Category Archives: RL Scholars

Upheavals in Charleston

As part of our “RBMSCL Scholars” series, we’ve asked some of the wonderful researchers that the RBMSCL has hosted over the years to contribute a few words on their new books and research projects. Today, on the 125th anniversary of the Charleston Earthquake of 1886, we present an essay by Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius, authors of Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow, released in June by The University of Georgia Press.

Helene Marie BurdayonA chubby-cheeked young woman in a ruffled cap gazed up at us from a sepia photograph labeled “Dawson’s French Maid.” There she was, the unlikely femme fatale who had triggered one of Charleston’s most notorious murders. We had been looking for such a photo for eight years.

The collection we were exploring, the Francis Warrington Dawson Family Papers, is a vast compendium best known for the six-volume diary kept by the precocious teenager Sarah Morgan, later Dawson’s wife, during the Civil War. But it also contains material that is crucial to understanding, among many other topics, the great Charleston earthquake of 1886, the political struggles of late nineteenth-century South Carolina, and the murder of Francis Dawson, editor of the Charleston News and Courier.

Frank Dawson is the central figure in our book, Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow. After the earthquake, Dawson shaped public opinion around the country, rallied his fellow citizens to try to rebuild their city, received a major portion of the relief money that was sent, and spoke loudest at meetings of the Executive Relief Committee. Because Sarah was traveling in Europe with their two children when the earthquake hit, the couple wrote each other daily. Sarah’s letters did not survive, but she carefully preserved Frank’s, in which he updated her on earthquake damage and his fears about the changes that were happening in Charleston. “Had you been here,” he wrote to his nervous wife, “you would have been dead, or in a lunatic asylum.”

Cover of Upheaval in CharlestonHailed as a hero in the aftermath of the earthquake, Dawson was denounced by white supremacists and murdered on March 12, 1889, less than three years after the disaster. Sarah went to her grave convinced that her husband was the victim of a political conspiracy.

In fact, Dr. Thomas B. McDow shot Frank Dawson when the editor forbade him to talk to Hélène Burdayron, a voluptuous young Swiss woman who was taking care of the Dawson children. During McDow’s trial for murder, the world came to know Burdayron as “the French maid.” The photograph we discovered at Duke is the only known image of her.

In the 1940s, a graduate student named Frank Logan, who was writing his master’s thesis on Dawson, contacted the Dawsons’ son Warrington, who lived in Versailles. For several years he typed out lists of questions, and Warrington sent back long answers, sometimes slightly hysterical, but always packed full of telling personal detail. Did Frank Dawson prefer dogs or cats? How many cigars did he smoke a day? How did Hélène behave while living with the Dawson family after Frank’s death? Good graduate student that he was, Frank Logan passed over most of these homely tidbits and in his thesis he focused on Dawson’s role in some of the bloodiest and most terrifying episodes in southern history.

Luckily for us, Logan went on to serve on the Duke faculty, and he convinced Warrington to donate his mother and father’s papers to the RBMSCL, along with his own. Among them are scores of photographs, Sarah’s diaries and scrapbooks, family letters, and business correspondence. Together they reveal a rich tapestry of political and domestic life, including that amazing photo of the mousy-looking woman who possessed “a bust fit for a Venus” and enough sexual magnetism to provoke Charleston’s crime of the century.

Find out more about the book at!

What She Wore

Mary Lily Travel Grant recipient Julie R. Enszer recently completed her second visit to the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture to conduct research for her dissertation project, which investigates the production of lesbian-feminist print culture in the United States between 1969 and 1989.

While Julie was here, she used materials from these collections:

Minnie Bruce Pratt at the Academy of American Poets awards ceremony, May 16, 1989.
Minnie Bruce Pratt at the Academy of American Poets awards ceremony, May 16, 1989. From the Minnie Bruce Pratt Papers. Photo by Dorothy Alexander.

Reflecting on her research experience, Enszer writes that the Minnie Bruce Pratt Papers were “one of the most exciting collections that I worked with. This may be in part because I have been a fan of Pratt’s poetry and writing since the late 1980s, but it is also certainly due to the fact that this is an extensive and thorough collection.”

She continues, “One aspect of my dissertation focuses on the literary appraisals of lesbian writing and a significant portion of the chapter discusses the Lamont Prize [given by the Academy of American Poets] in 1989 given to Minnie Bruce Pratt for Crime Against Nature. There are extensive documents on this event in the archive, but my favorite archival item is the outfit that Pratt wore to the award ceremony at the Guggenheim: a two-piece, cotton Batik. The shirt is light green with a lavender smock on the front edged by pink. It is both festive and feminine while distinctly conveying ‘lesbian.’”

Thanks to Dorothy Alexander for letting us use her photo of Minnie Bruce Pratt at the 1989 Academy of American Poets awards ceremony in this post. You can see more of her work on her website.

Post contributed by Kelly Wooten, Research Services and Collection Development Librarian for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture , with thanks to Julie R. Enszer.

Letters to Diamond Hill

As part of our “RBMSCL Scholars” series, we’ve asked some of the wonderful researchers that the RBMSCL has hosted over the years to contribute a few words on their new books and research projects. Today, we have an essay from J. Keith Jones, editor of The Boys of Diamond Hill: The Lives and Civil War Letters of the Boyd Family of Abbeville County, South Carolina, released in March by McFarland Publishers.

Cover of The Boys of Diamond HillWhen I first began investigating the Robert Boyd Family Papers at Duke’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, I expected to find something that would appeal to genealogists of this family and those researching the history of Abbeville County, South Carolina. I didn’t know that I would discover a rich story about the triumphs of love and the tragedies of war. I would not have believed that two years later their story would be available to the world in The Boys of Diamond Hill: The Lives and Civil War Letters of the Boyd Family of Abbeville County, South Carolina. With the guidance of the staff at RBMSCL and my editors at McFarland Publishers, that is exactly what has happened.

The backbone of this work can be found in the 86 letters of the five Boyd brothers and the husband of their eldest sister lovingly preserved in the RBMSCL. With the additional research of this family and the units they served in, their full story slowly emerged. In April 1861, brothers Daniel and Pressley Boyd joined the Confederate army. Soon the war would sweep the other three Boyd brothers—William, Thomas and Andrew—as well as their brother-in-law Fenton Hall, away from their farm in Abbeville County, South Carolina. Researching this collection uncovered warmth, humor, horror and loss of four long years of war.

I understand from descendants of Fenton Hall that a number of letters from this family had been lost in a house fire. They were thrilled to learn that those destroyed did not constitute the entire body of the brothers’ letters. It is so wonderful that Duke has preserved these surviving letters so the fascinating lives of these young men would not be lost to history. The helpful staff and wonderful facilities made the marathon sessions with this collection a joy and their support through the preparation for the publication process was invaluable.

To learn more about the book, as well as Keith’s other research projects, visit his website!

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Q & A with Andrew Kahrl

Tomorrow, the Franklin Research Center will host Dr. Andrew Kahrl, who will present”Losing the Land: African American Ownership of Coastal Property.” We asked him a few questions in anticipation of his talk, which is based on his research in our Behind the Veil oral histories collection.

Q: Could you give us a preview of your talk?

Andrew: I’m going to trace the history of African American coastal land ownership from the late 19th century to the present in order to better understand the relationship between race and real estate development in the making of the modern Sunbelt South and the long civil rights movement.

I plan to discuss the rise of coastal black landownership in the post-emancipation era; African Americans’ economic and emotional investment in coastal property and leisure space under Jim Crow; and the impact of changes to the region’s political economy on black landownership and notions of land-based empowerment. I’ll highlight some of the more revealing interviews in the Behind the Veil collection that speak to the struggle of African Americans to acquire and defend coastal property under Jim Crow and the role of black-owned leisure spaces in shaping class and culture behind and along the color line, as well as the various strategies of expropriation black coastal landowners faced—and continue to face—at the hands of real estate developers, the courts, and public officials from the 1970s to the present.

Overall, I hope to use the story of African American beachfront property to offer new insights into the intertwined stories of Jim Crow, civil rights, and the making of the Sunbelt, and to stimulate discussions on the spatiality of race, wealth, and privilege in modern America.

Q: Tell us more about your research in the Behind the Veil oral histories. Have you made any surprising discoveries?

Andrew: I have made some fascinating discoveries in the Behind the Veil collection. Two years ago, I listened to a small sampling of interviews conducted with residents of coastal cities. Interviewees recounted stories of the places that are the subject of my research that I simply could not have found elsewhere, and offered clues to the hidden history of places and cases of land acquisition and expropriation that led me to pursue other records and, in the end, make fascinating discoveries. In particular, their personal stories of the different strategies real estate developers and their allies in public office employed to seize valuable, black-owned coastal property have helped me piece together a broader set of land-use practices and legal strategies that transformed America’s coastlines in the second half of the 20th century.

The Behind the Veil Collection offers rich and moving stories of African Americans’ struggles to carve out spaces for pleasure and relief under Jim Crow, and reinforces, in my mind, the importance of land ownership in the black freedom struggle and the impact of African Americans’ steady loss of land in recent decades on relations of political and economic power in the South and the nation.

Thanks, Andrew!

RBMSCL Scholars: Emily Herring Wilson

We’re beginning a new feature today! We’ve asked some of the wonderful authors and scholars that the RBMSCL has hosted over the years to contribute a few words on their new books and research projects. We’re going to start with an essay from Emily Herring Wilson, editor of the newly-released Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence: Discovered Letters of a Southern Gardener.

Years of research for a life of North Carolina garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence (1904-1985) led me many places, but none more inviting than my trips to Duke’s Special Collections Library, where I found hundreds of letters in the Ann Preston Bridgers Papers that brought Lawrence to life as no other materials, including interviews with family and friends who had known her. As I went through box after box of letters from Elizabeth to Ann (all beautifully catalogued by Janie Morris), I discovered a collection that not only informed the biography I wrote about Lawrence (No One Gardens Alone) but gave vivid testament to the importance of women’s friendships. (Bridgers, a successful playwright and a founder of the Raleigh Little Theatre, was teaching young Elizabeth how to write and how to live, all vividly revealed in the letters.) This month John F. Blair, Publisher, released my edited collection, Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence: Discovered Letters of a Southern Gardener. Among the books I have been privileged to write or edit, it is my favorite because of the charm and intelligence of a private life.

These letters from Elizabeth to Ann are lively with gossip, anecdote, reflection, regret, aspiration, and love—the love of friends, the love of gardens, and the love of literature. I still regard it as a miracle that they were not destroyed after Ann’s death in 1967 but ended up in the Bridgers Papers. I hope that you will read them and enjoy them as much as I did.