by N. Valerie McLaurin
Who is John W. Bolts? If you’ve never heard of him, you’re in the same boat I was in when I first came to Coastal Carolina University. It was my first semester as a graduate student in the MALS program and I was doing an internship at the in-house student publishing lab, the Athenaeum Press, while they were wrapping up one of their amazing projects titled At Low Tide: Voices of Sandy Island.
If you’re not familiar, Sandy Island is an inland island surrounded by rivers and only accessible by boat in Georgetown, South Carolina on the Gullah Geechee Corridor. It was the home of rice plantations during slavery and the descendants of those enslaved people still have a community on the island to this day. The booklet contained a history of the island, where I first encountered the name John Bolts: “”…in both 1898 and 1900, former Sandy Islander school teacher John Bolts was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. He would be the last African American in the South Carolina House of Representatives for the next seventy years.”
That last phrase got me particularly interested in Bolts’ life because I didn’t realize there was such an absurdly long gap in time between black men holding office in the South Carolina House of Representatives – John Bolts was elected for his final term in 1900 and it would take generations for that to happen again. For this reason, and other academic motivations involving grant writing research at the Athenaeum Press, I wanted to find out more about his life.
When I did a literature review his name barely came up in Southern history scholarship. When it did come up, it was often a reference to an acclaimed book by George Brown Tindall from 1952, who wrote one sentence about Bolts describing him as: “an obscure figure who… did nothing during his term of office to cause any friction between the whites and blacks.” When I looked at the footnote for that reference, I realized Tindall was using an interview with one of Bolts’ white colleagues and it seemed to me that was likely a biased account. Also, Bolts’ life shouldn’t be remembered through the lens of a white colleague, but instead deserves rigorous primary research of its own.
I ended up writing my Master’s capstone thesis about my own investigation into the life of John W. Bolts. I can describe very briefly some of his accomplishments, but suffice to say, he was certainly a civil rights activist of his time and fighting against incredible odds serving as the only black member of the House and under the rule of open white supremacist, South Carolina Governor, and longtime Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman.
Bolts was elected at a time when Jim Crow laws were beginning to grip the state in the form of forced segregation and black voter disenfranchisement. He served during a time of severe racial backlash to the successes of black political life during the Reconstruction period.
Despite all these odds, Bolts cared about things like education and labor rights and by going through the House Journals and newspapers I found records of his activism. He fought for public school funding and better labor contracts. When another representative proposed a bill that would give pensions to Confederate soldiers, he proposed an amendment arguing that the enslaved workers of Confederate soldiers should also be granted war pensions.
Many newspapers gave accounts of a lively debate on the House floor where he argued for the rights of black Georgetown fishermen that were under attack due to a proposed bill that would have limited their freedoms. His debate skills and witty retorts so flustered one of his white colleagues that the man yelled a racial slur at him and told him to sit down, but Bolts didn’t, and when the bill was voted he had persuaded his colleagues and they voted with him.
In his last term, Bolts cast the sole dissenting vote against Tillman for U.S. Senator – he was the only one to do so against his white colleagues – 107 to 1. It was surely an act of symbolic defiance.
I am still conducting my research, and there are many theoretical questions I would like to explore. For example, as South Carolinians, who do we memorialize and why? Why was a statue of Tillman, who incited racial violence and oversaw South Carolina’s highest rate of lynching while Governor, erected after his death on the SC Statehouse grounds and why does it stand there to this day?
Who else has been seemingly erased from our past, just like John W. Bolts? And how can we explain the long gap between Bolts’ last term in the house and the next black men elected in 1972? There are certainly many untold stories similar to that of John Bolts still out there waiting to be uncovered.
Athenaeum Press. At Low Tide. Conway, SC: Coastal Carolina University, 2016.
Bryant, Lawrence C. Negro Lawmakers in the South Carolina Legislature 1868-1902. South Carolina State College, Orangeburg, SC, 1968.
Journal of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina. Columbia, SC: Charles A. Calvo, 1899 – 1902.
Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes 1877 – 1900. University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, 1952.