John Bolt Culbertson Papers
The Culbertson papers consist of 31 linear feet, bulk 1935 to 1983. The series include Public papers from his term in the South Carolina House of Representatives, Legal papers, and Personal papers, as well as Clippings, Speeches, Audiovisual materials, and Vertical File Materials. Personal files, which comprise the largest part of the collection, incorporate material from Culbertson’s work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, family papers, files regarding events, condolence letters, campaign materials, financial and real estate papers, travel files, and topical files.
The Public papers consist of a small number of files regarding various issues facing the General Assembly during Culbertson’s tenure, 1949 to 1951, among them education, the sales tax, and veterans’ benefits.
The Legal series includes material on Culbertson’s involvement with a number of legal associations, among them the South Carolina Bar, the National Lawyers’ Guild, and the National Association of Claimants’ and Compensation Attorneys, the forerunner to the modern American Association for Justice. Culbertson spoke before the NACCA’s national meeting in 1951, stating that textile manufacturers largely controlled South Carolina’s economy and took advantage of the state’s low wages and lack of unionization. In response, he was denounced by the industry’s Textile Bulletin as an “unsuccessful ambulance chaser.” The series also includes files on Culbertson’s law practice, including calendars, memoranda, and information on his branch office in Rock Hill, out of which he handled many of his labor union cases. The papers show indications of the professional adversity he faced as a result of some of his political opinions and activities.
Of note is a 1959 exchange with J.E. Neily of the West Publishing Company, supplier of some of Culbertson’s legal publications, who wrote about the arrears on his account. Culbertson responded: "Because of the nice tenor of your letter of October 2, 1959, I am taking the time to explain my situation. Ordinarily I would not do this because I have been beaten over the head so much lately that I have become more or less inured to criticism. All my difficulties have come about by reason of the fact that I have taken a public stand in South Carolina in support of the decision of the United States Supreme Court on the matter of integration. I felt that this was the only honorable course I could follow....I never experienced before now what it means to go against local mores and community sentiment, but I can assure you that I have been baptized with fire. Out of self-respect, I was forced to dissolve my partnership. Up to the point of taking this public stand, I had, I think, perhaps the largest workmen’s compensation practice of any attorney in South Carolina, and had several lawyers associated with my firm...But when I took my stand, the business suddenly dropped off... Without any understanding with my partners or associates, I walked out of the office and left everything there...." Neily replied: "...We can appreciate in view of the circumstances outlined in your letter that maintaining the courage of your convictions has been a costly ordeal. It is indeed very gratifying to learn that despite these adversities you are successfully re-establishing yourself in the practice without any sacrifice of your principles to expediency. Certainly we wish to assist you in any way we can and as a practical expression of our desire to be helpful in respect to your law book account we cheerfully declare a moratorium on this obligation until February 1, 1960."
The Legal series also includes topical files on judgeships, the bulk of the material consisting of Culbertson’s efforts for or against various candidates. Also included is a letter, 8 October 1966, from civil rights activist Modjeska Simkins to President Lyndon B. Johnson, suggesting that Culbertson himself be appointed as a federal judge: "Mr. Culbertson fought for civil rights here in South Carolina and from rostrums in many parts of the Nation long before the issue became of national interest. In many of our counties, at the risk of his life, he fought to place and did place Negroes in Jury Service for the first time in history. The cases with racial overtones that no other lawyer, white or black, would accept, he has fought repeatedly....Since the death of Olin D. Johnston, whom we always supported because he remained faithful to the National Party, the only other white Democrat who publicly and unalterably supports the National Party is John Bolt Culbertson....Mr. Culbertson is beloved by all the Negro people here because he has suffered for us, and for that has felt the whiplash of indignity in the same way that we have carried that burden."
The Personal series, the largest in the collection, includes a number of subseries. Campaign files incorporate correspondence, publicity, schedules, invitations, and other documents from Culbertson’s races for public office, from 1940 through 1980. Education files generally postdate Culbertson’s years in school, but provide information about his educational career. A scrapbook with photographs, letters, invitations, and other memorabilia from his college days is included in the collection (housed in Oversized materials). The Events subseries primarily documents gatherings hosted by the Culbertsons, widely known for their hospitality. These events were held in honor of special guests, including judges and out-of-town visitors. The files consist largely of acceptances, regrets, and thank-you notes by attendees and honorees.
Family papers include extensive information about Culbertson’s parents and their home place in Laurens County, as well as correspondence with aunts, cousins, siblings, and children. Of particular interest are Culbertson’s communications with his brother-in-law, Louis Bryan, who worked in Washington, D.C. for a number of years, some of them for Culbertson’s friend, Senator Olin Johnston. Culbertson and Bryan enjoyed discussing the political scene in Washington and South Carolina.
Federal Bureau of Investigation files detail Culbertson’s tenure as a Special Agent in the FBI, circa 1935 to 1937. Files include Bureau memos, forms, and bulletins; documentation of Culbertson’s travels around the Midwest; speeches by J. Edgar Hoover that were distributed among the agents; and worksheets on identifying fingerprints.
Financial and Real Estate files include information about Culbertson’s real estate holdings, including his office buildings and, in particular, the impressive home he built over a number of years on Richbourg Road in Greenville, referred to occasionally as “Culbertson Castle.” Culbertson took great interest in its construction and furnishing, and many visitors remarked on the unique house, such that he printed up a card describing the house’s history to provide to guests: "Shortly after the Civil War my grandfather, Young Culbertson, built a rock dam across Reedy River in Laurens County.... As a young boy, I became fascinated with rocks and, as the years passed, I marveled at the ingenuity and hard work that my grandfather exercised with primitive tools and manpower in accomplishing this feat.... I began gathering rock at every opportunity, wherever I might be, and hauling them, mostly in my automobile, and stockpiling them until I could get enough to begin. It has not been an easy task but, on the other hand, it has been very rewarding and satisfying.... kept my eyes open for salvage sales when...buildings were being razed, and have been able to utilize these materials rather effectively....Naturally, there are a few ‘booboos’ in construction, as we did not have an architect and I did most of the designing myself without having had any special training for this, but we tried to incorporate sound building principles, and we feel that the building should stand for a long, long time. We take pleasure in conducting little tours for our guests, and hope that you can share with us some of the enjoyment that we have. The John Bolt Culbertson Family."
Funeral and Condolences files document the outpouring of condolence letters, flowers, and cards received by the family following Culbertson’s death, as well as a eulogy delivered at his funeral. There is also information about the South Carolina branch of the ACLU’s posthumous naming of an award in his honor.
Medical files primarily consist of get-well cards and correspondence during several hospitalizations, with some additional material detailing Culbertson’s periodic travel to Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in 1982 and 1983 as he battled cancer.
Travel files contain information on Culbertson’s travel, including family trips as well as travel to some trials, speaking appearances, and conferences.
The Topical subseries, the largest in the Personal series, documents Culbertson’s many interests and activities. There are extensive Persons files, containing much of his correspondence with well-known figures such as Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt, and others whom he counted among his friends, including Judge J. Waties Waring, Modjeska Simkins, Olin Johnston, and Hubert Humphrey. Culbertson’s relationship with Judge and Mrs. Waring seems to have begun when, in response to the Warings’ critical public remarks about South Carolinians, the General Assembly approved a resolution to purchase the Warings one-way tickets out of the state. This symbolic move was deplored by Culbertson, then a legislator. He personally apologized to the couple and they struck up a correspondence of many years. In 1951, Judge Waring wrote him: “We are thrilled at your magnificent courage and persistency in supporting the right and decency of citizens in this state and we are thrilled to hear how unwavering you and the very few who are with you have been...”
Culbertson also wrote frequently to Senators Johnston and Humphrey to report on the political situation in Greenville and South Carolina. He described his own activities, passed on local chatter and behind-the-scenes information, and gave perspective on what he perceived as a bias or monopoly among local Greenville media and political leadership. In October 1952, he wrote Humphrey, “We have just concluded a state-wide convention of the NAACP which was held here in Greenville, S.C. Both my [law] partner and I, for the first time in the history of the state, appeared as white participants in panel discussions.... We are having a lot of trouble with the Dixiecrats and Jimmy Byrnes but I am confident that South Carolina will remain in the Democratic column in November and that gradually we will drive these die-hard Dixiecrats into the Republican Party where they belong.”
The subseries also documents Culbertson’s non-legal activities in the labor movement, including his communications and involvement with numerous unions and files on issues such as the labor law reform effort of 1977, on which he testified before Congress. Files on the Southern Workers Association detail an endeavor by Culbertson and others to establish a new local labor union in 1949 and 1950. There is also material pertaining to the 1970s boycott of the J.P. Stevens Company, in protest of the company’s apparent coercion of its employees to vote against unionization, and particularly on the Textile Workers Union of America and Culbertson’s close friendships with several local union representatives.
Files pertaining to Culbertson’s civil rights activism document his extensive volunteer work and speaking tour on behalf of the NAACP, his close friendships with local members and officials, his being threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, and his support of the African-American press in and outside of South Carolina. Among his associates in the NAACP was Esau Jenkins, chairman of the Johns Island chapter, who wrote in 1955 asking for help with the repercussions of his activism in Charleston County: “Dear Lawyer Culbertson: As you go around in the State or elsewhere, please, if you heard of any opening for teachers write my daughters Mrs. Ethel J. Grimball or Mrs. Marie J. Jones, at the above address. Both of these girls finish college with their degrees....the Princaple [sic] came and told me that my daughters will not be able to get the job again because of the Stand I took with the N.A.A.C.P.”
In 1960, Culbertson nominated Jenkins and another local activist, Joe Orr, for the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Florina Lasker Civil Liberties Award, writing, “It is well and good to make awards to people like Thurgood Marshall, Reverend Martin Luther King, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and a host of others in this category, but sometimes, I think we should recognize that some of the greatest work is performed by little-known and obscure individuals whose work at the grass roots level at terrific personal sacrifice and with great courage, do[es] a job that must be done by someone if the real battle is ever to be won. Their accumulative efforts really build up to where prominent people can do a little, yet apparently accomplish much, but with no recognition going to the people in the background who have made it possible....”
Culbertson subscribed to, promoted, and suggested news items for a number of publications whose readership was primarily African-American, notably John McCray’s Lighthouse and Informer, the most significant such publication in the state. Culbertson wrote to Walter Reuther, then president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), in 1953: “As I sat next to Mr. [Thurgood] Marshall before the program started I had an opportunity to discuss Mr. McCray’s critical financial situation with him and told him I had written you...soliciting some backing for Mr. McCray in order that his paper, with more than eight thousand paid subscriptions, would not fold up at so critical a period in our struggle for full citizenship for all people of South Carolina....I trust that you will pardon my persistence in presenting the facts of this matter to you, but time is awfully important and I sincerely hope that your organization can come to Mr. McCray’s rescue. If you cannot make an outright subsidy perhaps you would be willing to make a loan which several of my friends and I will be willing to underwrite, if necessary.”
The Speeches and Media series consists primarily of speech texts, mostly from Culbertson’s radio broadcasts during his 1951 race for mayor. Although he spoke dozens of times on behalf of the NAACP, it appears most of these speeches were not drafted ahead of time. He wrote in 1957, “I find a written speech loses some of its spark and sparkle that one can give an extemporaneous speech. I have heretofore almost been speaking off the cuff.” The series also includes his letters to the editor on various topics, and public service announcements and advertisements run by Culbertson.
The Clippings series is composed of news articles that mention Culbertson or his family, circa 1930 to 1983.
The Audiovisual materials consist mostly of photographs and audiotape reels. Photographs include portraits, family photos, images of Culbertson’s home, and Culbertson at speaking engagements and other events. The audiotapes, where labeled, include speeches and court appearances. A DVD, containing news coverage of Culbertson’s death and footage of his funeral in 1983, is also present.
Vertical File Materials contain information gathered by SCPC relating to Culbertson and may duplicate information already present in the collection.
Note: Many brittle documents, primarily carbons of outgoing correspondence, as well as moldy documents, have been copied and the originals discarded. A few selected documents in Topical, with incidental information about legal cases, have been copied and redacted.
- circa 1886 - 2012
- Culbertson, John Bolt, 1908-1983 (Person)
Library use only
31 Linear Feet
John Bolt Culbertson, lawyer and activist, was a "liberal lion" of South Carolina's Upstate for most of the twentieth century, establishing a law practice in which he represented unions, the working class, disabled veterans, African-Americans, and others in need of a voice—many of whom could not afford to pay him. His outspokenness and his political leanings, atypical for South Carolina at that time, resulted in financial setbacks, insults, and even crosses burned on his lawn, but Culbertson was largely undaunted.
"The thing that made John Bolt Culbertson so unique was his concept of belonging and responsibility. He identified himself with many whom others might have excluded…. John Bolt looked about him and saw those who were hungry for recognition, thirsty for full humanity, naked in their vulnerability, sick in their condition, in prison by being hemmed in and shut out and he ministered to these."
~ Rev. Bryan Crenshaw, in a eulogy for Culbertson, March 1983
"I have long since learned that I can benefit with contact with any person and I respect any honest opinion held by any other individual. I am quite sure in my own mind that I do not have all the answers, if any of the answers, but I am struggling to find the truth." ~ John Bolt Culbertson, 1956
John Bolt Culbertson, lawyer and activist, was a “liberal lion” of South Carolina’s Upstate for most of the twentieth century, establishing a law practice in which he represented unions, the working class, disabled veterans, African-Americans, and others in need of a voice—many of whom could not afford to pay him. His outspokenness and his political leanings, atypical for South Carolina at that time, resulted in financial setbacks, insults, and even crosses burned on his lawn, but Culbertson was largely undaunted. At the same time, he was acknowledged by friend and adversary alike as sincere and forthright in his activism. Early South Carolina Republican Albert Watson wrote to Culbertson in 1971 of a common feeling among many of his friends—that “while a person may disagree with your political party or philosophy, no one would ever question the sincerity and integrity of John Bolt Culbertson.”
Culbertson, a native of Laurens County, was born on September 16, 1908, one of thirteen children of J.D. and Lucia Bolt Culbertson. His family had first settled in the area around the time of the Revolutionary War. Culbertson’s father had been a public school teacher and carried on a variety of enterprises, including a cotton gin and a grist mill, as well as a sizable farm, although the family was hit hard by the Depression. Despite his family’s financial difficulties, John Bolt was determined to get an education. He attended the local two-room New Prospect School and graduated from Laurens High School in 1927. While in high school, he completed courses in stenography, inspired by the example of James F. Byrnes, who worked his way up in the world after beginning as a self-taught court reporter.
Culbertson enrolled at the University of South Carolina and began working his way through school via various jobs, including delivering newspapers and waiting tables. “It was during these years,” he later wrote, “that I formed liberal thoughts and developed great sympathy for the underprivileged and made a dedication of my life towards alleviating these conditions if at all possible.” He also began working summers as a secretary for Fourth District Congressman John J. McSwain, with whom he became close. Despite paying his own way through school, he still found time to be an active member of his class, serving as class president in his junior year and leading the Clariosophic Literary Society, as well as emerging as a leading debater in the state.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Culbertson entered USC’s law school. A profile circa 1930 illustrates his determination: “‘I intend to be a lawyer,’ he says as the fire of ambition lights up his face. ‘I have always wanted to be a lawyer and I intend making good or starving in the attempt…But I intend to be an honest lawyer. I had rather be a poor, unsuccessful lawyer than to be a successful one who is called upon to depart from the right path.’” For a time during law school, he worked nights for the Federal Land Bank’s legal department. He graduated with his law degree in 1934.
Around this time, perhaps due to his connections in Washington, Culbertson had the opportunity to become a special agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. From 1935 to 1937, during J. Edgar Hoover’s “War on Crime,” Culbertson was stationed in the Midwest, including stopovers in Nebraska, Iowa, and Michigan. He later cited his time in Detroit, where he had the chance to observe closely the clashes between automobile manufacturers and the newly-formed United Auto Workers, as an experience that deepened his existing sympathy for the working class.
Culbertson returned to South Carolina around 1937 to establish a law practice in Greenville. His stationery proudly advertised his role as an “Attorney and Labor Counselor.” He became president of the South Carolina Young Democrats, and in 1940, made an unsuccessful bid for the South Carolina House of Representatives, with a platform including “$30 a month for Aged, Blind, Helpless, and Widows with Dependent Children...Free Hospitalization for Those Who Cannot Afford to Pay.” Around the same time, he married his first wife, Ellie Barbare, a teacher and social worker, with whom he later adopted a child, John Dennis. After the death of his first wife following a long illness, Culbertson married Mary Symmes Thomason. Their children included Nancy, Patrick, Symmes, and Manning.
In 1943, Culbertson was drafted into the Army and served in the infantry and as an investigator for the duration of World War II. As with many who served in WWII and observed the unequal treatment of white and African-American soldiers by their own compatriots, Culbertson seems to have been galvanized by the experience to speak up more actively on the subject of racial discrimination: “[S]hortly after my discharge from the U.S. Army in 1945, although a member of the White race, with ancestors dating back to the American Revolution, I resolved to take an active part in trying to rectify some of the many, many wrongs that had been inflicted upon the Black race.”
Returning to Greenville and his law practice, Culbertson found his convictions at times coming into conflict with his career and personal relationships. In 1947, he agreed to join the team of defense attorneys in the criminal case of 28 white men accused of lynching Willie Earle, a black man charged with killing a white cab driver in Greenville. The case was highly publicized, with national journalists in attendance at the trial, including the well-known author and critic Rebecca West. The defendants were acquitted. Culbertson later regretted his participation, calling it “the only instance that I have ever been ashamed of my role as attorney” and telling a journalist, “After the [Earle] trial I decided life wouldn’t have any real meaning unless a man was willing to make a sacrifice for the things he believed in and to stand up for his convictions…I had a submerged but conscious awareness of this whole idea in the service [during WWII], but it hadn’t really crystallized. If I was willing to give my life—which I was—for the idea of freedom in other countries, I ought to be willing as a citizen to give real meaning to the slogans of democracy at home.”
In 1948, Culbertson made another run at elective office, beating a crowded field to win a seat in the General Assembly, where he quickly took on a role supporting the interests of the working class. He was mocked in the press as a “gadfly,” as “outspoken and oft-spoken” in his comments and complaints on the House floor. However, he helped lead the legislature to passage of the first occupational disease law in South Carolina and actively supported veterans’ benefits, in keeping with his other role as post commander of the Greenville chapter of the Disabled American Veterans. He was defeated in his re-election bid in 1950, but worked energetically for his good friend Senator Olin D. Johnston’s successful campaign that year against Democratic challenger Strom Thurmond. Culbertson next turned his attention to the 1951 race for mayor of Greenville, in which his platform was largely based on putting a stop to police brutality and city government cronyism and helping textile mill workers. Although unsuccessful in his campaign, it offered him a venue for speaking publicly about his views, including twice-a-day radio broadcasts.
Around this time, Culbertson became involved with the NAACP. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he was on the road many weekends to speak before local and regional branches of the group and to recruit new members. He also worked in his legal capacity to try to force admission of African-Americans to South Carolina’s jury pools, and continued his representation of labor unions, laborers, and victims of discrimination. His efforts led to a profile in the July 1956 issue of Ebony magazine, proclaiming him “The South’s Bravest White Man,” which also detailed some of the setbacks he endured to his legal career and social life as a result of his principles.
In the 1960s Culbertson continued his active legal practice and his activism. As the civil rights movement progressed and gained momentum, he became recognized as one who had been ahead of his time, and he seemed to take satisfaction in the direction of national politics. He attempted to draw attention to what he saw as the Republicans in Democrats’ clothing that were prevalent in South Carolina politics, as opposed to true “national Democrats.” Partially as a result, he ran for Congress in a special election in 1965 and for the U.S. Senate in 1966 and 1968, the last time against U.S. Senator Ernest F. Hollings. Culbertson objected to some of Hollings’ decisions in his first two years in the Senate, particularly his vote against Thurgood Marshall’s nomination to the Supreme Court, although Culbertson later became a strong backer of Hollings and enjoyed a friendly correspondence with him. Culbertson also ran for office in 1972 (U.S. Senate), 1974 (governor), 1978 (U.S. Senate), and 1980 (Congress), challenging the establishment candidates, organization, and platform of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and taking a stand against exorbitant filing fees. Although none of these races resulted in his election, he took pride in the impact he had in the races as a protest candidate and a voice for liberal causes.
Later in life, Culbertson focused on issues such as worker’s compensation and attempts to organize the labor forces of the South’s textile mills. He took part in a documentary, Testimony: Justice v. J.P. Stevens, which depicted some of the alleged abuses by textile giant J.P. Stevens against workers injured on the job. He also represented a number of citizens of Jasper County, the battleground in many of his earlier civil rights lawsuits, who protested the condemnation of their personal and church property in order to build a highway interchange.
Culbertson suffered some health setbacks in his later years and was eventually diagnosed with cancer. He fought the disease vigorously, traveling periodically to Houston’s M.D. Anderson Hospital for aggressive treatment, before passing away in March 1983. Among the many messages of condolence sent to his family was a moving tribute by Greenville native and civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson, who wrote:
"We are saddened and the nation is lesser for the loss of John Bolt Culbertson, as one who anticipated the civil rights revolution of the 60s, Attorney Culbertson moved ahead to lead the South and the nation with rare courage and persistence. Believing that black and poor people were also the intended beneficiaries of the total legal protections embodied in the U.S. Constitution. I am proud to say that we were fellow South Carolinians, but more than this, that we were brothers and that his battle to reshape the American body politic that it might became and [sic] open republic with democratic rights to all of its citizens, touched and influenced my own pilgrimage to seek justice in this nation. He took the path less traveled heedless of danger or inconvenience. That is why in death as in life he represented the highest and best our world can offer."
Donated by the Culbertson family.
Copyright of the John Bolt Culbertson Papers has been transferred to the University of South Carolina.
Processed by Dorothy Walker, 2012.
- African Americans -- Civil rights -- Southern States.
- African Americans -- South Carolina.
- Civil rights -- United States.
- Civil rights movements -- Southern States -- History -- 20th century.
- Johnston, Olin D. (Olin Dewitt), 1896-1965
- Labor unions -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
- Lawyers -- United States.
- Prisoners -- Legal status, laws, etc -- United States.
- South Carolina -- Politics and government -- 1951-
- Textile factories.
- Culbertson, John Bolt, 1908-1983 (Person)
- Humphrey, Hubert H. (Hubert Horatio), 1911-1978 (Correspondent, Person)
- Simkins, Modjeska Monteith, 1899-1992 (Correspondent, Person)
- Waring, Julius Waties, 1880-1968 (Correspondent, Person)
- Jackson, Jesse, 1941- (Correspondent, Person)
- McCray, John Henry, 1910-1987 (Correspondent, Person)
Part of the South Carolina Political Collections Repository
Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library
1322 Greene St.
University of South Carolina
Columbia SC 29208 USA
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