- Black Autonomy, Red Cross Recovery, and White Backlash after the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893
President of the American Red Cross Clara Barton boarded the steamer Catherine to tour the storm-stricken sea islands of South Carolina at 4 a.m. on September 17, 1893.1 South Carolina’s governor, the infamous white supremacist and demagogue Benjamin R. Tillman, had invited Barton to investigate the situation and determine if her organization could assist the reeling state.2 Less than a month earlier, on the night of August 27–28, a massive hurricane with 125 mph winds struck the sea islands around Beaufort, taking an immense toll: between 1,500 and 5,000 people died, all but a couple dozen of whom were African American. The storm trailed destruction up the southern Atlantic shoreline. But the string of islands clinging to South Carolina’s coast bore the brunt of the death toll and the worst of the storm damage. The storm ruined the fall harvest and left 30,000 people in the Lowcountry [End Page 803] destitute.3 The Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 was one of the worst natural disasters in the nineteenth-century United States. Several historians have turned to the storm as a transformative and explanatory moment in Lowcountry history. They have explored the hurricane’s impact on rice cultivation and the region’s phosphate industry, and they have interpreted the storm as a flashpoint for memories of Reconstruction and for questions of responsibility in disaster recovery.4 This article draws on this rich, growing scholarship and focuses on a piece of that story, the hurricane recovery effort under the American Red Cross.5
What Barton saw and heard during that steamer trip convinced her that the Red Cross was obligated to lead the recovery effort. The steamer tracked north from Beaufort all the way to Charleston, winding up tidal waterways, passing the hurricane-wrecked dredge the Wimbee, navigating through treacherous waters into the Stono River, and landing at a wharf on the Cooper River. Along the way, the group stopped at several sea islands. At each place, an unofficial emissary, most of whom were African American, delivered news of the island’s plight. Barton listened to these reports, dispensed food from the hull of the steamer whenever possible, and considered the scope of the disaster. On September 29, 1893, she wrote in her diary that she had “decided to take charge of the [End Page 804] relief of the Sea Islands” after a nighttime meeting with her closest colleagues. Misgivings plagued her. She did not write of the nobility of charity work but instead commented on what “a great undertaking” it would be “to feed, clothe, work & doctor & nurse 30,000 human beings for eight months, and do it all upon charity gathered as one goes along.”6
To understand what the Red Cross’s recovery effort meant for the South Carolina sea islands at a crossroads moment, this article explores the Red Cross’s measures of relief, the role of black sea islanders in harnessing Red Cross relief to protect their autonomy, and the white supremacist backlash against the coalition of the Red Cross and black sea islanders. Above all, this article tracks how a uniquely independent black Lowcountry community, the white supremacists who resented the persistence of black autonomy on the coast, and a rare third-party intermediary, the Red Cross, all vied to implement their visions for recovery from the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893. Throughout the recovery process, the Red Cross attempted to nurture the long-term self-sufficiency of black sea islanders through short-term aid. The organization shared similar objectives with black sea islanders and accomplished a great deal of material good, but its attitude toward black sea islanders was laced with undeniable paternalism, demonstrated in its volunteers’ rhetoric and methods, that led the Red Cross to doubt the capabilities of black sea islanders. Some Red Cross volunteers even suggested that the deadly hurricane had been a strange kind of blessing: “They did not know how to live,” one said; “The Red Cross lifted those people and placed them...