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.
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. 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.
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.