Doing the Charleston

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.

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The Pink House.  It’s the oldest stone building in Charleston, built in the early 1700s, when it started life as a pub.

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.

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Single House

Of course, there are other styles as well.  This one was the late boyhood home of comedian Stephen Colbert.

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And others just caught my eye.

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No telling what this one was catching…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The stage was bare and boring, being between performances.  But the interior was still nice.

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St. Michael’s Church also gave us a chance to escape from the rain.

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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.

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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…

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… and this surgeon, who was born about the same time as the United States.

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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.)

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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.

The reason?

Slavery.

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.

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George Washington slept here.

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.

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The Heyward House, from the back garden. A carriage house is on the right, kitchen on the left.

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.

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For us, it was another excuse to get out of the rain, and for a time to set aside dripping rain ponchos.

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The Holmes Bookcase, considered one of the finest examples of American-made colonial furniture.

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.

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Sitting Room, Heyward House

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.

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The Pineapple Fountain

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.

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White Point Garden sits at the end of the Battery wall and contains various monuments and old artillery.  And a very nice gazebo.

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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.

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Sunset, Battery Wall.

60 thoughts on “Doing the Charleston

  1. Lovely buildings, some with quite a complicated history, and Dr. Simons must have been quite a man.

    I heard a podcast where they were talking about how you can get walking tours showing the “real South” – seeing areas where slaves were sold, lynching sites, etc. I think it was for New Orleans, but I believe other cities too. Would be a sobering kind of tour!

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    1. I must have blown past Dr. Simons in my research. I assume he had something to do with restoration?

      We saw places where slaves were sold, but in their modern guise the impact isn’t quite the same. Sobering, one way or the other. But it wasn’t all slavery this and rebellion that. It was worthwhile having the guide, even if I can’t remember all the things he talked about.

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  2. Terrific write-up, Dave! What a fascinating place. Some of these shots, like the row of pastel buildings, look like they were taken in Europe.
    I know one random fact about Beauregard – when he started shooting at Fort Sumter, the commander out there, Major Anderson, was the guy who taught him how to shoot, at West Point. If Anderson had known Beauregard was going to act up like that, maybe he’d have flunked him.

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    1. It’s almost surprising having such a dense supply of history in one place – in the United States. In Europe it’s routine. And in this case, it’s revealing to see how much it wasn’t always the good old days. Still, it’s an interesting city, and would be worth another day or two of investigation.

      It sounds like Beauregard really was a good General, from a strictly military perspective. I didn’t know about your factoid.

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      1. I’m really interested on colonial history and architecture, I’ve got to go see this place. It takes a real mental juggling act, to keep all the good and bad stuff in mind simultaneously- – all these handsome buildings and interesting stuff, but a lot of it built on slavery.

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      2. I find colonial history and architecture interesting simply because there isn’t any of it out here, or in Minnesota where I grew up. Seeing an American building or tombstone from the 1770s still makes me go, whoa.

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  3. Great read! I’ve always wanted to go to Charleston and I’m scheduled to go in November. Being from the west coast like you mentioned, I’m fascinated by all the rich history of the south and the east coast.

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  4. So lovely! Really enjoyed your post. We went on Gullah tour about black history and low country. Next time we’ll go on a walking tour of the city. Wasn’t the food amazing? We loved the fried chicken at Jestine’s which was across the street from our hotel. Did you visit the Slave Museum? That was rough, we had to go but it felt heavy. My Dad always made a point to tell us slaves were sold in NYC too. It’s a part of our history and he wanted us to know that it happened in the north as well. They were sold around Wall Street. There’s a lot of black history in downtown Manhattan I have to learn about, it’s kind of forgotten but if you dig enough it turns up.

    Will catch up on your posts tomorrow. I’ve been absent from WP for a couple months. Can’t wait to read them! I’m loaded up on 2 benadryls because my body hates me and it’s pollen season so it’s bed time.

    Stay well & take care.

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    1. We didn’t visit the Slave Museum, but did pass it. We only had a couple meals in Charleston; for me one of them was Jambalaya which I’ve always enjoyed. Tasty. Portland’s history isn’t exactly ideal either, racism was significant even in my lifetime.

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  5. I have a friend who was born and raised in coastal South Carolina, and who lives in Charleston now. I’ve learned a lot of the city’s history from her, and you really did get a fine tour and good exposure to the complex history of the place. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Did your guide explain the significance of the pineapple? There’s a nice article about it as a symbol of hospitality and exotic trade here.

    Two other things that fascinate me about the place are the grass basketry (primarily done by the Gullah people, I believe) and the history of the Charleston street vendors. I think I still have a video of one of the most famous, who walked the streets selling his shrimp. I’ll see if I can find it.

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    1. I found it, but it’s been taken off YouTube. I can’t quite figure out how to get to it; it’s listed for the Library of Congress, but seems to be licensed to a company. I’ll see what I can do. The fellow who was the famous street vendor was called Papa Joe. If you happened across any of the many restaurants, etc., called Papa Joe’s, that’s who they’re named after — at least, in Charleston.

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      1. This probably is more than you want or need to know, but I did find this in a Charleston City Paper article:

        “In Charleston, one iron-lunged vendor, Joe Cole (1841-1919), earned the name “the raw swimp fiend” for the volume of his calls. According to the News and Courier, “His early and horrible cries have been the cause of more profanity than any one single thing in Charleston.” He sang:

        Swimmy, swimmy, swim,
        Raw, Raw, swim.
        I want you all to member.
        We’se got tell September.
        So come and get yo raw, raw swim.
        Raw, raw, sprawn, wid shooger een he hawn.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t remember a Papa Joe’s specifically, but we weren’t really there long enough to get more than a sample of what Charleston has to offer. Much like almost every other city we’ve visited…

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    2. I can’t remember if the guide mentioned the significance of the pineapple. The tour didn’t pass the fountain, we were there before. I did look it up and saw the reference to hospitality. We saw a little grass weaving by a guy on a pier near the fountain, I’d guess he was Gullah. I don’t think we got into the street vendors too much, the guided tour didn’t get to the market stall section either although we did later (after much of it was closed.)

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  6. Thank you for the photo essay on Charleston! Even though it is a charming town to visit with many interesting places to explore, what shocked me the most is the fact that it was the centre of the slave trade in the United States.

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    1. Yes, I knew there was slavery in Charleston but didn’t know the extent of it. Part of it, I suppose, was its proximity as a port to slave oriented islands in the Caribbean and to the sort of people who ran those islands.

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  7. I had a good laugh at the skeletons on the balcony. They look like people staying home during the pandemic. Love the one bent over the rail like he/she just can’t take it anymore. Great post! The more things change the more they stay the same — so many of your thoughts still hold true in today’s world and politics.

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    1. Ha! When I saw that I had to have a picture, that’s definitely not something you see every day. I love the humor in it. As for power games, that seems to be common among all animals, but I don’t know if any other species are as greedy as humans.

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  8. I thoroughly enjoyed your photo tour and commentary…but I have one tongue in cheek question about the statue “to the Confederate Defenders of Charleston”, did they really do it in the buff? 🙂

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  9. I love seeing the houses and other structures of Charleston again even though the city was built on the backs of so many mistreated people. The Pink House might be my favorite here, and I like the looks of at least the outside of the Heyward house. My admiration is, nevertheless, skin deep; I’m kind of over old houses and their cramped and musty spaces! 🙂

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  10. I think you should consider becoming a tour guide, Dave. Your info is to the point yet entertaining. Charleston seems like one of those lovely, but haunted places of the South. Lots of dark history.

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    1. Thanks, Julie. I think this is about as close to tour guide as I should go, I’m not really the talkative type. One nice thing about blogging is you can take a few days to edit pics and write, edit, and polish text.

      Realistically almost everywhere has a dark history, and the longer the history the better chance of it being unsavory. Portland, for example, isn’t one of the whitest bigger cities by accident…

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  11. I don’t think Charleston can be topped for the sheer density of preserved Civil War-era history within its limits (Savannah, maybe?) We took a horse-drawn carriage tour of the downtown area. A great way to go but since you never get off, you don’t get to see inside of churches and other buildings like you show here. We never tired of looking at the beautiful “single houses”, and we loved the period architecture in and around the marketplace. Wonderful restaurants too.

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    1. We saw a couple of those horse-drawn carts clopping around. You probably covered a little more ground as a trade off. I think the interiors were a regular part of the tour; the guide seemed to know the folks inside, but I suspect we may have spent a little extra time inside waiting for the rain to abate. I haven’t been to Savannah, or even Georgia apart from a business trip a silly number of years ago. I guess that leaves more to see for future trips…

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  12. Great post, Dave, both for photos and content. I was amused by Greg’s comment (Almost Iowa) about the soldiers in the buff. Suspect there were some humorous observations by the DAR members that put it up. And I am always impressed with the amount of research Linda of Shoreacres puts into her comments. Where does she get the time? Great finish to your post with that sunset photo. –Curt

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    1. Thanks, Curt. This post has surprised me a bit with the response. Did you happen to see my reply to Greg? 😉 I know what you mean about Linda at Shoreacres (although I know her more from Lagniappe.) Somehow, she manages to comment on a surprising number of blogs I follow, often with research details, keep two blogs going, and still find time to get out and about. Makes me feel like a slowpoke.

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  13. We’ve visited the Charleston area twice, and still haven’t begun to scratch the surface of all there is to see and learn there. Thanks for this post, I learned a lot from it! When I visited it, I was surprised to learn it played such an important part in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but I didn’t know it was the major hub of slavery and slaves sales. That’s beyond sad….

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  14. Thanks for this enjoyable phototour of Charleston and an account of its history. As is often the case, it’s the dark past that makes many a city/place interesting to those with even the slightest taste for history.

    Years ago I toured Civil War Battlefields in Virginia. Sadly I didn’t have the time to go further South.

    PS I still have my cap from touring “Mighty Mo” when she visited Sydney. 🙂

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    1. I’ve seen very little of the east coast. The Carolinas trip was my first significant foray.

      I’d didn’t realize the Missouri made it all the way to Australia. But why not, Australia was part of WW II too.

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  15. Fantastic post Dave! Your photos and commentary provide a great tour! Those vine covered steps are beautiful! I have been to Charleston a couple of times … once for a visit and once for a photo trip. It is a place full of history, that’s for sure, similar to Savannah.

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  16. Arriving at your post so late, I hesitated to comment. But it was a great comprehensive post.
    I had heard the taxes version of the single houses and was glad to have you set it straight. It makes me wonder about another “fact” I heard and perhaps will need to do some research. I was told the reason Charleston was the center of the slave trade was that South Carolina was so well situated to grow rice; rice was even more labor-intensive than tobacco and cotton.

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    1. They did grow rice in the area. I don’t remember if they still do. Don’t worry about commenting late; I’m almost always a few days behind on blog reading, which makes me a few days late on commenting. People don’t seem to mind.

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  17. Dave I really love all the architectural details and design features. Beautiful photos!!

    What a bleak history Charleston has to bear. Not sure I could bring myself to go there for a visit considering that I grew up in South Africa during apartheid and left my home country as soon as I was old enough to leave by myself (at 19). The context in which I grew up makes me perhaps more easily upset by this history. When I came to the U.S. I was very naive about it’s history, as growing up in South Africa we learnt about British history and nothing with regards the U.S. So I thought I was going to a country where there was no racism as there was “one man one vote”. What a shocker when I experienced the riots in Miami firsthand and then delved deep into America’s dark history on this topic.

    Peta

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    1. It seemed like we were making good progress on racism, but the current President has had the effect of turning over rocks, and bringing to light how far we still have to go. Still, Charleston isn’t wholly defined by its less than savory history any more than Portland is. You’d probably still enjoy the sights (skipping a few here and there), the culture, the food.

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  18. I think, and it’s not a nice thought to be having at 07.13 on a Sunday morning, that slavery is alas a universal thing.

    Americans are rightly aware of the role that slavery had in the foundation of their country, but… which civilisation isn’t built on it?

    If you think about it, it’s hard to find one that isn’t. The Greeks. The Romans. The Muslim Caliphates: they all had slaves. I’ve been at the slave bazaar of Bukhara. The Vikings had slaves. Medieval Europe mightn’t have had ‘slaves’ but they had indented labourers… Latin American societes enslaved people from Africa and natives… Even Rapa Nui suffered from slaving raids. It’s rather depressing to think about but… it seems to be holding true anywhere.

    And on that cheery note… thanks for the Charleston trip, Dave. It does look like a nice place to visit.

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    1. It’s true that slavery is commonplace in human history, and the further back you go the more common it seems it is. Our experience is more recent than much of what you mention, at a time when folks were “evolving” away from it. That makes it feel a little fresher, although it’s already been 150 years. Even now, slavery still exists in certain repressive societies, and elsewhere some of the related attitudes persist even if the slavery doesn’t. Will mankind, as a whole, ever become enlightened?

      And that’s my cheery Sunday morning comment. 😉

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  19. Wonderful post of Charleston, Dave. My home for fifteen years before moving west. Your terrific photos capture some of the architectural highlights of this beautiful southern city. The dark history, however, must be told and remembered.

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    1. Thanks, Jane. I’m glad to hear an opinion of the post from someone from the area, even if it was 15 years ago. Slavery can be a touchy subject, as well as the Civil War, and I wasn’t sure how it would be received by the natives.

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  20. This was an outstanding tour essay, Dave. Lots of great site sights and some good history too. I appreciate your mention of the slave history as uncomfortable a subject as it is. Hard to ignore. But there is so much more to the history of cities like Charleston. Especially the furniture trade. As a former restorer and fan of Colonial Furniture I was very happy to see the Holmes Bookcase. Thanks for taking us along with you.

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      1. No, I had not. But I was glad to learn of it and see it. I am sure, like most places, Charleston’s history is not much in evidence in its present, although we keep seeing incidents all over the country that bring it to mind. It’s a history the whole country bears but should not restrict our enjoyment of the good things and good people.

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  21. Pingback: Southern Comfort – Plying Through Life

  22. Not every historic house can hit the mark, but Charleston is still a lovely place, isn’t it? I love seeing the old pink house, and I knew Steven Colbert was from South Carolina, but I didn’t know you could walk by his house and gawk. Cool. 😉 I like seeing the cemetery, too. Aren’t houses built like singles, but situated outside of cities, called shotgun houses? Back in the early 70s I lived in a 3rd fl. walk-up apartment that was like that – all the rooms in a row, and no central heat. That was just outside of NYC so it was very cold on winter. We heated with the gas stove at the south end of the apartment and closed off two of the north end rooms until spring. Good old days! 😉

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    1. I’d like to see a bit more of Charleston. I understand much of Colbert’s childhood was on James Island, just outside the city, but they moved after a family tragedy. I’m not familiar with shotgun houses. Sounds like something you’d move into after a shotgun wedding. 😉

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