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Dec. 12, 2022

The Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893

On August 27, 1893, a massive hurricane struck the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, battering the Sea Islands and Lowcountry through the next morning. Around 2,000 people in the thriving African American community perished that night, and many more died in the coming days and weeks as the impacts of the storm continued to be felt. The Red Cross, led by Clara Barton, organized relief efforts in conjunction with the local communities but with little money, as  both the state legislature and the US Congress declined appeals to help.

Joining me to help us understand more about this 1893 hurricane and how it affected the course of South Carolina politics is Dr. Caroline Grego, Assistant Professor of History at Queens University of Charlotte, and author of Hurricane Jim Crow: How the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 Shaped the Lowcountry South.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is: “Black women prepare potatoes for planting, February 1894,” from Clara Barton, The Red Cross, 199; the image is in the public domain.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.

Today, we're discussing the Sea Islands hurricane of 1893. One of the deadliest hurricanes in United States history. The Sea Islands hurricane started as a tropical storm that formed over the Atlantic Ocean on August 15, 1893. By August 19, it had become a hurricane, meaning its maximum sustained winds had reached at least 75 miles per hour. On August 22, the storm was northeast of the Lesser Antilles,  and it reached category three status on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, defined as a maximum sustained winds of 111 to 129 miles per hour. After leaving the Bahamas, the storm moved north along the southern coast of the United States, finally making landfall near Savannah, Georgia on August 27. At landfall, the storm was at least a category three, but may have intensified to a category four or five. The storm surge, the temporary rise in the water level, was at least 16 feet, and may have been up to 30 feet in some places along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Such a large storm surge can knock over people and property and it creates extreme flooding conditions. During the night of August 27 into August 28, the hurricane battered the coast, especially the Sea Islands, a chain of tidal and barrier islands along the coast that had been a haven for African Americans since the Civil War. The 1866 Freedmen's Bureau Bill had given some Black southerners the opportunity to buy forfeited land on the Sea Islands at $1.25 per acre. Nearly 2000 families took advantage of this and owned land on the Sea Islands, where they built farms and schools. It was these communities most threatened by the hurricane. Some of the Sea Islands were entirely submerged by the storm that night, as the high tide and full moon combined with the hurricane in deadly force. Several islands near Beaufort, including Kiawah Island and Sullivan's Island were under four to 20 feet of water. The hurricane pounded the Sea Islands for hours from Sunday afternoon through Monday morning, and many residents had little hope of making it to safety, especially in the darkness of night. Families were forced to shelter at home, not knowing if their houses could withstand the storm. Those who opted to leave would run to shelter on the highest ground they could, crowding into houses along with dozens of their neighbors. Some of those who couldn't make it to a neighbor's house climbed up into oak trees, sometimes tying themselves to the branches to keep from being swept away. Others found refuge in boats trying to ride out the storm in small crafts. Some especially brave boaters used their ships to save as many people as they could find, bringing them to safety before heading out again. Many did not survive the night. Counting the dead was an immense challenge, but likely around 2000 people died during that single night. And many more perished in the coming days and weeks from injury, illness or starvation caused by the hurricane. The overwhelming majority of those who died from the storm were African American. On Monday, August 28, those who did survive in Beaufort County witnessed the massive destruction caused by the storm. Every structure in the area was damaged if not completely destroyed. In Charleston, city employees got to work clearing away the damage, removing over 7500 loads of debris. They were aided by 10 chain gangs of convict laborers, people who had been convicted of misdemeanors, a reminder that the Emancipation Proclamation hadn't freed everyone. Throughout the Sea Islands, it wasn't just debris that needed to be cleared, but bodies as well, as survivors continued to find the remains of their neighbors and loved ones while they cleaned up from the storm. Both drinking water and crops were contaminated by salt from the storm surge and the threat of starvation and illness was omnipresent. Finally, on October 1, over a month after the hurricane hit, the American Red Cross led by Clara Barton arrived to assist with the recovery. The Red Cross set up a warehouse in Beaufort and organized the relief efforts. Committee men from across the Sea Islands came to collect rations weekly to redistribute in their local communities. The rations were meager, and the Red Cross also provided boats and nets to families who could fish, crop seeds to plant, and tools to help families prepare the land for farming. Local Black women collaborated with the Red Cross, forming sewing circles to make useful items out of the donated clothing. In the end, the Red Cross stayed for 10 months, hoping the recovery was far enough along that the people of the Sea Islands would be able to support themselves going forward. The relief efforts had been supported by a shoestring budget of donations when both the South Carolina State Legislature and the US Congress declined appeals for help. Joining me now to help us understand more about this 1893 hurricane is Dr. Caroline Grego, Assistant Professor of History at Queen's University of Charlotte, and author of "Hurricane Jim Crow: How the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 Shaped the Lowcountry South," which was the source for much of this introduction. But first, I'll leave you with a firsthand account of the hurricane from a diary written by Margaret Weary, as quoted in a 2006 article in "Economic History." "I was so busy that evening cooking supper and never minded the wind and rain, nor the great roaring of waves till I looked out through the shutter and saw the sea all around the house. Then we were frightened, as we saw the waves rushing up to the door. Ma seized my little sister, Grace, wrapped her in a blanket, and ran to a neighbor's house on the hill. Brother and I jumped out into the water and ran as fast as we could. But I fell down into the water. My brother picked me up and we pressed on through the waves till we reached the house where Ma was. The water had come up all around that house too, and so we had to run to another up on higher land, and there stayed all night. Next morning, we went home. But there was no house there, nor anything left. All had been washed away into the marsh and the sedge and the seaweed were piled up or all around higher than my head. We saw dead cats and dogs, dead horses and hogs all along the shore, and some dead men and women and children. We saw one dead woman holding on to a timber of her house by her teeth." Hi, Caroline, thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Caroline Grego  10:22  
Thank you so much for having me, Kelly. I'm really excited to be here.

Kelly Therese Pollock  10:26  
Yes. So I am very interested in learning more about this 1893 hurricane. I will admit I live in Chicago, my primary point of reference for 1893 is the World's Fair. So it's good to learn what else was happening in the country then. But before we jump into that, could you tell me a little bit about how you got interested in this topic? And this, I think came out of your dissertation, and so how you decided to write about this event.

Dr. Caroline Grego  10:54  
So I grew up in South Carolina, and though I grew up in the capital of Columbia, I had family on the coast. And of course, living and growing up in South Carolina, you're familiar with the approach of hurricane season and the anticipation of it. And while South Carolina itself does not necessarily take direct hits from hurricanes as frequently as you might think, it is something that sort of looms over the experience of living there. It did take me a while to come back to South Carolina history. When I started my PhD at CU Boulder, I was lucky to have started digging back into it at that point, and to encounter Peter H. Wood at Boulder too, who of course, is a renowned historian of colonial South Carolina, and who was delighted to have a South Carolinian to talk history with there. And so Peter and I talked a lot about about South Carolina history. And we talked one day started talking about hurricanes. And this one came up as this incredibly deadly and impactful event, but one that perhaps had been underwritten about, especially given the sort of level of its impact, the fact that there is the deadliest hurricane in South Carolina history. And this got me thinking about it. The early 1890s in South Carolina, especially in the Lowcountry, this coastal region of South Carolina, was a very important time for a few reasons, in part because, of course, the rest of the state had had its African American oriented civil rights overthrown at the end of Reconstruction in 1876. But coastal South Carolina was slightly different. It had very high rates of African American land ownership, African Americans in the Lowcountry still voted in elections. But of course, in the early 1890s, things are starting to shift. This is in part because of the election in 1890, of a rabidly racist Governor known as Benjamin Ryan Tillman, and because I was also aware that in 1895, South Carolina passes what's known as its Jim Crow constitution, the one that essentially overturns all the reforms that reconstruction had introduced into South Carolina, and also ensures the passage of discriminatory voting laws and segregation laws and so forth in the state. And it seems like very provocative time then to have this massive hurricane that kills 1000s of African Americans in the very region that was sort of the last bulwark against this white supremacist wave that had overtaken the rest of the state. And this got me curious for a few reasons, in part because, of course, the Lowcountry today is a very fraught region. It's one where you have a great deal of privatization of the Sea Islands. It's one where of course, there's a great deal of whitewashing of the region's history of slavery. And it's one that is also being threatened by the climate crisis. You know, Charleston deals with significant flooding events far more frequently than it used to. And so one of the questions then too, is, how did it get that way? And a hurricane, a massively deadly one, striking at this time, and bringing in these economic, social, and political changes, or at least coinciding with them, seemed very interesting to me, and set up this question of, "Well, is there a connection between this hurricane in 1893 and the Lowcountry that I grew up seeing, and visiting and seeing family out and so forth?" And that got me down the path of wanting to investigate this more. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  14:24  
Yeah. And so you're talking about how huge, how impactful this is. And to set this up for people, this is around the scale of like Katrina that people might remember. Right. So that's about the size we're looking at.

Dr. Caroline Grego  14:36  
That's almost exactly the size, honestly. Katrina and this hurricane are tied for fourth deadliest hurricane in US history, actually. Now, of course, getting accurate death counts with all hurricanes is very difficult. And often it's very hard to get a completely accurate reading. And that's definitely true with this hurricane. Estimates sort of range from about 1500 to as many as 5000. 5000, though, as a high count would incorporate deaths that occurred after the hurricane from sickness, starvation, to sort of long standing injuries and so forth too. But in any case, yes, that's absolutely sort of the scale of the storm as well. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  15:17  
And so, to sort of help people understand what what a hurricane striking, we all sort of have images in our minds, probably of more recent hurricanes. But then, so there's not like an early warning system in the same way that there is today. These are people living on the edge of poverty, in some cases, in as you mentioned, the low lying regions. So it's hard to and they're on islands. So it's hard to escape, even if you knew you had to escape. So talk about that, that one night, that terrible, terrible event itself and what that was like for people?

Dr. Caroline Grego  15:53  
Sure. So yes, there there is no early warning system. What the US had in 1893, they did have a weather bureau, and they did have agents stationed at specific weather stations around the country. And in South Carolina, of course, they have one in Charleston and the man staffing it is named Louis Jesonoski, and Jesonoski was an avid weather watcher. But at the time, of course, there's not much for determining the arrival of the hurricane beyond shifts in barometric pressure, keeping a close eye on the horizon, and trying to get reports in from, say, the Caribbean to hear if perhaps there were storm warnings in other islands further south, that then might potentially lead to one hitting South Carolina as well. So that's what's changed. You have the telegraph, but otherwise, you have these fairly sort of crude elements of weather watching that have existed for quite a long time. Now, Jesonoski, of course, does his best, right? He he keeps a very close eye on the horizon. He starts to note, for example, that there's this haze sort of cast over the ocean. This is in part because there were actually other hurricanes deep in the Atlantic at the same time. But this let him know that there was at the very least, bad weather brewing there, and he needed to be very watchful of the horizon itself. Jesonoski, does also get some early reports from ship captains who are straggling into ports in the Caribbean warning of a hurricane that seemed very dangerous off the coast. But of course, he doesn't have radar, he doesn't know where it's going to turn, he doesn't know where this is going to go. And in fact, his bosses don't think that the hurricane he's been getting reports of are going to lead to anything significant. But Jesonoski disagrees. He knows that there's a low pressure front that he feels sure will help turn the hurricane towards South Carolina. And so he does raise warning flags. But this is only within peninsular Charleston, just in the downtown immediate area. This kind of warning doesn't exist anywhere else on the coast of South Carolina. Right? It isn't as though rural African Americans living on say St Helena Island, or Daufuskie receive any warning whatsoever. The only warning that your everyday resident of the coast gets is the fact that on the Saturday before the hurricane strikes, it's starting to be a little stormy. And the winds rise in this specific way and start to you know, they don't stay constant, right, they start coming in from different directions. So people would have noticed this. And by the next day, the Sunday, people are still going to church that morning. They're not really letting this bad weather that's starting to creep in disrupt their daily routine, but by the afternoon, it's undeniable and people would have known and did know, there was undoubtedly a storm, a dangerous storm starting to approach. But yes, this this preparation is is very difficult. Your best bet was knowing where the most solid house in the neighborhood was, and hoping they might let you in, was knowing where the highest ground to be located if you were on one of these low lying Sea Islands, and once again, hoping that you could make it to that high ground before a storm surge overtook the islands themselves. Now, of course, there are ways of sort of discerning hurricanes that are less sort of prosaic than this too, that come from longtime African American observations and experiences on the coast. One comes from the mosquito fleet of Charleston, the mosquito fleet where African American fishermen who went out into Charleston Harbor and beyond every day to catch fish and bring it back in so called because they often had tan and beige sails. They looked like little mosquitoes hovering over the water. And one of the ways that they knew bad weather was coming was if fish escaped down into the depths. And this was a sign that they were trying to sort of escape turbulence on the surface. There are other, you know, there's a story I recount there about an African American rice worker who said that he saw the moon on all four points of the compass, and explained to the white landowner who he worked for that he was able to see those signs, because he was pure of heart, and that the white landowner was not, because he did not have that same purity in his heart, which I always took sort of a commentary on the exploitative system of labor that still existed in South Carolina at the time. So these are some of the ways that they know the hurricane is coming. But that doesn't give you much forewarning. It isn't as though there were hurricane shelters they could go to and it isn't as though evacuation was something that was possible, either. You had to simply know what your immediate environments were and try to use that to your advantage. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  20:46  
And what are the sources that you were able to use to talk about sort of what that night itself was like?

Dr. Caroline Grego  20:53  
So the particular chapter we're talking about is chapter two in the book, and this was the hardest chapter to write. I probably have written about eight different versions or more of this chapter. It has bedeviled me probably since 2016, when I first began to try to draft it. And part of it is because I'm not lacking for sources in writing this chapter. There's actually quite thorough documentation of this particular hurricane within South Carolina archives, which is mostly where I looked, though UNC Chapel Hill, I believe, also had some first hand accounts that I used. So there are all kinds of sources. I believe I sort of opened with diary excerpts from well to do white women. You have a number, of course of newspaper accounts, that did collect sort of firsthand accounts from both African Americans and white South Carolinians, talking about their experience of living through the hurricane. You have Louis Jesenoski's records as well. And you have people who recognize the importance of this hurricane, and wrote accounts of it afterwards, that were then either published or included in their personal papers that happened to be preserved in various archives around South Carolina. So yes, I again, I was spoiled for sources. And honestly, that's more difficult. It brings new challenges in a certain way. Not more difficult, but different difficult, right? Because you have to figure out how to sort through all those voices. How do you know what to prioritize? How do you figure out what to include? And how do you put this together in something that's even remotely cohesive? So so yes, again, I'm I was blessed with a wide variety. But that was also a great challenge too.

Kelly Therese Pollock  22:36  
Yeah, well, what you ended up with is not just cohesive, but compelling. It really like felt like I was there, you know, like, you could imagine the the movie version of it. So it really worked. So there's this devastation and like all hurricanes, we're very familiar with this. Even in the current day, there's this sort of political thing that takes over about how do you respond to a hurricane? And who gets the response? And who gets the help? And in what ways? I think anyone who saw what happened after Katrina, or Maria, you know, is well aware that that this still happens. But of course, it happened devastatingly in South Carolina. So can you talk a little bit about that that political picture you mentioned, Governor Tillman, he's really important in this piece of it, what what happens?

Dr. Caroline Grego  23:25  
So one thing to keep in mind is that disaster relief in 1893 looked quite different than it does today. So today, of course, there's an entire federal federal bureaucracy dedicated to handling major disasters of this sort. Now, that doesn't say they always do it, of course, well, we all know this. But there was at least a centralized process. In 1893, there was not. Instead, it was often left to the states to deal with disaster relief. And sometimes politicians from that state could apply to Congress for emergency monies, if they could prove that, for example, there was a public health crisis that required federal attention. But this was, of course, piecemeal, right, and you might not get it. And it was not an automatic process that was triggered. Politicians had to seek this out. And of course, that depended on all sorts of other factors, whether these politicians could be bothered to care about the population that was struck, whether other politicians around the country could be bothered to care as well. It was not something that could be relied on. So in South Carolina after the hurricane hits, there are a few scales at which you do see disaster response. Part of this, yes, comes from Governor Tillman. And Tillman actually, and there is a World Fair connection here. He was coming back from the Chicago World's Fair because of this hurricane. So he had just been there, he returned and needed to figure out what to do. So Tillman, in addition to being generally rabidly racist, and therefore very hostile towards the Black majority Lowcountry, he was also very hostile towards white, the white elite of the Lowcountry too. He was not from that region. He thought of them as sort of stuck up and snobbish and he wanted very little to do with them. So, Tillman is not inclined in any way to provide or lobby for much assistance for this, but it's a significant enough tragedy that he feels obligated to at least make some kind of an effort. So he essentially ends up punting it to local relief committees that form primarily in Charleston, known as the Charleston Relief Committee, and one in Beaufort, which is called the Sea Island Rrelief Committee. And there are a bunch of other small committees around the state that usually end up as sort of fundraising arms that funnel money to those two committees. The Charlson Committee though, and the Sea Island Relief Committee are two very different entities. The Charleston Relief Committee is primarily staffed by the white elite of the city, businessmen and merchants, descendants of slave owning families, and so forth. Confederate veterans, all sort of staff the ranks of the trust and belief committee, whereas the Sea Island   Relief Committee in Beaufort is integrated, and comprised of sort of progressive whites and local African American leaders, including the famed Civil War veteran Robert Smalls, who might be a name familiar to folks as a former slave who famously piloted a boat with his family, past Confederate forts during the Civil War itself. And he was a politician who then lived in Beaufort, and was very important there for decades afterwards. So the Beaufort relief committee, the Sea Island Relief Committee, was very sympathetic towards African Americans and very interested in trying to develop an equitable system of distribution of rations, clothing, donations, money, and so forth. The Charleston Relief Committee, less so, more interested in downplaying stories of Black suffering, and emphasizing the sort of rosy narrative of progress that Charleston easily rises above this devastation, as it had many other past disasters, both hurricanes, the massive earthquake in 1886, but also more human ones, such as the Civil War. That kind of rhetoric is absolutely folded into how white Charlestonians understood this hurricane. Tillman ends up favoring the Charleston Relief Committee. He forces the Sea Island Relief Committee to be subservient to them to merge their money and so forth. So you see a lot of these sort of internecine fights between these these local committees that that happen, that are absolutely sort of cleaved along these lines of race and class and the politics of the day. So that's, that's the initial story here is this state level and local level of relief that ends up becoming very heavily politicized and absolutely sort of refracted through the fact that Beaufort is still this town where African Americans and whites do have a degree of political equity versus Charleston, where this wealthy white elite, both of these sort of new trades, and these older ones have taken over.

Kelly Therese Pollock  28:04  
And then finally, a month, over a month later, I think, the Red Cross shows up and that is just fascinating. I, of course, knew who Clara Barton was, but seeing sort of the very nuanced portrait of her that you get here is just fascinating. Can you talk about, first of all, why it took so long for the Red Cross to get there? But then what it is that both for good and maybe not so good, they're able to do?

Dr. Caroline Grego  28:31  
Sure. So the American Red Cross was founded in 1881, by Clara Barton, the famed Civil War nurse, and humanitarian. And they had dealt with some significant disasters such as the Johnstown Flood, and so forth. But this was absolutely the largest calamity that Barton and the American Red Cross had been sort of called upon to deal with. And yes, it takes about a month to six weeks before the Red Cross arrives into town. And this is for a couple reasons. This is in part because Tillman wanted to keep her at arm's length. He was deeply uncertain about allowing Barton into the state, in part because Barton is a white northerner, she's known to have been, you know, had abolitionist views during the Civil War. He's very dubious about letting in these outside agitators, so to speak. So that's that's partially why. And Barton was also deeply uncertain that she and her organization could handle this level of devastation. So this ends up becoming partially why it takes a while, but yes, Barton and the Red Cross arrived, they set up headquarters in Beaufort, and then they tried to untangle this massive mess. There were 10s of 1000s of people who were hungry, who were thirsty, who were dealing with serious illnesses, waterborne illnesses, malaria, so forth. And there was also there were a lot of donations to deal with too, and they needed to figure out a good system for how to do this. Now, yeah. The other thing about this is, too is that the Red Cross's presence there and Barton's too is very fraught, because while Barton was what you would call sort of white progressive for the time, everything the Red Cross did there was laced with this paternalism towards African Americans in the region. And this paternalism in this case meant that they believed that African Americans on the coast had to be delivered lessons in self sufficiency alongside the rations that they would be given too. So for example, whereas the Red Cross had never made disaster sufferers work in exchange for rations before, she developed a system of work and labor for African Americans and Lowcountry in order to receive rations. So that's one significant difference that you see here that sort of emphasizes this paternalism. On the other hand, of course, it's a recovery effort that was orchestrated in lots of ways by local African Americans themselves. So while Barton is overseeing this, and runs this in sort of a top down way, there were nonetheless local African Americans who empower themselves to take the lead on some important parts of this recovery effort. And a couple examples sort of show what I mean. For example, Black women organized and ran sewing circles across the Sea Islands, where they would take in donated fabric and clothes that the Red Cross distributed to them, and then organized their sort of refurbishment and distribution themselves. You also see this in some of the agricultural labor work crews that are formed too. So many African Americans living in the Low country did own their own land, often in five to 20 acre plots, sometimes more. Those few who did not usually lived on rice plantations, and worked essentially as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. But just because African Americans in the Lowcountry owned land at such high rates, did not necessarily mean that they always had the time or resources to tend to that land properly. Very frequently, they relied on day wages and sort of daily labor for white farmers living nearby. And this meant that they often had to neglect things like clearing out drainage ditches, on their own properties, and so forth. But African Americans in the wake of the hurricane are able to take the rations from the Red Cross to stave off the need that they had for that daily wage to help keep their families fed and instead could focus on refurbishing their own land, and making it more productive, planting their own crops without having to worry about working for whites. They also organized and ran their own work crews, both in refurbishing these private lands, which they sort of would do as a community, and in rebuilding homes and gardens and fences and so forth too. So African Americans found ways to take control of this process, despite the sort of strings attached that Barton put on them, too. So yes, it ends up being this this fascinating and complicated relief effort, where Barton tries to enforce these sort of limits around it, tries to sort of infuse it with these paternalist notions about how African Americans still had to be taught how to farm properly. But they use the effort instead to stave off white control of their labor in a way that was ordinarily quite difficult. So it ends up being this complex interplay that's really fascinating to see unfold, especially because it's defies sort of our normative narratives of the 1890s. Right? The 1890s are one of the worst decades in southern history. They're incredibly violent, incredibly difficult. And it's when you really see the rise of Jim Crow. And certainly, that's true enough in South Carolina. But this is also a moment where you see how communities can organize to push back against that, and do this quite effectively, as long as they had some element of support. So that's another reason why this this becomes such an interesting case study.

Kelly Therese Pollock  34:07  
Yeah. And of course, the Red Cross couldn't stay forever, and so how do we get from there, from this moment where they're using the support to try to build their communities, recover from the hurricane, to this really terrible moment in 1895, with the new constitution?

Dr. Caroline Grego  34:26  
Yeah, so this is the sort of unfortunate part, right? There are all these ebbs and flows in this history. And here, this happens for a few reasons. This happens, in part because white landowners, of course, organize and orchestrate a concentrated backlash to the Red Cross through local letter writing campaigns, through trying to dislodge the Red Cross from the region, and so forth. But they also take a look at what happened in the Lowcountry and realize that if they're ever going to regain full control, they need to remove this political debate from these local arenas where African Americans could still stave off and, and sort of dig in and create these moments of success. They needed to remove it to the state level where African Americans could not participate and find ways to push back against this. So that's sort of one of the lessons that white South Carolinians learned. The other one was that they needed to make sure that these kinds of white northern interlocutors did not come back into the state. Because African Americans were very skilled at drawing upon those connections to help, yes, rebuild their communities in the wake of a storm of this sort. So yes, the Red Cross leaves in basically July of 1894. They've been there for long enough, they've seen folks through the planting season, and even through, you know, of course, in mid summer harvest, and they have to go, they've been there for long enough. So they withdraw from the state. Barton defends their effort to the last, and in fact, receives a great deal of praise for it as well, both from African Americans who write letters of thanks, and from some white South Carolinians, despite the abuse she got from other quarters. So they leave. And it seems as though maybe this has been some sort of success. But things start to change. In part, unfortunately, there were some pretty bad rainy seasons that unmade some of the planting progress that African Americans had made over the course of that particular season. And you also, as well, see Tillman digging in. Tillman was absolutely determined to force through a new constitution. And he starts striking that drum as soon as he can, once Barton departs, and Barton even recognizes this as its political danger. One of the last things that she says before she leaves is essentially beg white South Carolinians, not to bring down the hammer, and still insist on passing this this constitution. But Tillman does, again. He is going to force this through. This was essentially a campaign promise. And so he ends up being able to call a constitutional convention. Now, there were African American delegates to this constitution. And in fact, all of the delegates elected from Beaufort County were African American, and Robert Smalls was among them. He had also been at the 1868 Reconstruction Constitutional Convention that had been called too. And there's there's one other African American representative from another part of the state who who are there as well. And so even though I think they recognize that there's really nothing they can do at this point, to stop the process, they nonetheless take this stand, and use the convention as an opportunity to articulate their own vision for Black citizenship, to craft a narrative of South Carolina history that honors African Americans, and that speaks truth to what the history of slavery meant, and how it built the state, despite the exploitation and abuses of African Americans over the course of centuries in the state too. So they use this convention to try to push back and give these really incredible speeches that detail this history and this vision, and so forth. But again, they're outnumbered completely. And so the Constitution passes very easily, and the Beaufort delegates walk out and refuse to sign their names to it. And in fact, if you go to South Carolina Department of Archives and History and look at the copy of the Constitution that they have on the wall, you can see where the Beaufort delegates names were supposed to have been signed, and you can see the blank spots there. So yes, unfortunately, you see this quick shift from this moment of sort of hope and possibility that's quite rare in this era, to this moment where Tillman has ensured the rise of Jim Crow in the state. And the provisions from voting within this constitution, end up finally, killing, the last remaining abundance of Black voting that occurred in Lowcountry there too. So yeah, it's really a tragic story. And I'll admit, I never found the sort of smoking gun where Tillman says directly, "Yes, okay, the hurricane has diminished the numbers of Black residents of the Lowcountry, so now I can push this through." But what you can find are little glimmers that suggests that this was on their minds. Joseph Elkinton, who was a Quaker minister comes down and visits the islands in early 1894 and meets with a number of the white elite of the state including Tillman. He also meets with the mayor of Charleston, and he writes in his own reflections on it, that his impression was that, "Well, if this killed a few 1000 African Americans so much the better both for reducing the state's Black majority and for killing Black voters." So, you know, you cannot make that sort of direct line from things that Tillman said. But there are nonetheless these sort of little clues amidst it, that do suggest a connection between the hurricane and this clamp down on Black political rights in the state.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:18  
So I wanted to ask too, your BA and MA are in geography. And so I wanted to get a sense from you about how that informed your ability to do this kind of project, like what what that sort of path looks like. And I'm thinking if there are people out there thinking, maybe I want to do history someday, you know, like, what, what that kind of thing can look like?

Dr. Caroline Grego  40:41  
Sure. So yes, BA, MA, both in geography. And for me, this meant that I always really cared about place, and environment. And this partially comes from living in South Carolina, where, of course, you cannot escape history. And you feel the weight of place, wherever you go, if you're if you're paying attention. And so it was for those reasons that I became interested in thinking deeply about what place meant, and how environmental factors were a part of human history. And in my MA, I trend more towards historical geography, and historical geography and environmental history have a great a great deal in common. Of course, historical geography can be more spatially minded. And environmental history is, of course, very environmentally minded. But I think that you can see that attention sort of to detail of place and environment throughout throughout the book, or at least I hope, I hope one can. And so that's something that has absolutely never left me is wanting to get a sense of how granular details of place and space impact people's experiences of major weather events like this hurricane, and also impact their lived day to day lives. And yeah, I really hope that that does sort of show up in the book, too.

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:02  
Yeah. I also have been hearing this term recently, "micro history," that, you know, I think there's been a lot of discussion of what is micro history? And I realized myself that I wasn't entirely sure. And so as I was reading your book, I was thinking, well, this is looking at a single event and its impact. And so I guess, would you would you call this micro history, you know, what do you find that terminology useful?

Dr. Caroline Grego  42:27  
That's a great question. And it's one I wrestle with myself, too. Because I'll admit, I mean, you know, in a certain way, this book, and I joke about it all time, is a little parochial, right. It's very intensely focused on this sort of narrow strip of coast. And and in that sense it and not only that, but as you say, it's a deep dive into the cascading effects of a singular event that, of course gets woven into this, this broader history. And so yeah, I don't think that I would shy away from calling it a micro history, or understanding that engaging in this kind of deep dive into into an event and into a place I think, is very, very useful, I think, both for getting a clearer sense of this place in this particular time, and of making sure that one understands the environment in which this occurred too, because it's so important to this book to understand what the environment of Lowcountry was like, and how that impacts experiences of labor, class, race, and environmental change over time, too. So yeah, I think that you could call this a micro history. And I think that that's a really important part of the analysis, too. I don't think that you get the same story, if you zoom out to look at this at a different scale. And I think the story that I tell in this is important because it's so intensely focused, and stays at this small scale as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  43:55  
Yeah, I like it. I mean, I for whatever I do, or don't understand about what micro history is, I think it's something I like.

Dr. Caroline Grego  44:02  
I mean, it lends itself well to more narrative formats. And it also helps put some guardrails on which sources you will and won't look at. It also makes sure that that you know, you know where to stay focused when it comes to you when it comes time to do your archival research. So yes, it definitely helps in all those those regards, I would say,

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:26  
Well, if people would like to read this book, how can they get it?

Dr. Caroline Grego  44:31  
Sure. So of course, I have to push people towards the UNC University of North Carolina Press website. They currently have a 40% off and free shipping sale right now that I of course, encourage people to take advantage of because that means it'll only be $18, which is very reasonable price, for the paperback. So you guys, please go over to the UNC press website and check it out there. If you just type in "hurricane Jim Crow," it will show right up.

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:57  
Excellent. And everybody listening to this knows that I love UNC press, so.... Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?

Dr. Caroline Grego  45:07  
So, as I said, at the beginning of the podcast, I sort of pointed towards how my interest in the present of the Lowcountry absolutely informed how I wrote about its past, and sort of work our way from 1893 to the present is, of course, a big a big job. And this book does not completely do that, right. The book looks at essentially from the 1880s or so until sort of the 1920s, just up until about 1930, and then sort of jumps in time, some in the conclusion. But the reason that I do that is in part because the sort of spiraling economic, political and social changes that lead to quite a depressed place economically speaking by the mid 20th century, is what helps prepare the region for the arrival of corporate developers and sort of the tourism industry by the mid 20th, too. And so you start to see this shift to the tourism dominated Lowcountry that people know today, when they go visit places like Hilton Head, or Charleston. Really, again, that ground is sort of prepared by this hurricane, and by the effects that it that it has, well, and of course, that South Carolina politicians and landowners and elite allow it to have and encourage it to have right. You know, no disaster is fully natural, as they say, right? Instead, they have, and are shaped by human forces. And absolutely, that's the case here. Now, of course, I'm not trying to say that the reason why the low country is the way it is today is solely because of this hurricane. That's simply not true. And I don't think my book reflects such a simplistic narrative there. But it is important to think about the interplay of this history of this environmental history of the low country with the current present that we have, which is, of course, a place where African Americans have been dealing with serious dispossession, from their lands for generations at this point, where this history of the region is, has largely been whitewashed, though, of course, there's some really encouraging efforts that are on undoing that, for example, with the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort County, which is doing amazing work. There is, of course, the International Museum of African American History getting founded in Charleston, which should open some time too, and of course, the efforts of Gullah Geechee chefs, artists, activists, and so forth as well, who are trying to sort of reclaim this history, and also create a better present and future for African Americans who are still in South Carolina too. So all of this, you know, is encouraging, but the Lowcountry is still such a troubled place, because it's still so dominated by a moneyed elite, and, of course, because it is seeing the impacts of the climate crisis through these sorts of rising seas too. And that makes a rather depressing place to end the book. Quite frankly, it's it's not a happy tale, but then nothing of the Lowcountry ever really has been, right. And I think that sort of what I hope for, though, is continuing complexity, at least, and the continuation of these fights to make the Lowcountry a better place, especially for these traditional links with marginalized populations within it. And that, that, I think, is something that I hope also comes clear in this book is that we do have precedents for these fights, and for what this resistance can look like, and that these are legacies still being carried out today.

Kelly Therese Pollock  48:46  
Yeah, well, Caroline, thank you so much for speaking with me. This was a really terrific book, and I hope people will go check it out.

Dr. Caroline Grego  48:54  
Thank you so much, Kelly. 

Teddy  48:57  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.

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Caroline GregoProfile Photo

Caroline Grego

I am a historian of and from South Carolina whose work lies at the nexus of the histories of labor, race and racism, and the environment. As a white southerner, my work is driven by a keen sense of historical responsibility to a past that is still present. I graduated from Middlebury College with a BA in geography in 2011, and earned my MA in geography from the University of British Columbia in 2013. I have just completed a Ph.D. in history at the University of Colorado Boulder, which I finished with support from a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. I was a visiting assistant professor in the History Department at Queens University of Charlotte for the 2019 – 2020, 2020 – 2021, and 2021-2022 school years; and I was converted to an assistant professor at Queens starting in the 2022-2023 school year!