Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
Defied KKK Terror
Elias Hill was born into slavery in York County in May of 1819. His mother, Dorcus, was enslaved on the plantation of Revolutionary War veteran Col. William Hill. At the age of seven, he was diagnosed with a debilitating, degenerative disease that left him unable to walk. Around 1840 Elias’ father was able to save enough money to purchase his own freedom for $150. Soon thereafter, he purchased his wife, Dorcus, and was “compelled… in the contract” to take Elias as well because his condition made him unable to work.
At the age of 11, he taught himself to read, “picking up an occasional letter of the alphabet” from school children as they passed by his house. He continued his education in literacy by reading the Bible, and by 1860 he was a Baptist preacher. In the years following the Civil War, Hill raised funds to construct a church near his home in York County’s Clay Hill community. He also constructed a small wood-frame school house where he taught African American children and adults. He also rode a ten-mile circuit, in a specially constructed “spring wagon,” teaching and preaching as he went.
During the Reconstruction Era, Elias Hill became an active civil rights leader around York County. He dedicated his life to “three of the great fields for black activism… religion, education, and politics.” In addition to operating his church and school, he became the president of the York County Council of the Union League, the most influential political organization for freed African Americans in the South. In the face of mounting racial violence, Hill used his influence to organize a meeting between leaders of both races at Tate’s Store, a small crossroads establishment in Clay Hill. According to a newspaper article that summarized the proceedings, “all acts of violence were heartily condemned.”
Despite this agreement, racial violence continued to escalate. Hill himself was targeted. During the early morning hours of May 6, 1871, half-a-dozen Klansmen raided Hill’s home. They dragged him from his bed and beat him.
He recounted the gruesome details of this attack to a Congressional committee that was convened in York County with the express purpose of investigating Klan violence in the area. Hill’s bravery inspired other African Americans to come forward and report accounts of other acts of violence to federal authorities.
Despite the Congressional investigation and the presence of federal authorities, African Americans in the area continued to feel threatened. Hill resolved to migrate to Liberia, in west Africa, where he had “hope of finding peaceful living.”
In the fall of 1871, Hill and 165 African Americans from the Clay Hill community boarded the Edith Rose, a sailing ship chartered by the American Colonization Society. They were accompanied by 77 other African American emigrants from Georgia, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.
Unfortunately, Elias Hill did not live long enough to see his congregants prosper in Liberia. Soon after arriving in Liberia, he contracted malaria. He died March 28, 1872.
Born enslaved, inflicted with a crippling injury, Elias Hill rose from unimaginable suffering to become an admired and respected leader during Reconstruction. His courage and indomitable spirit serve as inspiration to all who strive for justice and the equality of all people.