With All Her Sad Disasters, What Do We See In This City?”: Reconstruction, Race, and the Politics of Disaster in Richmond, 1870-1920

Alyssa Toby Fahringer

Major Professor: Cynthia A. Kierner, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Lincoln A. Mullen, Jennifer Ritterhouse

Horizon Hall, #3225
April 13, 2022, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM

Abstract:

In 1870, Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, endured three disasters. On 27 April, over sixty people died when the Capitol courtroom gallery and floor collapsed. The James River flooded on 30 September, resulting in thousands of dollars of damage. Eight people perished when the Spotswood Hotel caught fire on 25 December. This dissertation examines how Richmonders experienced, responded to, and remembered the 1870 calamities, as well as how the disasters affected a community in a time of extreme political and racial upheaval.

            The five years following the end of the Civil War represented a time of hope for many Black Richmonders, while some white Richmonders viewed Radical Reconstruction as a threat to white supremacy. Richmonders’ responses to the disasters were shaped by the political and racial contexts in which they occurred: despite significant tensions between white and Black Richmonders, journalists perpetuated a false narrative of racial harmony between the two communities; after the flood decimated the primarily Black neighborhood of Rocketts, few reporters detailed their suffering; and the Spotswood Hotel fire victims received less laudatory press coverage because they were poorer and less socially prominent than the Capitol disaster dead. Northerners provided aid to their former enemies in the wake of the Capitol disaster, prefiguring eventual reconciliation between the North and South. Lost Cause adherents later co-opted the Capitol disaster and argued that it exemplified the failure of Reconstruction.