Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow

Overview

On August 31, 1886, a massive earthquake centered near Charleston, South Carolina, sent shock waves as far north as Maine, down into Florida, and west to the Mississippi River. When the dust settled, residents of the old port city were devastated by the death and destruction.

Upheaval in Charleston is a gripping account of natural disaster and turbulent social change in a city known as the cradle of secession. Weaving together the emotionally charged stories of Confederate ...

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Overview

On August 31, 1886, a massive earthquake centered near Charleston, South Carolina, sent shock waves as far north as Maine, down into Florida, and west to the Mississippi River. When the dust settled, residents of the old port city were devastated by the death and destruction.

Upheaval in Charleston is a gripping account of natural disaster and turbulent social change in a city known as the cradle of secession. Weaving together the emotionally charged stories of Confederate veterans and former slaves, Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius portray a South where whites and blacks struggled to determine how they would coexist a generation after the end of the Civil War.

This is also the story of Francis Warrington Dawson, a British expatriate drawn to the South by the romance of the Confederacy. As editor of Charleston’s News and Courier, Dawson walked a lonely and dangerous path, risking his life and reputation to find common ground between the races. Hailed as a hero in the aftermath of the earthquake, Dawson was denounced by white supremacists and murdered less than three years after the disaster. His killer was acquitted after a sensational trial that unmasked a Charleston underworld of decadence and corruption.

Combining careful research with suspenseful storytelling, Upheaval in Charleston offers a vivid portrait of a volatile time and an anguished place.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In 1886 an earthquake devastated Charleston as thoroughly as one did San Francisco 20 years later. South Carolina historians Williams and Hoffius present a vivid account of the disaster and the political aftermath."—Publishers Weekly

"This is a tale of upheaval, in terms of both the earthquake and the politics, as the issue of segregation and Jim Crow became increasingly pressing. Recommended for those who appreciate books on natural disasters, American history, and the secret goings-on of the political world." —Library Journal

"If you are intrigued by Charleston and by a story of earthquake, fire, and murder, then you will love this history of a remarkable man and of a sad, tumultuous period in the city's life."—Erskine Clarke, author of Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic

"A bittersweet portrait of America's bête noire city on the eve of Jim Crow. You come for the story and you leave feeling you've lived it."—Ted Rosengarten

“A compelling account of the most powerful earthquake ever to hit the southeastern United States. Virtually every structure in Charleston and some as distant as central Ohio were damaged. This well-researched, suspenseful narrative weaves a story of how a historic city recovers—with human intrigue and conflict that ends in murder.”—Jack Bass, coauthor of The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina

"It's not simply a meditation on the earthquake and recovery nor is it just the story of the murder of former News and Courier editor Frank Dawson. Rather, it's a synthesis of these two events that, taken together, shed light on a city in a great state of flux: between the end of Reconstruction but before Jim Crow laws made clear that Southern blacks would be relegated to a lower rung." —Charleston Post and Courier

“As the authors show so vividly, ‘natural disasters do not erase old conflicts—they reveal dirty secrets.’ Along the way we learn about a variety of fascinating topics—the history of science, charitable fund-raising, journalism, disaster tourism, urban architecture, Jim Crow segregation and African American activism. And the whole story is capped off with a shocking murder and gripping courtroom testimony: a real page-turner!”—Jacqueline Jones, author of Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War

“[Williams and Hoffius] must be commended for a painstaking and at times gripping reconstruction of the events that began on the night of August 31, 1886. Working largely from primary sources such as diaries, letters, and contemporaneous newspaper accounts, [they] have created a narrative history, intricate and meticulously documented, that reads like a well-plotted novel, largely avoiding the tedium of far too many academic histories.”—Jack Trotter, Chronicles

Publishers Weekly
In 1886 an earthquake devastated Charleston as thoroughly as one did San Francisco 20 years later. South Carolina historians Williams (A Devil and a Good Woman) and Hoffius (co-editor, The Landscape of Slavery) present a vivid account of the disaster and the political aftermath. Civic leaders, including the book's hero, Frank Dawson, the pugnacious but progressive editor of the city's leading newspaper, organized to provide relief. Although widely praised for his effort, Dawson had influential enemies who thought blacks were benefiting disproportionately from the relief effort. Antiblack violence was encouraged by the rising populist, viciously antiblack movement, led in South Carolina by Ben Tillman. Then in a bizarre incident, a neighbor infatuated with his French au pair murdered Dawson in 1889. Elected governor in 1890, Tillman pushed through strict Jim Crow laws. The authors make an unconvincing claim that the quake formed a turning point in the oppression of Southern blacks, but deliver a solid history of an obscure disaster and an enlightening portrait of a Southern city in the final stages of snuffing out black gains from Reconstruction. Illus.; map. (June)
Library Journal
Williams (English, Trident Tech Coll.; A Devil and a Good Woman, Too: The Lives of Julia Peterkin) and Hoffius (coeditor, Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art) describe the major earthquake that crushed Charleston, SC, in 1886 and share stories culled from a gamut of sources, including former slaves and Confederate soldiers, in this exploration of the struggle of blacks and whites to coexist a generation after the Civil War. One figure who tried to bring people together was Francis Warrington Dawson, but his three years of peacemaking efforts ended with his murder. His killer was tried and ultimately walked free. While the destruction caused by the earthquake creates a fitting backdrop for those dangerous times, the authors do not demonstrate that the natural disaster was the springboard for the political events that transpired. They do, however, excel at revealing Charleston's dirty politics. VERDICT This is a tale of upheaval, in terms of both the earthquake and the politics, as the issue of segregation and Jim Crow became increasingly pressing. Recommended for those who appreciate books on natural disasters, American history, and the secret goings-on of the political world.—Krista Bush, Shelton Public Sch., CT
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820344218
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2012
  • Pages: 392
  • Sales rank: 1,370,011
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Millar Williams is the author of A Devil and a Good Woman, Too: The Lives of Julia Peterkin, winner of the Julia Cherry Spruill Award. She teaches American literature and creative writing at Trident Technical College and lives in McClellanville, south Carolina. Stephen G. Hoffius is the author of Winners and Losers, a prize-winning novel for young adults, and coeditor of The Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art and Northern Money, Southern Land: The Lowcountry Plantation Sketches of Chlotilde R. Martin. A freelance author and editor, he lives in Charleston.

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Table of Contents


Preface. Living with Disaster
Chapter One. The Great Shock
Chapter Two. Seeds of Destruction
Chapter Three. "The Earthquake Is upon Us!"
Chapter Four. A World Turned Upside Down
Chapter Five. The Earthquake Hunters
Chapter Six. Aftershocks
Chapter Seven. An Angry God
Chapter Eight. Labor Day
Chapter Nine. "Bury the Dead and Feed the Living"
Chapter Ten. The Comforts of Science
Chapter Eleven. Relief
Chapter Twelve. Waiting for the Apocalypse
Chapter Thirteen. Rising from the Ruins
Chapter Fourteen. The Old Joy of Combat
Chapter Fifteen. Wrapped in the Stars and Stripes
Chapter Sixteen. Fault Lines
Chapter Seventeen. Standing over a Volcano
Chapter Eighteen. Killing Captain Dawson
Chapter Nineteen. The Trial
Epilogue. Rebuilding the Walls

Acknowledgments
Notes
Selected Bibliography
Index

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