Strom Thurmond, the iconic South Carolina politician who lived to 100 years old and who died in 2003 shortly after retiring as United States Senator, was born 109 years ago today. A lot is known about Thurmond’s 75 years in S.C. politics and the head-line making details of his personal life but what is known about Strom Thurmond’s childhood in rural Edgefield County, S.C.? Content found about Strom Thurmond in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers has revealed some interesting insights into the makings of a politician.
While searching unsuccessfully for Strom Thurmond’s birth announcement in historical S.C. newspapers, I came across a preponderance of material on Strom Thurmond’s early life, beginning with his parent’s 1899 marriage and ending with his college days at Clemson College in 1922. (Chronicling America does not digitize post-1922 materials due to copyright). Remarkably, Strom Thurmond’s life, which spanned the entire 20th century, was documented in newspapers from a very young age until his death at age 100 in 2003.
Strom’s entrance into public life began in a brief article in his hometown newspaper, The Edgefield Advertiser, which ran a short bit on his 7th birthday festivities. Being the son of a local solicitor and prominent Edgefield family, the Advertiser naturally reported on this social occasion, a “very gay and merry scene [of 50] light hearted little folks enjoying their halcyon days” and who joined in to help Strom celebrate in “very becoming style.”
Strom decided at the age of 10 that he would run for governor one day. In a 1978 interview, he said his two favorite things to do growing up were attending court sessions after school and attending campaign stump meetings with his father. The 1912 gubernatorial race, between incumbent Governor Cole Blease and Judge Ira B. Jones, made an indelible impression on young Strom. He recalled that “when Jones and Blease ran and I saw Blease castigate Jones unnecessarily without reason and degrade him, I made up my mind then I was going to run for governor some day” (Documenting the American South, 1978 oral history interview). This 1912 State Campaign meeting article in The Keowee courier gives one an idea of the tenor of the campaign between Blease and Jones.
Perhaps with these aspirations in mind, Strom was quite active in civic and church activities from an early age. At age 10, he participated in a local parade dressed as Little Boy Blue, and at 15, dressed as Uncle Sam he accompanied Lady Liberty in a parade to raise money for the Red Cross during World War I.
During the Christmas of 1912, Strom and fellow children donated Christmas gifts to orphanage children rather than receive presents, as part of a Christmas tableau at the Baptist Church on the true meaning of Christmas. A couple of months later, in 1913, Strom was baptized with 30 other young people at a Baptist Revival, in an article titled a “Very Successful Revival.” At 14, he participated as a cast member in a Cantata on Prohibition at the local Opera House, in which the young people acted out a patriotic campaign against drinking. In 1919, Strom donated 5.00 dollars to the Victory Boys and Girls Club to Aid in the war efforts of World War I.
Even at a young age, Strom knew the value of hard work and a dollar. When he was 4 years old, his father moved the family to a farm in the country so that the Thurmond children could learn the value of hard work by being raised on a farm. Even though he received no allowance, Strom helped with chores like milking the cows and gathering the chickens on their self-sufficient farm. He also earned a little money by raising his own livestock. In a 1978 interview, Strom recalled when he was only 14, he and his brother purchased a small cotton crop from a neighbor who was leaving to fight in WWI. Realizing his brother was not likely to put a lot of sweat equity into the crop, Strom bought his brother out, too, and raised the cotton crop on his own, hoping to set some money aside. He also worked in town clerking at stores and at a garage in the summers, and had several hundred hard-earned dollars saved when he left for college (Documenting the American South, 1978 oral history interview). With these experiences, he was well equipped to read “a splendid selection entitled ‘The Dollar'” at the McDuffie Literary Society when he was only 13 years old.
Throughout his education, Strom excelled with good grades and was involved in numerous school activities. He made the 4th Grade Honor Roll for Edgefield Graded Schools, at age 10, and continued to make the Honor Roll throughout his education. In 1916, Strom won the high school prize at a Spelling Bee sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Later that year, Strom sharpened his oratorical skills on the subject that a “man’s intellect is greater than woman’s” in a debate exercise at the McDuffie Literary Society, in which he nimbly argued in the negative.
The last item in The Edgefield Advertiser that praises Strom Thurmond is a small piece during his senior year when he was “bestowed the honor of being commissioned a first lieutenant of the cadet corps” at Clemson.
As an adult, Thurmond gained his first elected position as Edgefield County Superintendent of Education in 1929 at the age of 27. He became a teacher, an attorney, a judge, fought in WWII, served as Governor of SC (1947-1951), ran unsuccessfully for President as a Dixiecrat (1948), and was one of the longest serving United States Senators in American history (1954-2003). One wonders if Strom Thurmond was born to be a politician given his heavy involvement in his community during his youth or whether Edgefield, known for producing an unusually high number of South Carolina’s governors and statesmen, fostered his desire to serve his community and, later, his state.
There are many more articles about Strom, his father William Thurmond, and his mother’s family the Stroms, in Chronicling America. To find more, search Strom Thurmond, Thurmond, or Strom narrowing your search to South Carolina papers only in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. As always, if you find a real gem of an article, we’d love to hear about it.
To learn more about the SC Digital Newspaper Project, visit us at http://library.sc.edu/digital/newspaper/index.html.
1. Senator Strom Thurmond. Photo courtesy of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=t000254.
2. A circa 1903 baby photograph of Strom Thurmond. Courtesy of Special Collections, Clemson University Libraries, http://www.clemson.edu/library/special_collections/scjstphotos.html.
3. “Charming Little Host,” The Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, S.C.), December 9, 1909.
4. Strom portrayed Uncle Sam to raise money fro the Red Cross during WWI, The Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, S.C.), November 11, 1917.
5. “News Letter from Edgefield Schools,” The Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, S.C.), February 16, 1916.
6. Interview with Strom Thurmond, July 20, 1978. Interview A-0334. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007), Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/A-0334/A-0334.html.
7. Cadet Strom Thurmond at Clemson College, 1922. Courtesy of Special Collections, Clemson University Libraries, http://www.clemson.edu/library/special_collections/scjstphotos.html.