It’s the killing season in Charleston, as it is in much of the United States this summer. It happens every year about this time. The gunshots ring through the night. The blue lights flash. The media report another death — usually a young black man — somewhere on America’s streets.
I got my introduction to Charleston violence on a sultry August night in 2002, four months after moving here. On that night, 13-year-old Velvet Brown was gunned down on Sumter Street, less than three blocks from my apartment, in a drive-by shooting.
Within days, five witnesses had identified a man named Earl Allen as the shooter, and he was charged and arrested. But when Allen came up for trial 15 months later, the witnesses had recanted their statements, and the prosecutor had no choice but to drop the charges. No one has been tried for the murder of Velvet Brown.
Earl Allen’s last 15 minutes of fame came at 2 a.m. on the morning of June 4, 2006, in a burst of gunfire near the corner of Rutledge Avenue and Strawberry Lane, six blocks from the place Velvet Brown died four years before. The man who killed him was awaiting trial on another murder charge.
Most of the murder in Charleston is black-on-black, of course. It scars and traumatizes Charleston and almost every American city. But where does it come from? I got a look into the violent soul of South Carolina in a recent trip to Edgefield, the hometown of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.
In 1856, one George D. Tillman killed a young, unarmed young man named Henry Christian over a faro game in the Planter’s Hotel on the town square. Tillman was a member of the state House of Representatives at the time. He served two years for the killing in county jail, where he continued to practice law. The women of the town even brought him his meals. He later served in the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
There was also the business of Becky Cotton, “the Devil in Petticoats,” who murdered three husbands and was finally dispatched by her own brother, fearing that he might be her next victim.
At least three men were killed in shoot-outs on the Edgefield town square in the 19th century, and when they weren’t fighting and killing in front of the courthouse, the men of Edgefield carried their violence with them. Rep. Preston Brooks became a hero of the South in 1856 when he caned and nearly killed Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate chamber. Lt. Gov. James H. Tillman walked out of the Statehouse in Columbia on Jan. 15, 1903, encountered his nemesis Narciso Gonzales, editor of The State newspaper, and shot him to death at the corner of Gervais and Main streets.
I learned this dark history not by digging through county archives and newspapers. It is proudly recorded on murals and historical markers on the town square of Edgefield, where a life-size bronze statue of Thurmond stands.
During the first half of the 19th century, according to one study, rural South Carolina had a murder rate four times as high as that of urban Massachusetts. The rate in Edgefield was thought by one scholar to be perhaps twice that of South Carolina as a whole. Whereas New York City averaged three to seven murders per 100,000 people, Edgefield’s antebellum murder rate was estimated at 18 per 100,000 — higher than in any place in modern America.
If violence is as American as apple pie, as Black Panther H. Rap Brown famously said, perhaps it’s actually more Southern than American. In his book, All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fox Butterfield focuses on a young black New York City career criminal and murderer named Willie Bosket. Butterfield traces Bosket’s family back five generations to Edgefield County, to an ancestor who was owned by former Gov. Andrew Pickens. He was sold several times and separated from his wife and children. Bosket once saw a relative lynched by a white mob.
The ancestor was violent toward his own family and neighbors, and that violence, Butterfield argues, has passed down from generation to generation. The arrogance and violence of the Southern planter class — whereby a man could be killed for the smallest insult or misunderstanding — was handed down to their slaves and the children of their slaves. We hear echoes of this ancient Southern legacy in the shooting two weeks ago at a local Waffle House in which two people were shot, one fatally. Witnesses say the dispute started over a cigarette.
We are all prisoners of the past, but the past is never over, not for Southerners. We have to live it every day.