As a coastal community, we all know that the threat of a hurricane is imminent. We’re often confronted by images of the devastation — overturned boats, fallen bridges, destroyed homes — inflicted by 1989’s Hurricane Hugo, and we’re all well-versed in what to do if such a disaster strikes again. But since it seems so foreign to our region, it’s easy to forget that we actually have another type of disaster to worry about: We’re smack dab on a fault line that, in the past, produced an epic earthquake that shook our city to its core.
On Aug. 31, 1886, an unexpected quake sent shockwaves all along the East Coast and west to the Mississippi River, leaving Charleston in ruins. Lowcountry authors Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius released Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow on June 1, just months before the 125th anniversary of the quake. “It’s a history not just of the earthquake, but of that whole time period in Charleston’s life,” Hoffius says. “We want people in the Charleston area to take the threat of an earthquake seriously, but as writers we also want people to read the book and realize that it’s a fascinating story with incredible characters.”
The book is a nonfiction account of the disaster — from the event itself to the immediate reaction to racial prejudices of the time — centering on Francis Warrington Dawson, a British expatriate who had fought for the Confederacy, served as editor of The News and Courier, and was murdered less than three years after the quake. Williams and Hoffius spent 11 years researching the earthquake, with nearly a decade dedicated to sorting through microfilm from The News and Courier at the Charleston County Library. They also traveled to Duke University, which houses many of Dawson’s papers, including letters he had written to his wife in Europe. “He wrote to her that things were much worse than he was reporting in the paper,” Hoffius says.
In reality, Charleston was completely devastated by the disaster. During the quake, windows shattered, roofs collapsed, and columns fell. “One scientist has reported that 80 percent of the buildings in Charleston were damaged,” Hoffius says. In addition to coping with the devastation of the town, there was also an incredible struggle between black and white Charlestonians.
The quake occurred just 10 years after the end of Reconstruction. Rather than serving as a heart-warming, Hallmark-esque time in which people from all walks of life — rich and poor, black and white — worked together to make Charleston whole again, the aftermath of the quake illuminated the racial prejudices of the time. White people complained that working-class black people were trying to make too much money — since those who worked with their hands were in high demand — while black people argued that the relief committee, which was formed after the war and would not permit black people to serve, was making them suffer more than they needed to. “The resentment that was there before got worse,” Hoffius says.
But despite the advancements Charleston has made since that time, both politically and architecturally, Hoffius does not believe the city is equipped to handle another earthquake of that magnitude. “If an earthquake as strong as the 1886 one happens again, lots of buildings in Charleston will be damaged,” he says. But he adds, “In 1886 there was no sense that the government had a responsibility to take care of its people. The federal government never sent money. Neither did the state government. People now know that the government is responsible, so they’ll be more helpful.”