Black Civil-War Soldier Gets Overdue Honors 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 Civil War soldier and statesman.
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Black Civil-War Soldier Gets Overdue Honors

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Black Civil-War Soldier Gets Overdue Honors

Black Civil-War Soldier Gets Overdue Honors

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Now, a political story that will not mention George Bush or John Kerry, the war in Iraq or even any war in the 20th century. Back in the 1860s and ‘70s, black politicians had center stage as part of the post Civil War governments in the South. Those men were ousted and forgotten when Jim Crow laws were imposed to separate blacks and whites in public life.

NPR's Audio Cornish has the story of how one of those men is being remembered.

AUDIE CORNISH: At first, Billy Jenkinson didn't know much about Stephen Atkins Swails except that -

Mr. BILLY JENKINSON: Number one, who hadn't seen the movie Glory? He was a hero in that battle.

CORNISH: 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. Ten years ago, Jenkinson, an attorney and amateur historian in the village of Kingstree came into contact with a trunk full of Swails's personal documents. The trunk had been abandoned and was on the way to the dump. Jenkinson knew Swails as a war hero, but now he had the rest of the story.

Mr. JENKINSON: The story of him becoming one of the first African American officers in the Army is a significant piece of history. Now, is he the first? Don't think so. Is he the most famous of the first? Absolutely. Because his political career was just as stellar as his military career.

(Soundbite of drumming)

CORNISH: For more than 100 years, Swails's remains have been buried in an unmarked grave in Charleston. And they might have stayed that way until Jenkinson and local historical groups decided to honor him. They recently unveiled a five foot tall, blue granite monument at Swails's gravesite, with a canon salute, young Citadel cadets and a dozen black Civil War re-enactors in rumpled blue Union uniforms.

(Soundbite of gun salute)

CORNISH: Historians says Swails is remarkable because after the war he was one of a few Northern black soldiers who decided to make a new life in the very towns where they had 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, presented as -

Dr. MARVIN DULANEY (Avery Research Center for African American History): Negro and Republican misrule, as they called it at the time.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Marvin Dulaney, head of South Carolina's Avery Research Center for African American History.

Dr. DULANEY: After the war, you know, it's a hostile area. Well, this was a hostile community to black soldiers. This was a community that, you know, had slavery for over 200 years. They were used to seeing African Americans in subordinate, subjugated positions. And they didn't want to see them with guns in their hands, nor did they want to see them as politicians and serving in office.

CORNISH: 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. So in addition to his multiple terms in State Senate, Swails was a member of the electoral college, published his own newspaper, joined the bar and opened a law firm with the confederate army veteran as partner.

Ms. MICHELLE HEWITT WEBSTER: I tell people it would be more feasible for me to list what he didn't do in his life.

CORNISH: Michelle Hewitt Webster is Swails's great-great-granddaughter. She 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.

Ms. WEBSTER: I think that he'd have to be disappointed that for what he had done in this country that his history, the history of our people were not included along with everything else. I think he'd be very disappointed that that flag flew in the capital, the flag he fought against for such a long time.

CORNISH: When federal troops withdrew from the south in 1877, Swails's 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.

(Soundbite of hymn, “Lord Remember Me”)

CORNISH: So with songs, drums and canons, black and white South Carolinians gathered together to remember Lieutenant Stephen Atkins Swails, who's the first to be formally honored by the new African American Historical Alliance. But they say he will not be the last.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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