming in South Carolina. Wherever possible, we sought to confirm census records with other publicly available information, such as property records. Census data is historically questionable at best — and at times unreliable — when tracking Blacks, particularly in that time in the South where naming practices and lack of vital records require caution in discerning identities.
Our research reveals a more complex story than what Scott tells audiences. Scott’s grandfather’s father was also a substantial landowner — and Scott’s grandfather, Artis Ware, worked on that farm. Scott’s family history in South Carolina offers a fascinating window into a little-known aspect of history in the racist South following the Civil War and in the immediate aftermath of slavery — that some enterprising Black families purchased property as a way to avoid sharecropping and achieve a measure of independence from White-dominated society.
Notwithstanding inconsistencies in the ages listed, we believe we located Lawrence Ware, who was born in 1861, in the 1870 census and the 1880 census. His father, who is listed as not being able to read or write, was a farmer and Lawrence is listed as a field hand in the 1880 census. When we fast forward to the 1910 census, Lawrence Ware is recorded as owning his ow n farm and a home without a mortgage. He is able to read and write. He and his wife have nine children, including Willie Ware, Scott’s great-grandfather.
Willie, at the time 16, also is recorded as a farmer. The census indicates that Lawrence is the employer and Willie is a wage earner on his father’s farm.
According to property records, Lawrence Ware purchased at least 147 acres in 1905 and 23 acres in 1918. In this period before World War I, some enterprising Black people began to buy their own farmland, resulting in a peak of Black farm ownership before the worldwide conflict and the boll weevil devastated cotton markets, according to a 2008 history of Black farmers.
Lawrence Ware’s property was described as “quite impeccable” by a distant relative, Walter B. Curry, who has researched the genealogy of a branch of the family. He said Ware was among those Black people “who purchased land during the era of racial segregation to escape the perilous uncertainty of sharecropping that resulted in self-independence for themselves and their descendants.”
In the 1920 census, Willie Ware, 24, is listed as married to his first wife, Eola Mobley Ware, 20, and they have one child, Rozella, a 1-year-old baby. He is recorded as being able to read and write, which is confirmed because his signature can be found on deeds in 1968 and 1969. The census says he farms on his own account and rents his home. Ware’s 1917 draft registration card also indicates he was employed by “self” on a farm.
Willie Ware is listed as working on his own account at his own farm. Eola was the mother of Artis, according to Artis’s obituary. In his book, “Opportunity Knocks,” Scott wrote that his grandfather’s “childhood was further complicated by the loss of his mother when he was only six years old.”
In the 1940 census, Willie Ware is still listed as working on his own account, on his own farm. He owns his home, valued at $500 (almost $10,000 in today’s dollars). Artis, recorded under the name “Ottis,” is 18. He is described as an unpaid worker on his father’s farm, working 55 hours in the week before the census was taken. The census says he attended elementary school through fourth grade.
This is where the census trail ends. (The 1950 census records will not be released until next year.) But the census indicates Willie Ware owned his own farm, just as his father did before him. And Scott’s grandfather was a worker on his father’s farm.
The census suggests Artis ended his education in the fourth grade. Twelve other adults on that census page ended their education in fourth grade, so that may have been a common end point at the time. Artis appears to have been able to sign his name, according to his 1942 World War II draft registration card and home mortgages obtained in 1998 and 2007.
Property records also show that Willie Ware purchased land in the 1930s held by banks — at least 50 acres in 1933 and at least 100 acres in 1934. Thus he expanded his property when land values were falling during the Great Depression and many Black farmers lost their land to foreclosure. Willie Ware also purchased at least 50 acres in 1941, 49 acres in 1943 and 87 acres in 1946. (In 1965, he inherited 17.4 acres from his father.)
Using information on the value of Black farms in the South in a 1940 book, “The Negro’s Share,” by Richard Sterner, we calculate Willie Ware’s land purchases in the 1930s cost him about $70,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Moreover, fewer than 1 in 8 Black farmers in the South at that time owned any land, according to Sterner. The average size of a Black farm in South Carolina was 41 acres in 1930, compared with almost 90 acres for White farms, according to a report by Charles Hall, using 1930 census data, called “The Negro Farmer in United States.” It was especially unusual for someone of Ware’s age to own farmland, as most Black owners were much older.
According to the 1940 census for Aiken County, obtained by Harris from a data set at the University of Michigan, owning more than 300 acres of farmland would have placed Willie Ware as owner of one of the biggest farms in the area. “If Ware owned 300 acres of land in 1940, 3,071 farmers were below the band in which his farm would have fallen and only 170 own land above that,” Harris said. “So certainly among Blacks but even among Whites if Ware owned 300 acres he was substantial in ownership — bearing in mind that if it’s not all improved it won’t be as valuable.”
Spencer Wood, a leading expert on Black farms at Kansas State University, said Ware’s land ownership “was definitely unusual,” as so few Black farmers at the time owned land. He said that post-emancipation, most Black people acquired land because they knew or were related to the White landowner who sold it to them.
Still, the records may not entirely show what life was like for Black farmers in South Carolina as cotton prices plunged. Bobby Donaldson, a history professor at University of South Carolina-Columbia, noted that “even families that owned land, especially in the Great Depression, found themselves working on other people’s property to earn a decent living. While the Wares certainly owned property, I am not altogether sure what that meant in terms of wealth during that time period.”
“My family is also from Aiken County,” Donaldson added. “And they owned about 80 acres of land; land passed to my great-grandmother by her father. And although they owned land and raised crops for consumption, they were of little financial means. My great-grandfather regularly spoke about picking cotton for wealthier White landowners.”
In any case, Scott’s grandfather does not appear to have been on the farm for very long. His draft registration card shows he changed his address to the Charleston area when he was about 21. Scott has written that his grandfather got a job at the Port of Charleston — one of the more than 3,000 Black people who worked in the Navy shipyard, though most were placed in low-wage jobs requiring few skills.
“Lots of African Americans had left the land both during World War I and World War II because of the conditions on the farm,” Harris said. “War work would have provided steady pay but job discrimination would have limited him to positions that likely led to poverty given the cost of living in Charleston.”
In 2019, Scott achieved passage of an amendment that directed the Agriculture Department to start a pilot project that would provide loans to resolve what is known as “heir’s property” — land that has been informally passed along by generations. Without documentation of formal ownership, Black farmers often have lost land because of disputes with relatives, unpaid tax bills or a failure to obtain loans when crops failed. Scott has said his mother only ended up with five acres of the land once owned by Lawrence Ware.
Scott and his staff declined to comment on our findings.
The Pinocchio Test
Scott’s “cotton to Congress” line is missing some nuance, but we are not going to rate his statements. To some extent, Scott may be relying on the memories of his grandfather, not a detailed examination of records.
Scott tells a tidy story packaged for political consumption, but a close look shows how some of his family’s early and improbable success gets flattened and written out of his biography. Against heavy odds, Scott’s ancestors amassed relatively large areas of farmland, a mark of distinction in the Black community at the time. Scott, moreover, does not mention that his grandfather worked on his father’s farm — a farm that was expanded through land acquisitions even during the Great Depression, when many other Black farmers were forced out of business.
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