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

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

Susan Millar Williams & Stephen G. Hoffius. Univ. of Georgia, $29.95 (392p) ISBN 978-0-8203-3715-9

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)