In the center of North Augusta, in front of a fountain on the lawn of the town's oldest house, there's an obelisk memorial to a white supremacist who died massacring a black town. The monument is in no way ambiguous about its purpose.
"In memory of THOMAS McKIE MERIWETHER," it reads, "Who on 8th of July 1876, gave his life that the civilization builded by his fathers might be preserved for their children's children unimpaired. In life he exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization."
The engraving thanks Meriwether for his "service" as one of the 200 white supremacists who rode into the town of Hamburg in 1876, capturing 25 to 30 people and executing six of them. To make a point about blacks participating in politics, they cut out the County Commissioner's tongue and chopped off his head. On the base of the monument, there's washed-out charcoal graffiti: "HE MURDERED."
I'm taking this all in next to Wayne O'Bryant, a black local historian, activist, and descendant of Hamburg, who reads the engraving aloud as it wraps around all sides of the monument. "I ask my friends all the time, have you ever read that thing?" he says.
Leftover reconstruction-era racism might have seemed immutable until Dylann Roof killed nine people in a mass shooting this summer, and the Confederate banner was banned in the aftermath. South Carolina is in the process of being edited, in plaques and street signs and local heritage councils; the stakes are black lives.
But Wayne actually wants the monument to stay up. "I don't want that history to be put aside," he says, which is clear; he's complimented his Ray Bans with a T-shirt that says "EMBRACE YOUR HERITAGE" in jagged white-on-black text, and he can tell you not only about the massacre, but about everything from the personal biography of the German settler who founded the town to the 1860 Aiken County census. He wants locals to be able to visit the massacre monument along with the new plaques he's working to install for Hamburg, which has been quietly decomposing for 100 years on the banks of the Savannah River.
Hamburg is arguably one of the most important towns in American political history. In the 1860s, it offered a brief glimpse of a Golden Age for racial equality, as a self-governed freedmen's town which became a post-Civil War hub for black Republican politicians like state legislator Prince Rivers, State Senator Charles D. Hayne, and state Speaker of the House Samuel J. Lee. Most residents fled after the massacre, but the final nails in the coffin were two floods in 1929; Augusta had built levees to protect itself and excluded Hamburg. Today you can stand on top of the Augusta levee (now a riverwalk), look across the Savannah at the bushes where Hamburg once stood, and read a breezy plaque about "FLOODS" and another about damage to Augusta tobacco warehouses in the 18th century without finding any mention of Hamburg.
The town isn't exactly out of the way. It takes about two seconds to drive from the Augusta, GA, riverfront, turn down a dirt road to a golf course, tramp through some bramble, and find it: an ancient concrete mews, a maze of hallways and large open rooms about 10 feet high with occasional raw picket fences and screen doors leaning against the walls, a large wooden cross, letter cutouts on the floors, some old soup cans and toilets, and even a rusted-through railroad car deep in the bushes. Just down the river, there's a row of mansions that just stops at Hamburg. Fifty feet away, people are golfing on the town center. Sometimes homeless people stay in the woods, a golfer told me, and after the fact North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones told me he anticipates some mixed-use development as waterfront properties become more valuable. For now, the city seems to have built around Hamburg and left this radioactive plot to deal with later.
The last civic marker of Hamburg is a sign for "Hamburg Road," a dead end off US-278 which leads to Carpentersville, one of the two towns where most remaining Hamburg-ers moved. (Apparently no one told the GPS, which just tells you to turn off on "road"). Like its sister town Carrsville, Carpentersville is a U-shaped street with a mix of well-kept houses and perfect hedge lines, flanked by ruins caving in and half swallowed up by vines. But when the Historical Council dedicated a historical marker to Carrsville last month, over 100 people showed up; one man came to play bugle even though his son had just died that morning. Plaques matter.
The Hamburg Massacre plaque currently sits in front of the men's room at the First Providence Baptist Church in Carrsville (which itself was reconstructed from beams that were brought uphill from Hamburg and dried out). No names are named, but it relays the basics: 200 men from local "rifle clubs"—formed to intimidate black and white Republican voters—rode into town and captured 25 to 30 blacks, executed four of them, with a total of six black and one white man killed in the skirmish.
"It would end up in the river if we left it out," Wayne says about the marker. You'd think he's kidding, until you read about the other Hamburg plaque that went "missing" in 2004, which simply noted Hamburg as an important port which "declined" "with changing times and fortunes." Who knows why that plaque went missing, but one can guess that the new one isn't going to go over smoothly.
Wayne speaks plainly: the Hamburg revival, he says, is not just a historical project, but also a mission from God. The plaque is a mission from God. "People ask me how I can remember all this stuff," he adds. "I tell people that if they'd done the right thing in Hamburg, there would have been no need for the Civil Rights Movement." Soon after the massacre, "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, a South Carolina politician who'd participated in the killings, stuffed ballot boxes and rewrote the Constitution, re-segregating schools and creating the "understanding clause" which effectively set back voting rights for another century. (Tillman is now an eight-foot-tall bronze statue in front of the South Carolina statehouse.) Wayne pulled out a photo of the South Carolina legislature from the mid-1860s, the first election after the state's 60 percent African American population had gained the right to vote. It's a shocking image. The majority of the men are black. It's more black people in government than…ever.
Knowing this starts to make the city look like the kind of parallel universe in a time travel movie where the main character makes one wrong move, and the present is madness. Even though Augusta and North Augusta can claim some stake in important black cultural movements—Civil Rights events, race riots, and big-deal honky tonks like James Brown's short-lived Third World nightclub—the Antebellum and Civil War eras still seem to hang everywhere over the city.
Things still get tense when Wayne speaks about the massacre. He's sometimes the only black person in the building when he gives talks, and people don't always appreciate being informed that their grandparents were murderers.
"But you can't be afraid," he says.
"When it's my time to go, that's when God says it's time to go," he says. "But nobody can take me sooner than that."
The shooting is fresh on his mind. "When Dylann Roof went and shot those folks, I knew that pastor, and one of my classmates was killed in there, in Emanuel," he started. That's the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church which Roof explicitly selected because of its history. Wayne had seen Martin Luther King speak at that church, and he compared the mood after the massacre to the calm in the atmosphere that was there during the Civil Rights marches of the 60s. "The reaction was I forgive you," he said. "And people said How can you do that? He just killed your loved one, and you forgive him the next day? They could because there's something else moving that. If there had been the atmosphere of chaos, there would have been a riot. That element is there, it just depends on what spirit came over the city at the time. And the pastors told the police and the politicians to do the right thing, or else the chaotic element would take over. And they did."
"That's why I'm so proud of my city," he said, "even though I understand it."