Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
GATHERING OF AFRICAN AMERICANS, POSSIBLY A UNION LEAGUE, IN YORKVILLE, JULY 4, 1867
James (Jim) Williams (1830 - March 7, 1871) was born into slavery on the plantation of James Lowery in York County, South Carolina. He escaped from slavery during the Civil War and found his way to freedom behind Union lines. He served in the Union Army for eighteen months, supporting the fight to win the freedom of all African Americans held in slavery.
Following the Civil War, he returned to York County. During the years following the war, the Ku Klux Klan began a campaign of terror designed to intimidate African American citizens from voting and exercising other rights as citizens. Williams became an active Civil Rights leader and was appointed captain of a state militia company in York County composed exclusively of African American men. This militia company became a counterweight to the terror of the Klan. Williams was outspoken in his contempt for the Klan and in his determination to protect the African American citizens of York County.
In an effort to control the escalating violence in the state, Governor Scott officially disbanded the black militia companies in January 1871, but some units, including James William's company, refused to surrender their arms in order to continue protecting the community.
On March 7, 1871, the Klan abducted Williams from his home during a midnight raid and hanged him. In response to widespread violence against African American citizens, the United States Congress passed three pieces of legislation collectively knows as the Enforcement Acts. The final act, known as the "Civil Rights Act of 1871," was passed only six weeks after Williams' murder.
President Ulysses Grant used the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to impose martial law over a 9-county area in the South Carolina upstate, including York County. This led to mass arrests of presumed Klan leaders by Federal troops which finally put an end to the terror. Grant also sent additional federal troops to York County under the command of Maj. Lewis Merrill, who conducted investigations into the violence. His findings became the basis for the South Carolina Ku Klux Trials, held in federal court in Columbia.
Williams' case was the second case heard at the Ku Klux Trials. Due to the nature of the case, it was eventually sent to the United States Supreme Court, making it the first case born of the Enforcement Acts to do so.
James Williams was a courageous champion for the rights and safety of African American citizens of York County. He sacrificed his life seeking to ensure equality and justice for his fellow citizens.
For additional information on James Williams and Reconstruction in York County, visit Historic Brattonsville's exhibit Liberty and Resistance: Reconstruction and the African American Community at Brattonsville.