‘Black Hope, White Fear’: How a York County family was accused of plotting a slave revolt

At Historic Brattonsville, a reenactment will show how vigilante justice thwarted a posible slave revolt in 1860.

Looking for something different this weekend? Consider a trip to Historic Brattonsville in York County, S.C., about an hour’s drive south of Charlotte.

On Saturday, staff and volunteers at the 235-year-old plantation will reenact a shootout that may have aborted a slave revolt.

Called “Black Hope, White Fear,” the 30-minute reenactment recounts what happened to the Pughs, a white family suspected by their neighbors of plotting to provoke a slave insurrection. A vigilante group attacked their home, whipped the family and sent them to live in a free state.

“It’s a program we felt like we really needed to do,” said Jonathan Failor, organizer and developer of the reenactment. “Many people travel to far-off places to visit historic sites, and history happened right here. It’s all around us; it’s a part of who we are.”

The “Pugh incident,” as it was known at the time, almost stayed hidden from history. But five years ago Failor was digging through old files at Brattonsville when he came across some papers, dated in the 1920s, that told of a white family suspected of being abolitionists.

During an arrest attempt, a shootout began and, according to reports, the mob broke into the Pugh home and found the women and children making bullets and loading guns. About a half dozen family members were said to have been involved.

Searching for proof

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At first, Failor wasn’t sure what to make of the document. He wanted to do a reenactment but needed further proof that the events had actually occurred.

“We didn’t feel really comfortable about basing an entire program off of something that was written, maybe passed down through oral tradition, and was written maybe 80 years later,” Failor said.

Two years later, he and a research team from Historic Brattonsville got a break. They found a newspaper article from the Yorksville Inquirer that recorded the shootout just days after it happened on Dec. 26, 1860.

Not much was found about the Pugh family, which, according to handwritten documents, lived near McConnells.

“All we know is what was written about them in the newspaper and that they were arrested and whipped and sent out of here on train,” Failor said. “There’s certainly something to the story, if that’s what really happened to them. You just don’t go around whippin’ and beatin’ white folks for no reason.”

A tense time

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The year 1860 was a tense time in America.

“Lincoln has just been elected president, and for most Southerners, particularly slave owners, they’re very afraid of that,” Failor said. “They’re afraid of what’s going to happen to their slave holdings, they’re afraid of what’s going to happen to their way of life.”

Fearing a slave revolt, some southerners formed vigilante groups.

“We started looking at vigilante groups and found out that the Bratton boys were members of a newly formed vigilante group that was called the Bethesda Vigilante Committee,” Failor said.

The group was formed by members of the Bethesda Presbyterian Church, where the Bratton family — as in Historic Brattonsville – attended.

“Vigilante committees are forming everywhere, and they’re all terrified that abolitionists have kind of infiltrated the communities and are putting abolitionists’ ideas into the minds of their slaves,” Failor said. “It’s just all about fear of the unknown, and that’s kind of what this event plays on.”

“Black Hope, White Fear”

The reenactment was first performed in 2008. When deciding on a title, Failor said, he wanted to play on the oppositional words “black” and “white.”

“You want a title that’s going to grab somebody’s attention, and I think that that title not only grabs attention, but I think it plays into what was really going on.

“Fear and hope are two things that are universal concepts,” he added. “No matter where you are in the world, you understand what hope is and you understand what fear is. Those are two things I think that people can connect with, everybody’s been hopeful and everybody’s been afraid.”

The reenactment has three segments: The first two scenes recalls how the vigilante group was formed and listens in on a conversation between two slaves, one named Dave. (Dave, afraid that he would be beaten, is believed to have exposed the Pugh family plot to his slave owner.) The final scene depicts the arrest attempt and the shootout that follows.

Aside from the reenactment, attendees can tour the Bratton house, see slave life interpretations and overhear a conversation with a white, 19th century minister who discusses the relationship between religion and slavery.

Failor said groups have had mixed emotions to the re-enactment. Some people, he said, would rather not discuss such history.

“Maybe because they’re afraid or they’re ashamed,” he said, “but this is who we are. This is where we’ve come from, and I want people to embrace it. I want people to learn from it.”

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the “Pugh incident,” and Failor said he plans to hold the reenact again.

IF YOU WANT TO GO:

  • Where: 1444 Brattonsville Rd., McConnells, S.C., 29726
  • Date: Saturday, Oct. 3
  • Times: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Performance at noon and 2 p.m.
  • Cost: $6 adult, $5 senior, $3 ages 4-17.

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