Once I decided that the setting and time frame for my novel would be Upcountry South Carolina from 1907-1909, I began reading everything I could find on the first decade of the twentieth century. My goal was to get a sense of how my story fit into the context of what was going on nationally, in the state of South Carolina, and more particularly in towns of the South Carolina Upcountry, like Greenville, where my main character lived and attended college, and Calhoun, the fictional town about 20 miles away, where she took her first teaching position. I wanted to understand what kind of world Hattie Robinson grew up in.
Edmund Morris’s trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt and Doris Kearns Godwin’s Bully Pulpit provided an excellent picture of the national political climate and of the Progressive movement, which was effecting political and social change throughout the country at that time. Godwin’s book also dealt with the relationship of TR, and then Taft, with the Muckrakers, who were in their heyday of publishing their exposes in McClure’s Magazine.
TR would have been president at the beginning of my story in 1907, and William Howard Taft would have been elected a year later, in 1908. Taft’s election on November 3, must have come as a shock to the Solid South. In South Carolina, Martin Ansel’s reelection as governor had already been determined in the Democratic primary held earlier in the fall. In November, 93.8% of South Carolina voters cast their ballot for Bryan, who also received all nine of the state’s electoral votes. From reading local newspapers published in 1908, I got the sense that most Southerners assumed that, with William Jennings Bryan on the ticket and the Republicans in disarray over TR’s decision not to run for another term, they would finally get a Democrat in the White House.
Walter B. Edgar’s South Carolina in the Modern Age gave me a sense of what was going on in South Carolina in the decades surrounding my story. Edgar refers to the Palmetto State as the most fascinating yet misunderstood state in the union. The wealthiest of the thirteen original colonies, and one of the wealthiest states prior to the 1860’s, it ranked near the bottom in per capita income in 1890. Forty-five percent of the population was illiterate, and the health of the general population was so poor that it is estimated that 44 percent of white volunteers for the Spanish-American War could not pass the physical for recruitment. Poverty and debt were a reality, with over a million acres of land forfeited by South Carolinians for nonpayment of taxes in the 1880’s. For the farmer, 30 to 60 percent of his cotton crop was obligated for debt payment prior to harvest.
The Constitution of 1895 essentially eliminated black participation in South Carolina politics. White voters had alway unified against the black vote. Now, they broke into factions–all within the Democratic Party. Ben Tillman and his rural farmers composed one major faction. Conservatives who had supported the old Confederate heroes like Wade Hampton, joined the middle class in upcountry towns and formed a second faction. This faction took on many of the characteristics of the Progressive movement. However they had to be careful not to identify with the national movement for fear of losing elections over being accused of trying to bring in “foreign” ideas. Finally, around 1900, the mill operatives, who were supported by Coleman Blease, emerged as a political faction.
The divisions and unrest in the Democratic Party played out in what Edgar refers to as South Carolina’s bullring. Progressive legislation was slow in coming, given the turbulence of the era. However, on the grass roots level, many South Carolinians worked to bring about improved conditions in their communities, as they supported their local schools, built parks, opened hospitals, and provided water and sewer systems for their residents.
Although women could not vote in South Carolina until 1920, they still supported progressive causes through their church circles and in organizations like the South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs, founded in 1898. The progressive era in South Carolina was sparked by a group of Columbia women who convinced Senator J.Q. Marshall of Richland County to introduce the first child labor law in the state.
It was in this environment that my main character, Hattie Robinson, came of age.