Category Archives: Charleston

Plantation Vacation 2: “Gone With the Wind” Meets “12 Years a Slave”

Charleston is one this country’s oldest cities and also one of the most active cities for historic preservation. That has paid off handsomely in terms of attracting tourists who are drawn to the city’s broad, elegant boulevards and its dizzying array of pastel colors and architectural styles—Colonial, Federal, Georgian, Italianate, Victorian—like bees to honey.

The John Rutledge House Inn on Broad Street features the fabulous iron work that was frequently the art of African Americans.
The John Rutledge House Inn on Broad Street features the fabulous iron work that was frequently produced by enslaved African people.


Yet for years, Charleston’s tale was only half-told. The truth is behind all the beauty, antebellum charm, the Gone With The Wind-type nostalgia for plantation life, and the honor of the boys in gray, lies the story of the people who built it all—enslaved Africans. They manufactured the brick and the ornate metalwork of those beautiful buildings, grew the crops and raised generations of children, too. But, their story was either ignored all together or told as if slavery offered sort of a lucky opportunity to be cared for as part of the plantation family. Historians believe as many as 40 percent of all enslaved Africans who came to North America entered through Charleston, making it the Ellis Island of Africans in the U.S. Consequently, nearly 80 percent of African Americans can potentially trace an ancestor who arrived through Charleston. That’s a huge group of people to ignore.

Yet, just as the winds of change blew through Tara, they’ve also blown through Charleston.Unknown-4 They came literally in the form of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the subsequent restoration of the city. They also blew in with fresh voices who are interpreting the history of the South in a richer and more accurate form. For example, in 1998, author Edward Ball, who descended from a dynasty of Charleston rice planters, broke the taboo against talking about the city’s slave heritage. His book, Slaves in the Family, which won the National Book Award, chronicles the Ball family history as slaveholders and his discovery of his black relatives, who descended from relationships between his plantation-owning forbears and their slaves. With breakthrough movies such as 12 Years a Slave, it’s impossible to maintain a rosy picture of slavery.

Now, in Charleston you can visit the Old Slave Mart museum, which seeks to interpret the history of enslaved Africans who arrived through this port. It’s a small museum but the big new International African American Museum will open in Charleston in 2018. In the meantime, they offer a great educational web site as does the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.  For more of the African American perspective, you may also want to tour the city with Gullah Tours.

Drayton Hall plantation stands by the Ashley River, just south of Charleston. It's my favorite area plantation because it has been left "as is."
Drayton Hall plantation stands by the Ashley River, just south of Charleston. It’s my favorite area plantation because it has been left “as is.”

The plantations along the Ashley River Road (see my previous post) south of the city have also broadened way they interpret the plantations’ history to visitors by including the role of enslaved Africans in plantation life in their tours.

No matter where your ancestors came from, it’s a more satisfying trip when you receive an accurate picture of what is our collective history.

Plantation Vacation

Drayton Hall plantation stands by the Ashley River, just south of Charleston.
Drayton Hall plantation stands by the Ashley River, just south of Charleston.

Irene Levine, among many other things, writes a wonderful blog, More Time to Travel: Advice on Travel After 50.  Her recent post is a collaborative effort with several other travel bloggers, including me, on the topic of plantations.  As you’ll see, “plantation” doesn’t necessarily mean the kind in Gone With the Wind.   Still, while I’m on the topic, here is a link to my previous post about Charleston, which is the starting point for a journey down Ashley River Road south of the city.  There you’ll find three fascinating plantations–Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, and Middleton Place.  And now is a great time to visit.  More in my next post.

Spoleto Fests Large and Small in Charleston

A carriage ride is a great way to get your bearings in Charleston.

“We just love the way y’all talk,” a Charleston carriage driver comments on my Midwestern accent. He says it, no doubt, with a bit of irony because so many Midwesterners say the same thing to him. Our banter is all in good fun. As we roll through some of Charleston’s most historic and elegant neighborhoods, I feel the warm, humid breeze from the bay blow over me and start to settle into the friendly, genteel hospitality of Charleston. It’s clear that the city still holds the same appeal that it did for Rhett Butler in the closing lines of Gone With the Wind. He tells Scarlett O’Hara that he’s going back home to Charleston, where he can find “the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone. When I lived those days, I didn’t realize the slow charm of them.”

Charleston is one of America’s oldest cities and many of its old guard trace their roots to English colonists, who laid out its series of broad, elegant boulevards. But while the city works hard to preserve its colonial and antebellum historic sites, it is by no means stuck in the days of tight corsets and hoop skirts.  The city is home to charming shops (see upper and lower King Street and Broad Street) and restaurants such as Husk that I dream about long after I leave. Most notably, Charleston displays its vibrant cultural life with the Spoleto Festival USA which runs until June 9  and fills the city’s historic theaters, churches and outdoor spaces with performances by world renowned artists as well as emerging performers in opera; theater; dance; and chamber, symphonic, choral and jazz music.

Spoleto brings in artists from around the world. It’s the big boy in town. But if you’re

Piccolo Spoleto Poster
Piccolo Spoleto Poster

looking for a taste of regional arts and culture head for Piccolo Spoleto, which focuses primarily on artists of the Southeast region with an emphasis on events for children and families.  There’s also a piccolo literary festival. Piccolo Spoleto offers performances and event either free of charge or at prices that are more affordable than its big brother.

No matter which Spoleto you choose, or if you prefer to simply stroll Charleston’s streets or visit nearby plantations, you’ll feel as at home here as Rhett Butler did. Heading for Charleston?  Here are a few don’t-miss books to read before you go:

Pat Conroy- South of Broad, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music 

Dorothea Benton Frank – Bulls Island, Folly Beach, Lowcountry Summer

Gloria Naylor, Mama Day

Edward Ball, Slaves in the Family

Alphonso Brown- A Gullah Guide to Charleston: Walking Through Black History.

Looking for an itinerary for your visit to Charleston? The city is a featured destination in Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways.