The Phoenix Election riot beginning on November 8, 1898, was a riot and mass lynching initiated by white South Carolinians in the name of Redemption in Greenwood County, South Carolina. Over a dozen prominent black leaders were murdered and hundreds were injured by the all white mob.
The small town of Phoenix was the home of the land-owning white Tolbert family. Its patriarch John R. Tolbert had risen to Colonel in the Confederate Army, but held to liberal principles, voted Republican, and encouraged the local black population to assert their rights. The state legislature had closed all Phoenix polls in 1868 to block the Tolbert’s influence.
On election night 1898 an altercation at a Tolbert-owned store, a white Democratic partisan named J.I. Etheridge was shot and killed. This triggered four days of violence directed mainly at the black population. On the 9th the white mob on horseback encountered a four-year-old Benjamin Elijah Mays (August 1, 1894 – March 28, 1984), and his father, a moment that Mays “never forgot”.Three hundred heavily armed men gathered. An estimated twelve African-Americans were fatally shot or hung, through the 13th. An elderly black woman named Eliza Cooke was also shot and killed. Whites who refused to join were also threatened.
U.S. Senator Benjamin Ryan Tillman (August 11, 1847 – July 3, 1918) was a politician of the Democratic Party and who was the Governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894, spoke on the riot a year later, and was quoted as saying, “If you want to uproot the snake [of black voting] and kill it, go and kill the Tolbert’s.”