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

By Bergman, Jonathan C. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Bergman, Jonathan C., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow. By Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 340; $29.95, cloth.)

In recent years, scholars have set out to examine a variety of socially dislocating events through the lens of disaster. The literature is varied and deep. Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow contributes to this growing body of scholarship through an examination of the Charleston earthquake of 1886. Susan Millar Williams, instructor of English literature at Trident Technical College, and freelance writer and editor Stephen G. Hoffius chart the physical destruction caused by the earthquake against the backdrop of "a country torn between the fading ideals of racial justice and the lure of white reunion" (p. xiii).

The analytical fulcrum of Upheaval in Charleston hinges on the life and death of Francis Warrington Dawson, a British émigré and editor of the Charleston News and Courier. Williams and Hoffius mobilize his tale as a metaphor for the promise and peril of the southern politics of race in the turbulent years between Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Dawson came to South Carolina during the Civil War, swept up in the "nobility and romance of the Confederacy's ideals" (p. xii). He established himself as a leading citizen of Charleston and proved integral to the disaster-relief effort. As editor of the News and Courier, Dawson was uniquely situated to shape public opinion. However, his views on moving race relations forward were at odds with white southerners, who used the earthquake to maintain racial control and recapture white supremacy. Whites were uncomfortable with the role blacks assumed in rebuilding the city as well as the outside relief monies made available to them. According to Williams and Hoffius, Dawson's murder by Dr. Thomas McDow, a neighbor courting Dawson's au pair, a scant three years after the earthquake represents the dashed hopes of racial progress. McDow's trial and a public storm of opinions both supporting and denouncing Dawson's legacy embodied the conflicting nature of the post-Reconstruction southern experience.

As Williams and Hoffius make clear, the earthquake was not merely a force of nature; it was redolent with social, political, and racial overtones. Southern society was under strain, and the post-disaster environment was a contested place for the palette of regional problems to be laid bare. Williams and Hoffius argue not only that the Dawson murder brought all of these social pressures into full view, but also that the earthquake contributed to the breakdown of race relations. Indeed, their use of the disaster is more than a rhetorical tool. The massive tremor led to a diminution of black rights, lack of economic justice, hardening of social lines, and an effort to roll back racial advances across southern society. Many in Charleston were committed to just that end and took advantage of the earthquake to "change the way society works" (p. …

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