The roots of the massive losses of freedoms gained in the aftermath of emancipation were codified during the constitutional convention of 1895. The Constitution of 1895, written by then U.S. Senator Benjamin Tillman, was adopted without popular referendum or support. Under the new constitutional authority, the state’s Black Codes reemerged as Jim Crow laws in forms subtle enough to avoid immediate conflict with the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The key to disenfranchising Black citizens was the new suffrage clause in the 1895 constitution that extended voting rights only to men paying taxes on property assessed at $300 or more, who were also able to read and write the state constitution, and those who could prove state and precinct residency. There was also a poll tax.
At present, 123 years after adoption, the 1895 constitution remains the body of fundamental principles by which government in the state of South Carolina operates. Efforts to assemble a convention and adopt a new constitution are currently underway. Notably, in early March 2018, state Senator Marlon Kimpson tweeted “If the door is opened for a constitutional convention, last amended in 1895 to systematically disenfranchise African Americans, I plan to introduce the subject of reparations for the descendants of slaves who built this state providing free labor.” If a new convention is assembled, the state must use lessons from its past and aim to serve all of its constituents equally.