100 years ago SC sheriff stared down 1,000-man mob to save black inmate

Spartanburg action celebrated a century later

White family photo via Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Spartanburg Sheriff William White
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — On Aug. 18, 1913, Spartanburg County Sheriff William James White and a single deputy faced down a 1,000-person mob and protected the life of a black man accused of sexually assaulting a young, white woman.

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On Aug. 18, 1913, Spartanburg County Sheriff White and a single deputy faced down a 1,000-person mob and protected the life of a black man accused of sexually assaulting a young, white woman. Will Fair, who was accused of following the victim into her home, hitting her over the head and raping her, was found innocent at trial a month later.   ASSOCIATED PRESS
ASSOCIATED PRESS
On Aug. 18, 1913, Spartanburg County Sheriff White and a single deputy faced down a 1,000-person mob and protected the life of a black man accused of sexually assaulting a young, white woman. Will Fair, who was accused of following the victim into her home, hitting her over the head and raping her, was found innocent at trial a month later.

“Gentlemen, I hate to do it, but so help me God I’m going to kill the first man that enters that gate,” White is reported to have said to a crowd at the jail that included many of his friends and constituents.

Will Fair, who was accused of following the victim into her home, hitting her over the head and raping her, was found innocent at trial a month later. Several witnesses, law enforcement officers and medical experts testified during the trial, and the jury deliberated for about 20 hours before returning the not-guilty verdict.

“This was such an important case in the South,” said Debra Hutchins, local history librarian at Spartanburg County Library Headquarters. “Instead of just another case of violence, this person got a fair trial where all the evidence was examined carefully.”

In the late 19th century, Spartanburg, like many other cities in the South, was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity. By 1913, race relations in the fourth largest city in South Carolina had settled considerably. There were black business owners, black policemen and firefighters, and a black city councilman.

While racial violence ebbed in the growing and prosperous city, it continued to thrive throughout the region. Less than a week before Fair’s arrest, a black man accused of a similar crime in Laurens County was lynched; carried from the jail by a large, hostile mob that hanged the man by the railroad tracks. Like Fair, the man in Laurens County proclaimed his innocence. Unlike Fair, that man never received a trial.

At the time, White was hailed as a hero in Spartanburg’s black community, and he was supported by a large portion of the region’s white population as well, according to news reports. At the centennial anniversary of the sheriff’s action, he is also remembered as a hero by his family.

“I grew up listening to this story,” said White’s great-great nephew, Michael Smith. “Mainly, it was just like the legend that was passed down. . As a kid, I remember Dad asking great-granddad about it over and over.”

Michael Smith’s father was former Spartanburg County Sheriff Larry Smith, and his great-granddad was Augustus White, Sheriff White’s brother.

Like the legend of Sheriff White, a career in public service and law enforcement also was passed through the generations. Michael Smith was a Spartanburg County deputy, an investigator with the county coroner’s office and a U.S. marshal. His daughter, Lauren, is a senior criminal justice major at the University of South Carolina.

Though 1913 was considered a time of rising fortunes for many, the black community was at an inherent disadvantage. Most worked in the service industry at lower-paying jobs. The illiteracy rate for black people was about 48 percent, compared with 6 percent for white people, according to the census.

It was against this backdrop that Will Fair was arrested in a Spartanburg train station. During his seven-mile walk from Glendale to the city to catch the train, Fair passed a woman who was never named in news accounts. The victim said Fair crept into her house behind her and assaulted her, and he was quickly arrested.

While the sheriff tried to keep the arrest quiet, by 5 p.m., a mob of 1,000 people stormed the jail demanding Fair be turned over to them.

The crowd dynamited through an exterior wall, but the sheriff stood firm and prevented the jail from being overrun. From the jail on Wofford Street near the Magnolia Street courthouse, White called the Spartanburg mayor and then-South Carolina Gov. Coleman Blease for assistance in dispersing the crowd, but both men refused to act.

When the mob attempted to breach the gate with a battering ram, White and the deputy fired several shots into the crowd, leading to a fire fight between the two law enforcement officers and the crowd during which three men were injured.

It is unclear from reports how long the two stood alone against the crowd, but they eventually were assisted by the city police department. The mob then dissipated. Fair was moved to a penitentiary in Columbia to await trial.

A special session of the court was convened in Spartanburg County on Sept. 20, 1913. During the trial, witnesses attested they saw Fair and the woman on the same path, but they never saw him go into the woman’s home.

Despite the victim’s testimony that she fought her assailant, a police officer attested there were no rips or stains to Fair’s clothing when he was arrested. His clothing also matched the description given by the woman, and Fair would not have had time to change prior to his arrest, the officer said. Another officer also testified that the victim identified another man before accusing Fair, but she later said she was mistaken.

A doctor who examined the victim said she had no bruises or other signs of physical trauma from the assault.

When Judge George W. Gage gave the case to the jury at the end of the day’s testimony, he impressed upon the 12 white juror’s the importance of their decision.

“A case like this not only tries the prisoner at the bar, but it even tries the very integrity of our institutions,” Gage is quoted as saying in news reports.

The jury foreman reportedly came back repeatedly to the judge claiming the jury was deadlocked and asking for a mistrial. According to news reports, six of the jurors wanted to find Fair not guilty; the other six agreed he was not guilty, but they wanted to pass the decision to another jury. Each time the judge sent the jury back for further deliberations, refusing to let them pass on the case. Understanding their reluctance, Gage said:

“A wave of public opinion in times of excitement is sometimes the most uncertain thing in the world. The only certain thing is the knowledge which points to the truth and which never errs. If you follow it, you are in the sure path, and if you leave it, you are in quagmires all the way.”

Just after noon on Saturday Sept. 20, 1913, the jury declared Fair not guilty.

The judge was the second leader to stand up for Fair’s rights to a fair trial, Hutchins said.

“Both were leaders,” she said. “They were so wise. . (The judge) told them, ‘It’s your responsibility to look at the evidence and come out with a just verdict. . He really had the wisdom of Solomon in a way. He knew people were watching.”

Despite a packed courtroom, there were no demonstrations when the verdict was announced. Not that day, and not in the days and weeks after.

“The people following the trial and listening to the evidence knew it was a fair verdict,” Hutchins said.

While others predicted it would be the political end for Sheriff White, he went on to serve into the 1920s.

William James White died in 1943 and is buried in Spartanburg’s Oakwood Cemetery beside his wife and two daughters.

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myfather15
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myfather15 08/18/13 - 05:14 am
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Men of Honor!!!

These are the type men and women who are needed, more and more in society!! What a story, and what a Man of Honor!!

avidreader
3189
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avidreader 08/18/13 - 07:50 am
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To Kill a Mockingbird!

I will share this with my students when I teach To Kill a Mockingbird. Lots of similarities in this story.

itsanotherday1
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itsanotherday1 08/18/13 - 09:11 am
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I couldn't help but note the

I couldn't help but note the behavior of the citizens after a verdict they didn't like.

nocnoc
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nocnoc 08/18/13 - 09:27 am
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I wonder

How many 100's of others stood and instead of stepping aside?

We hear all to often of the bad, but stories like this are a much needed example of the demonstration of courage, and leadership.

Why doesn't Hollywood make a movie on this mans actions?

my.voice
4808
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my.voice 08/18/13 - 10:46 am
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Because it doesnt feed tge

Because it doesnt feed tge agenda nocnoc.

seenitB4
86829
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seenitB4 08/18/13 - 11:37 am
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1
Amazing story

But so needed in todays world.....we have many people who want to do the right thing..we see that on here in comments every day.

corgimom
32182
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corgimom 08/18/13 - 11:47 am
2
2
People haven't changed, there

People haven't changed, there have always been good people and not-so-good people.

And it will be forever so.

There are many such cases of this in the South, and in the United States, but that doesn't fit in with the revisionist history that many people want to perpetuate.

Jake
32518
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Jake 08/18/13 - 11:57 am
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Brave men

Quite a story of courage in a time when it would have been easier (and more popular) to just let the crowd have their way. The comparisons with "To Kill a Mockingbird" are quite appropriate. Sometimes justice does prevail, unlike Mississippi during the 50's and early 60's.

corgimom
32182
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corgimom 08/18/13 - 12:06 pm
2
1
A few more details-The

A few more details-

The victim picked Will Fair out of a lineup of 5 blacks, all similar in appearance and dressed alike. The woman, husband,father in law sheriff, and Solicitor had travelled to the State Pen in Columbia to do the lineup. 4 other penitentiary prisoners were used. Will was already at the penitentiary for safety.

The woman was believed to have acted in good faith, but was thought to be perpetually insane. A physician testified that he could find no evidence that she had been attacked. Three physicians testified that she could have had a hallucination.

The jury never considered a verdict of guilty. The first ballot was 6 for acquittal, 6 for mistrial. The foreman was Joseph Lee of Landrum, president of a hosiery manufacturing company.

Judge Gage gave a very impassioned, very compassionate speech after the first ballot was announced and told them that they couldn't have a mistrial, they had to agree.

Following the acquittal, Will Fair was advised to leave town, he agreed, and he was sent to a railroad construction camp 500 miles from Spartanburg.

corgimom
32182
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corgimom 08/18/13 - 12:26 pm
1
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7 men were charged with

7 men were charged with rioting and assault.

4 were acquitted, 3 were convicted- W. R. Belcher, Robert Wilson, and Horace Finch- and they were sentenced to 3 years in prison.

On December 31, 1914, SC Governor Blease issued full pardons to those three men.

Horace Cleveland Finch was 20 at the time of the crime. He was exempt from WWI due to a rupture (hernia). He died about 1936.

W. R. (Wallace) Belcher, who was born in 1867, died in 1927 and was buried by the county.

I can't tell about Robert Wilson, I can't identiry who he was, I don't have enough identification.

Darby
25523
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Darby 08/18/13 - 12:20 pm
4
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"I couldn't help but note the behavior of the

citizens after a verdict they didn't like."

Sorry, but that mob's actions pre-dated the trail and the verdict.

Race baiters then, race baiters now.

Little Lamb
45867
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Little Lamb 08/18/13 - 02:57 pm
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1
Darby,

I believe itsanotherday was speaking of these sentences in the article when he spoke about the reaction after the verdict:

Despite a packed courtroom, there were no demonstrations when the verdict was announced. Not that day, and not in the days and weeks after. “The people following the trial and listening to the evidence knew it was a fair verdict,” Hutchins said.

He was contrasting the crowd behavior after the Will Fair verdict versus crowd behavior after the Geo. Zimmerman verdict.

Darby
25523
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Darby 08/18/13 - 05:21 pm
3
3
Sorry... apologies to itsanotherday1.

The subtlety escaped me.

The reaction to the unfounded charges prior to the trial are strikingly akin to what you see the Rev. Al drumming up all too frequently...

They were wrong back then and Sharpton and his playmates like Jackson and OzBama are wrong today.

LillyfromtheMills
13206
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LillyfromtheMills 08/18/13 - 10:59 pm
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Jake

This was Mississippi

happychimer
17476
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happychimer 08/19/13 - 02:04 pm
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This happened in SC.

This happened in SC.

Darby
25523
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Darby 08/20/13 - 10:54 pm
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But the incident that inspired

"To Kill a Mocking Bird" took place in Alabama."

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