The untold story of Hamburg, SC

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. (WJBF) – Some may have never heard of Hamburg, South Carolina. It is the city that preceded North Augusta. For many years the city’s history remained untold, but people lived and worked in Hamburg. It was an economic engine that produced parts of life that we still enjoy today.

 “It’s an old relic from a past time that no longer exists.  It needs to be torn down completely so we can start anew,” Chris Hawkins, who lives in North Augusta, told us.

The tall statue sitting atop Georgia Avenue recently became the dividing color line for many in North Augusta, South Carolina.  

It honors Thomas McKie Meriwether, the sole white man killed in South Carolina’s bloodiest race riot, the Hamburg Massacre of 1876.  While it has been a fixture in the city for more than a century, the argument now is that ALL men killed, Meriwether and seven black men, should be honored.  But what is Hamburg?  Historians will argue those killed for it and the city itself are things you should know.  

“You have this gap, this long period of time where the people in South Carolina lived,” said Milledge Murry, an historian.  

For 108 years a town called Hamburg bordered the Savannah River, near Augusta.  And back then, it was the prime of Edgefield County with steamboats and trains moving the all time favorite southern product, cotton.  Before Hamburg’s story ended, the town– built with the help of slaves– eventually was run by those same people once held captive.  Their leadership reached the South Carolina General Assembly and by The Reconstruction Era four African American men worked to create Aiken County, an idea conceived from Hamburg’s finest.  

South Carolina General Assembly post Civil War in newspaper

“If you have three South Carolina state representatives living in Hamburg, two of the founders of Aiken County, Samuel Lee and Prince Rivers, lived in Hamburg.  So, you had this political concentration of power, state power, in this little town,” Wayne O’Bryant, Historian and Author told us.

But’s let’s go back to the beginning, before African Americans made up Hamburg’s leadership and overall population.  The year was 1813 and German immigrant Henry Shultz and Lewis Cooper began work to build a toll bridge across the Savannah River connecting Augusta to the South Carolina border.

“Mr. Shultz was an entrepreneur and him being from Europe he realized that he knew how to build bridges,” Murray said.

Ads went out in the local paper – “Wanted To Hire, Fore the ensuring year 40 or 50 good Negro Fellows…”  – The labor harvested trees and built the Shultz-Cooper Bridge, a toll bridge at the current location of the 5th Street bridge.  

“There was fees for pigs, cows, carts, people.  In five years it raised about $85,000,” Murray said.

But the success was short lived.

“The bridge got foreclosed on and out of spite, Henry Shultz decided he was going to create a town on the other side of the river right where the bridge was.  So in 1821 he created Hamburg,” Murray explained.

It’s hard to see now, but Hamburg, which sat along the Savannah River, in parts of Augusta Concrete Block Company and River North subdivision, sprung up overnight with homes filled with white families who ran businesses there too.  Now a fierce competitor for Augusta in the marketplace, Hamburg used the inland port to ship cotton, tobacco and other products to Charleston and European merchants.  At the same time, a railroad was created starting in Charleston and ending in Hamburg.

Murray shared, “People that had cotton coming from South Carolina, they could drop their cotton off with the cotton brokers in Hamburg rather than carrying it all the way over to Augusta, across the toll bridge.  It became a lucrative town.”

For years, Hamburg served as an economic engine hauling cotton and passengers, becoming the longest railroad in America at that time.  But in 1851, Shultz died and by that time Hamburg began to decline, becoming a ghost town.  During the Civil War, there was a significant economic downturn, despite slaves being sold in the town and a large number of Confederate troops quartered there.  And after the war, Historian Wayne O’Bryant said a new Hamburg emerged with former slaves now self sufficient enough to run their own city.

“So, they were able to come back into a town and say these are shacks, but I can just build them back up because I built the master’s house.  Whatever it took for planting crops, we were the ones doing it.  A lot of times they were the ones taking them to market to trade so they learned how to barter and all these types of things,” O’Bryant said.

Armed with the right to vote from the 13th Amendment, South Carolina saw its first majority Black state legislature in U.S. history.  And with it, prominent men born in slavery running Hamburg.

Prince Rivers, a Hamburg judge, Samuel Lee, the first black Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, and John Gardner, the town’s mayor.  They created a new constitution, which integrated schools.  But all of that clout came to a screeching halt at the end of Reconstruction just as American celebrated its centennial.

Prince Rivers
Samuel Lee
John Gardner

July 4, 1876, Hamburg’s African Americans rejoiced too with a militia marching in town.  Two white men demanded they move and from there, a legal battle turned into hundreds of white men surrounding an old armory, looking for Black men to kill.

Murray described that time saying, “Grabbed him, put him in a circle, took him over a hill, shot him.  Grabbed somebody else, took them over a hill, shot them. The testimony of Harry Mays just blows my mind.”

Three U.S. Senators made their way to Hamburg to get the facts and uncovered stories from witnesses such as Harry Mays about the execution style killings of black men.

May’s words were, “The first man they killed was Attaway….Attaway says, ‘Gentlemen, I am not prepared for death….will you allow me to prepare to meet my God?  Some of the white men said, ‘I don’t care; we are going to kill you.’  They called for Dave Phillips….I heard the guns fire and they came back, but Dave didn’t come.  Then they came back and called Pompey Curry.”

We spoke with Frederick Morton, a minister and descendant of Pompey Curry.

“And when they called his name he took off running and he was shot.  They shot him in his leg and he survived and he was able to tell the story and tell those who were involved.”

Minister Frederick Morton said he’s the great, great grandson of Curry and through family history and research, he uncovered his ancestor’s life in Hamburg, one that thrived and left a legacy after surviving the massacre in his 40s.

“His wife’s father had bought about 33 acres of land in the Five Notch Road area,” he said. “That’s where I grew up.  We still have that property in the family.  They did well.  Some were farmers.  My dad farmed and did some painting and butchering.  We have people in the family who have gone on.  Some are Montford Point Marines.  Some are Tuskegee Airmen.”

A little more than a decade after the Hamburg Massacre, the flood of 1888 destroyed homes, washed away the railroads and bridge.  Subsequent floods destroyed even more until Hamburg ended in 1929 as the country battled the Great Depression.  But a few loyal citizens relocated to the Barton Road area of what is now North Augusta, bringing some materials with them to a new town called Carrsville.  The Young Men’s Society Building and parts of First Providence Church made it too, all key stomping grounds for Clara Lamback, whose parents were part of that transition.

“There were very, very few people living in Carrsville at the time,” Lamback recalled. “They had a very small house in Carrsville.  In fact, the house they had in Carrsville is at the same location as the house that we have now.”

Lamback’s parents, Nelson Wingfield and Tessie Scott Goodwin Wingfield were born in the Schultz Hill area.  But Lamback said they didn’t talk much about life in Hamburg, a silence O’Bryant said many Blacks had fearing talking would lead to danger.  But one thing Lamback did learn was the value of an education, something that started in the Society Building that still stands today.

Lamback added, “They left a good roadmap for us to follow.  Not only in education, but also in church work.  My father was the first superintendent when they built the education building at First Providence.

And it’s that history that North Augusta hopes to capture in the newly designated African American Heritage District.

“We want to do some jazz festivals since it will be an historic district.  We want to do some African American arts festivals in this area,” O’Bryant said.

And inside the society building, made from wood that traveled from Hamburg, are hopes for a museum that will draw people to North Augusta from other places.  Efforts are being made by Historic North Augusta and a small group of investors working to rehab the place and tell its story. They’ve added markers in what used to be Hamburg so that all will know about the bustling railroad and the city that thrived at its time.

And a marker for ALL men both white and black killed in the Hamburg Incident July 4 – 9, 1876 – Allen Attaway, Jim Cook, Thomas Meriwether, Albert Myniart, Nelder Parker, Moses Parks, David Phillips and Hampton Stephens.

“We are all together a part of the fabric of this community.  All of us,” Murray said.

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