While current residents of Charleston, South Carolina will likely point out their status as “one of the best cities in the world“, my first impression was of slavery.
It would be hard not to get that impression. But why?
When my wife and I opted to visit Charleston, rather than wandering aimlessly around town with only a vague idea of where we were going and no idea about the background, we hired a local guide for a walking tour. We were to meet up next to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. While we waited for the guide, the first thing we saw was a sign.
On it, we were told that starting in the early 1700s, Charleston was once one of the largest slave trading cities in the country. When our guide showed up, that was the first thing he addressed. Of the estimated 400,000 Africans transported to North America for sale as slaves, 40% are thought to have landed at Sullivan’s Island off Charlestown. Most were bought and sold within a few blocks of the Old Exchange. Up until the 1980s African Americans were the majority in the Charleston area.
But despite a steady rain arriving shortly after our guide, we were out to see and learn more. I’ve forgotten most of what the guide said from that afternoon eight months ago, but I’ll augment with Internet research.
Our guide started by describing “Single” houses. Long and skinny, they’d run one room wide and two high with a long porch (piazza) on the south or west side, to take advantage of the prevailing winds. Charleston has a very warm, muggy climate and air conditioning would be a fantasy for most of its 350-year history. The guide went on to suggest that this layout was to avoid taxes based on street front footage, but research says this is a myth. It’s really based on how the city lots were platted.
Of course, there are other styles as well. This one was the late boyhood home of comedian Stephen Colbert.
And others just caught my eye.
No telling what this one was catching…
Rainbow Row is an iconic section of the old town. This street was originally commercial waterfront built around the 1770s, but landfill has the buildings well back from the waterfront now. A major fire in 1778 took out many of the original buildings. After the Civil War the area had deteriorated into a slum, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that restoration and the pastel rainbow color scheme began. The buildings are now very upscale residences.
The Dock Theater sits upon the site of the first purpose-built theater in the original 13 colonies, with that theater’s first performance in 1736. The original building was probably destroyed in a major fire in 1740. In 1809, they built the current building as the Planters Hotel. After the Civil War this area also fell into disrepair, and they slated the hotel for destruction. But in 1935 the building was donated to the city, and its restoration became a Works Progress Administration project. The shell and foyer were retained, and the remains converted back into a theater.
In 2010, another major renovation took place, giving the current version. The current version also gave us a chance to escape from a growing downpour.
The stage was bare and boring, being between performances. But the interior was still nice.
St. Michael’s Church also gave us a chance to escape from the rain.
St. Michael’s is the oldest surviving religious structure in Charleston. It was built in the 1750s. During his 1791 visit to the city, President George Washington worshipped in pew no. 43 of the church. Robert E. Lee also worshipped here.
St. Michael’s Churchyard, adjacent to the church, is the resting place of some famous historical figures, including two signers of the U.S. Constitution…
… and this surgeon, who was born about the same time as the United States.
Speaking of George Washington, he seems to be highly regarded. Here we find a monument to him, in a park bearing his name. (Note to foreign visitors, George Washington was the first American president.)
Of course, we also find a monument to General P. G. T. Beauregard. General Beauregard was a major Civil War hero, if you happen to root for the Confederate side. And historically there’s no shortage of Charlestonians that did. The Civil War, in fact, started here.
On April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, a sea fort located in the Charleston harbor. This was not entirely unexpected, as South Carolina had become the first state to secede from the United States on December 20, 1860.
It gave the rich and powerful in the South, and particularly in Charleston the source of their riches and power. They were, in effect, the 1% of their time, controlling the majority of the economy and wealth of the region. Whites who didn’t own slaves weren’t much better off than slaves financially, all they had was their freedom. But for them it was an important difference, signifying that they too had power.
It was a time of haves and have nots, and the haves didn’t want anybody threatening their power. Some of the “rational” they used to justify their position short of admitting it was all about power and greed was truly astonishing.
Maybe things haven’t changed so much.
I know it’s something of cliche. Quaint little inns, scattered across the east coast, putting out a sign hoping to draw in tourists. It became such a running joke Jack Benny made a movie by that name in 1942.
But Washington really did sleep here. It’s the Heyward house. We toured it after our walking tour.
Remember a few posts back, in “Independent Cusses“, where I thought mistakenly I was in a house owned by a signer of the Declaration of Independence? Well, Thomas Heyward Jr really was a signer. In 1791 Washington made a tour of Southern states, and for a week in May he stayed in Charleston. The city rented the Heyward house to put him up.
Back in the day, because of the fire risk from cooking fireplaces, the more well off had separate buildings for cooking and for servant housing.
For us, it was another excuse to get out of the rain, and for a time to set aside dripping rain ponchos.
Still, it is a place of historical importance.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve become too jaded. Here, I share footsteps with George Washington and Thomas Heyward. I’ve toured the version of Air Force 1 that was used by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson (including the swearing-in), and Nixon. I’ve stood on the deck of the USS Missouri, on the spot where Emperor Hirohito surrendered to MacArthur, ending World War II. I’ve toured castles and cathedrals innumerable, retracing the steps of who knows how many lords, princes, monarchs, and popes.
But yet, after we finished touring the “Washington-Heyward House”, we were kind of, meh. We liked the Alexander House tour better.
Maybe we were just tired. It had been a long, wet day.
And in the evening, after dinner, we made one last trip to tip of the peninsula on the Battery wall. Here, we found one last reminder of the Confederacy, a moment to those brave soldiers defending Charleston against the Union army. A monument dedicated in the not so distant past, in 1932 by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
White Point Garden sits at the end of the Battery wall and contains various monuments and old artillery. And a very nice gazebo.
And so our day of doing the Charleston came to an end. We danced in the rain (but didn’t sing); we had firsthand exposure to the Revolutionary, Antebellum, and the Civil War eras along with the current, more gentrified one. And we were reminded, especially as denizens of a much younger West Coast city, that time and traditions cast a long shadow.