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Embracing life, death of a formerly-enslaved person positions York Co. site to help tell obscure era of US history

Brick House January 2021edS.jpg
Culture & Heritage Museums’ staff
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The Brick House at Historic Brattonsville has been restored to its 1871 appearance and includes two new exhibits in each of its front rooms.

When Captain James Williams was murdered in York County on March 7, 1871, the investigation that followed included federal agents and the US Supreme Court.

Williams’ life as an enslaved person at Historic Brattonsville and later as a civil rights leader during Reconstruction, has been grafted into the larger story of slavery, emancipation and pursuit of freedom that’s told through the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network.

When Captain James Williams was murdered in York County on March 7, 1871, the investigation that followed included federal agents and the US Supreme Court.

Williams’ life as an enslaved person at Historic Brattonsville and later as a civil rights leader during Reconstruction, has been grafted into the larger story of slavery, emancipation and pursuit of freedom that’s told through the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network.

In March, the National Park Service announced the former plantation, along with three other South Carolina sites, were added to the network.

The Culture & Heritage Museums of York County is a family of museums that includes Historic Brattonsville. Historian Zach Lemhouse said James Williams’ local story plays a significant role in national history.

“He was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and shortly after his murder, the president of the United States sent federal troops under the command of a guy named Lewis Merrill to come to York County and try to maintain law and order.”

Lemhouse said Maj. Merrill conducted detailed investigations into the Klan’s violence in the area, with his notes becoming the bases for the prosecution during the Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan trials. He said James Williams’ case was the second heard during the trials.

“Because of the nature of his case it was eventually deferred to the Supreme Court of the United States, making it the first case borne of this era to make it to the nation’s highest court.”

SC KKK Trials Preceedings
Library of Congress
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LOC.gov
Image of pages 304- 305 of the proceedings book/ papers from the SC KKK Trails, detailing questions and answers given about the day Jim (James) Williams was hung. (from the Ku Klux trials at Columbia, S.C., in the United States Circuit Court, November term, 1871. Printed from government copy.)

LINK to the Library of Congress court proceedings of the SC Ku Klux Trials.

Lemhouse said being a part of the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network will hopefully allow Historic Brattonsville to share James Williams’ story and impact on US history with a larger audience.

Embracing Change

Five years ago, Historic Brattonsville, initiated a change that would help alter its course and eventually lead it to induction into the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network.

The former plantation is home to 30 historic buildings and structures from the 1760s to the late-19th century and offers interpretive programs and activities giving insight into how people lived in the Carolina Piedmont, during this time.

In 2017, following the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, the museum decided to move away from hosting an annual Civil War Reenactment event, and create more programs that accurately depicted what life was like at the plantation for both free and enslaved persons.

James Williams descendants look at portrait of Williams in his militia uniform.
Culture & Heritage Museums’ staff.
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Descendants of James Williams preview Historic Brattonsville’s new exhibit “Liberty & Resistance: Reconstruction and the African American Community at Brattonsville 1865-1877.” The exhibit prominently features the story of Williams as a civil rights leader. Photo taken in Nov. 2021 by Culture & Heritage Museums’ staff.

The exhibit that details the life of James Williams, Liberty & Resistance: Reconstruction and the African American Community at Brattonsville 1865-1877, is housed in an original building on the site called brick house. During Reconstruction, the first level of the building served as a general store. Lemhouse said, Williams lived only a mile away from Brattonsville, during this time and frequently the store and explained how the brick building was used immediately after Williams was murdered.

"James Williams Became a target of the Klan. On March 7, 1871, he was actually murdered by the Klan at his home which was about a mile and a half away from Brattonsville. Later that day, the York County Coroner brought his body to the only public space in the area which would have been that Bratton-operated general store at Brattonsville."
Zach Lemhouse, Historian

Lemhouse said the museum acquired the Brick house to preserve it to tell its Williams-focused Reconstruction story.

“From the beginning, we knew that we were going to tell Jim Williams’ story in that space.”

Lemhouse said the museum collaborated with advisors, historians, and academics from South Carolina and across the country, to create the exhibit. He added, living descendants of James Williams also played an active and integral role in the project.

Thelisha Eaddy is a reporter/producer for South Carolina Public Radio.