Tracing discriminatory laws to the earthquake of 1886 

The Birth of Jim Crow

We've seen it before: When disaster strikes, people pull together as friends and neighbors in a common cause — at least for a while. Then the old rivalries and social fissures reappear, more virulent than ever.

This was the pattern when Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans in 2005. A brief surge of unity and good will prevailed, then the old racial and class divisions reasserted themselves. Susan Millar Williams saw it in her McClellanville community in the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. When relief goods started arriving, blacks and whites quarreled over who should receive them.

With this experience and what she had read about the 1886 Charleston earthquake in mind, Williams set out with fellow historian Stephen G. Hoffius to explore the social and political ramifications of that long-ago disaster. The recently released Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow is the product of their 12 years of work, and the picture they paint of the Holy City is not flattering.

When buildings started swaying and toppling in the early evening of Aug. 31, 1886, the people of Charleston rushed into the streets, wailing and screaming, as fires broke out around the city. They headed instinctively toward Marion Square, where they would be safe from fire and falling buildings.

Blacks and whites set up camps on opposite sides of the square, Williams told me recently. "That first night ... blacks and whites joined in singing and praying together. It lasted about 24 hours."

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, Charlestonians sought to make sense of what had befallen them. Many middle-class and upper-class whites were happy to accept a rational explanation for the catastrophe, if only because it let them off the hook for any metaphysical responsibility. On the other hand, poor whites and blacks, steeped in their primitive religiosity, were eager to believe that this was God's punishment on a wicked city.

But what sins had so outraged the Almighty? A white Methodist minister intoned to his congregation: "Ice cream gardens, music, and dancing are the popular amusements for the Sabbath afternoons in Charleston." Excursionists, he said, sailed about the harbor on Sundays in "gay and frivolous" abandon.

A white woman told a newspaperman that her sins had brought on her sudden homelessness. "Yes," she said. "I was very worldly. I loved fine dresses and dancing and good living, and this is my punishment."

Blacks, who at the time made up 60 percent of Charleston's population, had a very different understanding of God's wrath. They saw the destruction of this proud old city as its reward for centuries of slavery and oppression. Street preachers sang out and shouted warnings through the night. This quake was the harbinger of apocalypse and judgment. The world would soon be destroyed and Revelation fulfilled.

"The sounds of blacks preaching and singing could be extremely disconcerting to whites," the authors write. "Deprived of other ways to communicate freely, black men and women had long used worship services as a way to register protest ... Now, as the voices of freedmen and their descendants rang out across the city in 1886, whites looked for ways to silence them."

Believers sang and writhed on the ground, as preachers exhorted, "Oh, Gabriel, turn that horn to the land of Egypt on the miserable sinners and not on we."

Williams and Hoffius add, "For whites who couldn't escape such speeches day in and day out, it didn't take too much imagination to suspect that the 'miserable sinners' in question might not be Egyptian."

White citizens and police soon intimidated the preachers and singers into silence.

There were other stresses to the fragile social fabric. As relief poured into the city from around the country, "Affluent whites insisted that providing free food and shelter to the poor would lead to moral breakdown," the authors write. And with the rebuilding of the city, black artisans and craftsmen were able to command high wages, acquiring wealth and status and threatening the social order. As Williams says, "Charlestonians wanted to preserve the status quo above all else. They did not want anyone to get ahead."

In fact, the authors argue in Upheaval in Charleston that the earthquake of 1886 ultimately helped bring out the Jim Crow laws a decade later.

"The earthquake stripped away the edifice of society. It hardened people's hearts," Williams says. "By the end of 1886, any hope of racial conciliation was over."

Susan Williams and Stephen Hoffius will discuss Upheaval in Charleston and the earthquake of 1886 at the Charleston County Public Library on Calhoun Street, Wed. Feb. 29 at 6 p.m.

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