Yet for all its appeal, Charleston also evokes a brutal chapter of American life, a city built on and sustained by slave labor for nearly two centuries. Beneath the stately facade of this prosperous city is a savage narrative of Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan violence, right through the civil rights movement.
One doesn’t have to reach that far back to understand what makes Charleston a haunting place to explore (an estimated 40 to 60 percent of African-Americans can trace their roots here). Only in 2015 did the Confederate flag come down from the state capitol in Columbia, prompted by a young neo-Nazi, Dylann S. Roof, who brandished a handgun and massacred nine people during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the nation’s oldest black churches and hallowed ground of the civil rights movement. That one of the casualties, Cynthia Hurd, was the sister of a close colleague only hardened my sense that the so-called Holy City, nicknamed as such after its abundance of churches, was holding fast to its legacy of racial hatred.
Even as this article went to press, Charleston was bracing itself for two racially loaded trials; on Broad Street, at the United States District Court, 22-year-old Mr. Roof faces 33 federal charges — including hate crimes and religious rights violations — in the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. A block away, at the Charleston County Judicial Center, the former North Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager faces charges in the murder of 50-year-old Walter L. Scott, an unarmed black man gunned down as he fled a traffic stop.
And yet, amid a national climate of rising racial tension, the compulsion to engage this history was for me visceral, akin to the urge to revisit a crime scene. I can only suspect that a similar urge to peel back the layers of pain and survival of blacks in America, at least partly, is driving some of the rise in attendance at the nation’s black history sites, including the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, where advance timed tickets are reportedly no longer available through March 2017. I hoped that, on some level, engaging the painful history of human atrocity and heroism in Charleston might illuminate the racial chasms dividing Americans.
“There are stories of resilience and courage here that will lift everyone,” said Joseph P. Riley Jr., who retired from office this year after 40 years as Charleston’s mayor. For a white Southern politician, his politics were decidedly progressive: His decision back in 1975, upon being elected, to appoint a black police chief, for example, earned him the moniker of “L’il Black Joe” among white racists.
Still, it wasn’t until he read Edward Ball’s “Slaves in the Family” in 1998 that he came to fully appreciate — and lament — the gravity of the city’s past. “Slaves in the Family,” which won the National Book Award, chronicles the Ball family’s life as prosperous slave owners and traders in Charleston, an enterprise that started in 1698 and swelled to more than 20 rice plantations along the Cooper River.
Through interviews, as well as through plantation records and photographs, the author traced the offspring of slave women and Ball men, personally contacting some of an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 of these living children, and documenting heart-wrenching stories of his family’s cruelty and abuse as owners and traders off the coast of Sierra Leone.
“I really started to understand that we had an important role in the international slave trade, Emancipation and Jim Crow,” Mr. Riley said.
Around then, Mr. Riley began brainstorming ways to illuminate Charleston’s tale of two cities, which he says most historians and tour guides have shortchanged. Before the early 20th century, historical accounts of slavery generally downplayed the “peculiar institution” as paternalistic and something less than the organized, profitable industry it was. The oversight is egregious: By the mid-1800s, there were some four million slaves in the United States, with nearly 10 percent of them, or 400,000, living in South Carolina.
Fortunately, this changed during the first part of the century as publications appeared, like “Slave Trading in the Old South” by the historian Frederic Bancroft, whose research shed light on the lucrative business of domestic slave trading. Bancroft listed names of slave brokers, commission merchants and auctioneers, and detailed how slave auctions were advertised and carried out. As Bancroft wrote: “Negroes were displayed individually and in groups at the front of the building as auctioneers, planters, traders and curious onlookers watched.”
The United States banned international slave trading in 1808, but the practice continued domestically, and Charleston became a major port for interstate trade. Even in the mid-1800s, when the city prohibited public slave trading, traders moved into the brick enclosed yards downtown around the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, at East Bay and Broad Streets. The building is a popular tourist attraction these days, highlighting its various uses throughout history, including holding prisoners of war during the American Revolution.
The primary catalyst behind South Carolina’s booming slave trade was rice production. The appeal of West Africans to plantation owners was simple: The moist climate of their homeland bore striking similarities to South Carolina’s swampy Lowcountry. English planters proved to be poor rice producers as the process of planting, cultivating, harvesting and preparing the crop for market was intricate and physically arduous. Plantation owners divided the tedious process between their expert men and women, West African slaves, with men doing the dangerous work of clearing swamp lands, and women sowing the rice.
The process was messy, physically draining and relentless; it included scattering rice seedlings onto mud-soaked soil, working them into the earth with bare feet, and then threshing after harvest, which required tediously removing rice from hulls, pounding the rice repeatedly and then separating the hulls from the rice in handmade winnowing baskets.
South Carolina’s dependence on slave labor was staggering. In the late 1600s some four-fifths of the state’s population was white; by the mid 1700s, slaves accounted for more than 70 percent of its population.
Vestiges of prosperity built on slave labor abound. For example, there’s Drayton Hall, an architectural masterpiece completed in 1742 for South Carolina governor John Drayton; slave labor was used on the plantation that grew indigo and rice.
Among Charleston’s biggest slaveholders was the Middleton family, which from 1738 to 1865 owned some 3,000 slaves on its numerous plantations. These days, led by a family descendant, Charles Duell, the 65-acre Middleton Place Plantation, a designated National Historic Landmark, creates exhibits around the genealogy and contributions of its enslaved workers. “Whether it was knitting or weaving or corn grinding, or tending the rice fields — all these activities were performed by African-Americans,” said Mr. Duell, who has hosted three reunions that bring together the property’s European American and African-American descendants. “They created the wealth that made all this possible.”
Magnolia Plantation, founded by the Drayton family in 1676, has similarly launched a preservation project. It celebrates the importance of Gullah culture, which enslaved West Africans brought to the Lowcountry, but also demonstrates how life was led in slave dwellings that date to 1850, several of which are being preserved.
Walking along the streets of downtown Charleston, the painter Jonathan Green describes a city that has been so enthralled with its plantation aristocracy that it has mostly neglected to celebrate its black heritage, or Gullah culture. That culture includes its Creole language, traditions in food and dance, and critical expertise in agriculture. Mr. Green himself was born and raised in a nearby Gullah community in Beaufort, and his bright, bold paintings of his ancestors — in church pews, on grassy landscapes and against ocean sunsets — offer a romantic antidote to the erasure of much of that Gullah past.
But walking the bustling city streets, Mr. Green proves equally adept at recalling black figures whose rich tales are integral to this city’s story. Along these well-preserved streets, Mr. Green’s reminiscing easily comes alive as we move past the Old Slave Mart, among the few remaining relics of the city’s interstate slave trade.
Not to be confused with the nearby outdoor Charleston City Market, the Old Slave Mart is a museum these days, housing African-American arts and crafts. I had walked through it on an earlier occasion; but standing now in its shadow, beside Mr. Green, I recalled its eerie cavernous brick rooms — the “barracoon” or slave jail in Portuguese, the morgue. “It would have been almost impossible to run away,” Mr. Green said. “From Jacksonville, Florida, all the way up to Cape Fear, North Carolina, was nothing but a human prison camp.”