SPARTANBURG — 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.
“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 police officers 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. As the centennial anniversary of the sheriff’s brave stand approaches, 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. While she plans to break the family mold and “stay away from guns for a while,” she is preparing to go to law school and remain in the greater law enforcement profession.
Despite being five generations removed from the story of Sheriff White, Lauren Smith said she is just as inspired by her ancestor’s actions that day 100 years ago as her father and grandfather were.
“It’s important to stand against the pressure,” Lauren Smith said. That was her largest lesson from the tale. “We’re proud of him.”
Having spent his career in law enforcement, Michael Smith said he has a personal and professional respect for the way his great-great-uncle conducted himself in the desperate situation.
“You think about what courage it took to do that. You think about the chaos and confusion. . .He remembered his oath. Part of the oath was due process and he fulfilled that.”
In 1913, Spartanburg was a community coming into its own. While still surrounded by a vast countryside of agricultural land that supported the state’s largest mule market, downtown was growing. That growth was aided by the establishment of an important railway hub for commerce and several textile mills.
“Many people had come from the farms to work in the mill,” Hutchins said.
Department stores such as Aug Smith and Greenwald’s were going up in downtown, and residential communities such as Converse Heights, Hampton Heights and Fair Forest Park were being developed. Personal automobiles and electric cars were growing in popularity, and downtown roads were paved. Progressive leaders were placing a new emphasis on education in hopes of helping the city live up to its slogan “City of Success.”
According to the 1910 U.S. Census, Spartanburg County had a population of about 83,500 people, of which about 32 percent were black. The overwhelming majority were white, with only a small handful of Indian and Asian residents.
“It was a segregated society,” Hutchins said.
Listings in the city directory — the phone book of the time — included an indication of race.
Though it 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.
There is little information available about the mood in the community during the intervening month.
“I’ve always heard how proud the family was of him,” Smith said. “But I never stopped to think about what he faced every day in the community.”
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 jurors 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. Smith said the vindication of the not guilty verdict saved his great-great-uncle from reprisal.
“I think the public was pretty embarrassed,” Smith said.
William James White died in 1943 and is buried in Spartanburg’s Oakwood Cemetery beside his wife and two daughters.
The values he demonstrated, however, live on in the culture of law enforcement.
“It was a great thing the elected sheriff did,” current Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright said. “All people are innocent until proven guilty. . . We will not tolerate vigilante justice.”
Asked whether law enforcement officers today face the same pressure from public opinion, Wright said it’s something he chooses to ignore.
“I’ve resolved myself to do what’s right, and people can either like that or not like it,” he said. “We don’t always like the outcome, but we will follow the law. . Those people in the Spartanburg Detention Center have families just like everybody else.”
Information from: Herald-Journal, http://www.goupstate.com/