Black Civil-War Soldier Gets Overdue Honors

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Lt. Stephen Atkins Swails

Lt. Stephen Atkins Swails (1832-1900), a member of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, was also the mayor of Kingstree, S.C., a state senator, a member of the Electoral College, and an attorney. U.S. Army Military History Institute hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Army Military History Institute
Descendents of Stephen A. Swails gather for a photo with re-enactors i

Descendents of Stephen A. Swails gather for a photo with re-enactors from the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Swails was a member of the all-black fighting unit during the 1860s. Audie Cornish, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Audie Cornish, NPR
Descendents of Stephen A. Swails gather for a photo with re-enactors

Descendents of Stephen A. Swails gather for a photo with re-enactors from the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Swails was a member of the all-black fighting unit during the 1860s.

Audie Cornish, NPR
Billy Jenkinson

Billy Jenkinson, an attorney and the director of the board for the African-American Historical Alliance in South Carolina. He's pictured next to a historical marker noting the spot in Kingstree, S.C., where Swails once lived. Audie Cornish, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Audie Cornish, NPR

For more than a century, Lt. Stephen Atkins Swails has lain in an unmarked grave in Charleston, S.C., his life story largely forgotten. But recently, local historians held a long overdue ceremony honoring the life of the extraordinary African-American soldier and statesman.

Swails was a member of the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the country's first black fighting units, famous for storming Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The unit's story was told in the Hollywood film Glory.

Ten years ago, Billy Jenkinson, an attorney and amateur historian in the village of Kingstree, S.C., came into contact with a trunk full of Swails' personal documents. The trunk had been abandoned and was on the way to the dump. Jenkinson had known Swails was a war hero, but the trunk revealed a whole other side to the story.

"The story of him becoming one of the first African-American officers in the Army is a significant piece of history. It was a significant mark in African-American history," Jenkinson says. "Now, is he the first? Don't think so. The most famous of the first? Absolutely, because his political career was just as stellar as his military career."

Historians say Swails was remarkable because after the Civil War, he was one of a few Northern black soldiers who decided to make a new life in the very towns where they'd just done battle. After he was discharged, the biracial New York native moved to Kingstree. And less than two years later, Swails rode the new voting power of emancipated blacks to the state Senate on the Republican ticket. It was a victory that the area's whites certainly did not welcome, says Dr. Marvin Dulaney, head of South Carolina's Avery Research Center for African-American History.

"This is a community that had slavery for over 200 years, and they were used to seeing African Americans in subordinate and subjugated positions," Dulaney says of the hostile reaction to Swails' election. "And they didn't want to see them with guns in their hands. And they did not want to see them as politicians and serving in office."

Dulaney says men like Swails represent that twilight period between the late 1860s and the late 1870s, when blacks made political strides and tried to build up their newfound freedom. In addition to his multiple terms in the state Senate, Swails was a member of the Electoral College, published his own newspaper, joined the bar and opened a law firm — with a Confederate Army veteran as partner.

"I tell people it would be more feasible to tell people what he didn't do in his life," says Michele Hewitt Webster, Swails' great-great-granddaughter.

Webster lives in Philadelphia and says she dug up a few things about her ancestor during her college years. But when she was contacted by Jenkinson, she discovered much more — including scores of new relatives. Webster says honoring Swails is just the start of rectifying this lost history.

"I think that he'd have to be disappointed that what he had done in this country, that his history — the history of our people — were not included along with everything else," she says.

When federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877, Swails' political career was basically over. A white mob tried to assassinate him in his new hometown. He resigned from office and, through his Republican connections, got himself a job in Washington, D.C. By the time Swails died in 1900, states were establishing Jim Crow laws. Blacks were now separate, unequal and disenfranchised through poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation.

Recently, Jenkinson and local historical groups decided to honor Swails. They unveiled a five-foot-tall blue granite monument at Swails' gravesite, with a cannon salute, young Citadel cadets and a dozen black Civil War re-enactors in rumpled blue Union uniforms.

With songs, drums and cannons, black and white South Carolinians gathered together to remember Swails. He is the first to be formally honored by the new African-American Historical Alliance, but they say he will not be the last.

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