The Untold Story of John W. Bolts (1861 – 1921) — CCU Public History Fall 2018

This is part of a series of re-posts of student blogs from Coastal Carolina University’s Intro to Public History course in Fall 2018. Please visit the class website,, for more information.

by N. Valerie McLaurin

Who is John W. Bolts? If you’ve never heard of him, you’re in the same boat I was in when I first came to Coastal Carolina University. It was my first semester as a graduate student in the MALS program and I was doing an internship at the in-house student publishing lab, the Athenaeum Press, while they were wrapping up one of their amazing projects titled At Low Tide: Voices of Sandy Island.

If you’re not familiar, Sandy Island is an inland island surrounded by rivers and only accessible by boat in Georgetown, South Carolina on the Gullah Geechee Corridor. It was the home of rice plantations during slavery and the descendants of those enslaved people still have a community on the island to this day. The booklet contained a history of the island, where I first encountered the name John Bolts: “”…in both 1898 and 1900, former Sandy Islander school teacher John Bolts was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. He would be the last African American in the South Carolina House of Representatives for the next seventy years.”

That last phrase got me particularly interested in Bolts’ life because I didn’t realize there was such an absurdly long gap in time between black men holding office in the South Carolina House of Representatives – John Bolts was elected for his final term in 1900 and it would take generations for that to happen again. For this reason, and other academic motivations involving grant writing research at the Athenaeum Press, I wanted to find out more about his life.

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Image source: Journal of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina, 1901

When I did a literature review his name barely came up in Southern history scholarship. When it did come up, it was often a reference to an acclaimed book by George Brown Tindall from 1952, who wrote one sentence about Bolts describing him as: “an obscure figure who… did nothing during his term of office to cause any friction between the whites and blacks.” When I looked at the footnote for that reference, I realized Tindall was using an interview with one of Bolts’ white colleagues and it seemed to me that was likely a biased account. Also, Bolts’ life shouldn’t be remembered through the lens of a white colleague, but instead deserves rigorous primary research of its own.

I ended up writing my Master’s capstone thesis about my own investigation into the life of John W. Bolts. I can describe very briefly some of his accomplishments, but suffice to say, he was certainly a civil rights activist of his time and fighting against incredible odds serving as the only black member of the House and under the rule of open white supremacist, South Carolina Governor, and longtime Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman.

Bolts was elected at a time when Jim Crow laws were beginning to grip the state in the form of forced segregation and black voter disenfranchisement. He served during a time of severe racial backlash to the successes of black political life during the Reconstruction period.

Despite all these odds, Bolts cared about things like education and labor rights and by going through the House Journals and newspapers I found records of his activism. He fought for public school funding and better labor contracts. When another representative proposed a bill that would give pensions to Confederate soldiers, he proposed an amendment arguing that the enslaved workers of Confederate soldiers should also be granted war pensions.

Many newspapers gave accounts of a lively debate on the House floor where he argued for the rights of black Georgetown fishermen that were under attack due to a proposed bill that would have limited their freedoms. His debate skills and witty retorts so flustered one of his white colleagues that the man yelled a racial slur at him and told him to sit down, but Bolts didn’t, and when the bill was voted he had persuaded his colleagues and they voted with him.

In his last term, Bolts cast the sole dissenting vote against Tillman for U.S. Senator – he was the only one to do so against his white colleagues – 107 to 1. It was surely an act of symbolic defiance.

I am still conducting my research, and there are many theoretical questions I would like to explore. For example, as South Carolinians, who do we memorialize and why? Why was a statue of Tillman, who incited racial violence and oversaw South Carolina’s highest rate of lynching while Governor, erected after his death on the SC Statehouse grounds and why does it stand there to this day?

Who else has been seemingly erased from our past, just like John W. Bolts? And how can we explain the long gap between Bolts’ last term in the house and the next black men elected in 1972? There are certainly many untold stories similar to that of John Bolts still out there waiting to be uncovered.


Athenaeum Press. At Low Tide. Conway, SC: Coastal Carolina University, 2016.

Bryant, Lawrence C. Negro Lawmakers in the South Carolina Legislature 1868-1902. South Carolina State College, Orangeburg, SC, 1968.

Journal of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina. Columbia, SC: Charles A. Calvo, 1899 – 1902.

Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes 1877 – 1900. University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, 1952.

via The Untold Story of John W. Bolts (1861 – 1921) — CCU Public History Fall 2018

Is the Doctor a Public Historian? — CCU Public History Fall 2018

This is part of a series of re-posts of student blogs from Coastal Carolina University’s Intro to Public History course in Fall 2018. Please visit the class website,, for more information.

By Kayla Griffin

For over 50 years, the Doctor has been gracing our television screens teaching us all about space and time travel, but what about history? You can always see the Doctor fighting aliens on another planet and even earth. But there are few episodes where he takes you back in time and gives you a proper history lesson.

When my father first told me to watch his favorite childhood show, I was skeptical because of how old it was. I’m pretty sure I watched it out of order because during the first episode I was very confused about what they were talking about and how they got into an ancient Mayan civilization. After rewatching the first ten minutes three times, I turned it off and forgot about Doctor Who for almost a year before one of my friends got me into the show again. The more episodes I watched the more historical references I saw. Whether it was dates, places, or even historical figures. Because how can you travel back in time and not talk about history. But, is the Doctor a public historian? Does he fit the criteria and make it onto the list?

One of the first episodes of Doctor Who that I watched and actually got into was when Winston Churchill was getting new weapons to fight the Nazi’s in World War II. The episode had the Doctor and one of his many companions, Amy Pond, help Winston Churchill and many military officials try to win the second World War. These new weapons were Daleks, aliens that have been trying for decades to kill the Doctor and eliminate the earth. Throughout the episode, I experienced what it was like to see what the war from the eyes of London generals.

My personal favorite episode that deals with aliens and history is when the Doctor and Amy travel to Amsterdam, Netherlands to visit Vincent Van Gogh. This episode shows Van Gogh painting Wheatfield with Crows and The Church at Auvers, we also get a glimpse of many of his other paintings as they are still drying. I saw how the townspeople treated Van Gogh and how they treated his marvelous paintings. An alien began killing the townspeople. They all immediately started pointing fingers at Van Gogh, because they actually believed he was a terrible person. The alien eating people obviously didn’t happen (but it could have) but it showed the hatred that these people had for Van Gogh.

To define a public historian: it is a person that is out on the field teaching history to people. Granted, the Doctor only has a few people with him at a time, the show’s audience is getting a first-hand tour. Yes, there are multiples movies that people can watch and get to experience but for the people that only watch sci-fi, this show definitely reaches an audience that most historical movies cannot reach. So, when the Doctor fights aliens and takes us on a journey to see history from a first-person point-of-view, not only is he saving the day, he’s being the perfect public historian.

via Is the Doctor a Public Historian? — CCU Public History Fall 2018