Please join us for a Chambersburg Civil War Seminars & Tours Lecture Series!
Our next lecture will be: Stephen Atkins Swails, an unsung African American hero of the Civil War and Reconstruction given by Gordon Rhea
Cost is $5 per person. Zoom Login details will be sent with your email registration confirmation.
Talk Synopsis: Born in 1832 in Pennsylvania to parents that the census recorded as 'mulatto,' Swails grew up a free Black in a state that had abolished slavery but whose African-American citizens still labored under oppressive social and legal handicaps. In 1863, he volunteered for the first African American regiment raised in the North ? the 54th Massachusetts, -- distinguished himself in battle, and became the first Black man commissioned as a line combat officer in the United States military. After the war, he remained in South Carolina, where he was elected Speaker Pro Tempore of the state Senate during Reconstruction. He was instrumental in drafting the state's post-war constitution guaranteeing equal rights to African Americans and played an important role in securing the passage of legislation benefitting the state's newly-liberated Black citizenry. He raised a family in the small South Carolina town of Kingstree, where he was elected mayor multiple times, practiced law, and became Williamsburg County's political 'boss.' He remained active in state politics after the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of White rule in 1877 but was ultimately forced to leave South Carolina by the White power structure, which threatened to kill him if he remained. Despite numerous threats against his life, he returned to South Carolina regularly and labored to advance the cause of Black candidates. He died in 1900 and remained largely forgotten for the next century. Biographies of Civil War generals and major political figures appear by the score, but biographies of the nearly 200,000 African Americans who fought in the war are exceedingly rare. Swails' story is truly astounding. He was born into a society that relegated persons of African descent to the lowest social and economic rung yet rose to the pinnacle of political power, governing a hostile populace that viewed his race with hatred and distain. His life is a stirring tale of a determined man who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles and hardships. And while many of his achievements went up in flames with the end of Reconstruction and the return of White Supremacy, his legacy lives on in the accomplishments of those who followed in his footsteps. Stephen Swails' was a dynamic figure in the post-Civil War effort to ensure equal opportunity and treatment under the law for all citizens, Black and White.
Gordon Rhea Biography:
Gordon Rhea received his B.A. in history from Indiana University, his M.A. in history from Harvard University, and his law degree from Stanford University Law School. He served as Special Assistant to the Chief Counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities for two years and as an Assistant United States Attorney in Washington D.C. and the United States Virgin Islands for some seven years. He has been in the private practice of law since 1983.