Heavy is how I mostly felt about greater Charleston, although visiting this southeastern city was a good experience overall for the whole family. It wasn’t that we didn’t have fun. We did. And it wasn’t that we didn’t learn a lot. We did that, too. But Charleston, South Carolina, was heavy going in and heavy coming out — heavy rain, heavy flooding, heavy history, heavy thoughts. As a result, it was a bit challenging to write about Charleston: We could take it or leave it, and we were exhausted after navigating all of it. But in order to have a more complete picture about the Southeast, it is important to visit Charleston and all that lies beneath it. It has so much to tell.
The Southeast was a blank canvas for this family, and I mean that: We really didn’t know much about it. There are stereotypes about white folks and black folks and the relationships between and among them; drawls create and enhance various preconceptions and connotations; heat, humidity and Spanish moss conjure spooky and romantic ideas about southern communities. All hearsay until one visits, and visit we did. Unsure of where to stay, a friend suggested that we go to Folly Beach, which led us to camping just outside of Charleston on James Island. There we found our first campsite palm tree, walked beneath draping Spanish moss, traipsed through puddles-turned-swamps and made our way out and around Charleston to get to know it.
A long time ago, the region of South Carolina was inhabited by over thirty Native tribes before any “discoverers” came calling. The most influential groups among these thirty were the Catawba and Cherokee Nations, whose territories met in present-day South Carolina, and the multiethnic Yamasee Confederation, whose territory encompassed the coastal regions of Savannah to northeastern Florida. The first Europeans to land in the region were Spaniards Francisco Gordilla and Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, who landed in 1521 and 1526 respectively. Then came the French. Both Spain and France laid claim to the region, but neither maintained a stronghold. Instead, it was the English who would outlast all other Europeans. (Wikipedia)
Charles Town, or Charlestowne, was founded in 1670 in honor of King Charles II, who “gifted” the Province of Carolina to a group of loyal aristocrat friends. In turn, they began scheming for settling the region, part of what was known as the Grand Model, inspired and shaped by conflicting ideologies of John Locke. It was here and through him that the seeds of systematic, institutionalized and highly profitable slavery in the region were planted — intentional or otherwise — as he supported a feudal aristocracy in the new settlement via the Grand Model, despite his opposition to aristocracy and slavery articulated most famously in The Two Treatises of Government. (Wikipedia)
Charleston became the capital of the Province of Carolina (until it was moved to Colombia in 1786) with a focus on expansion inland, and it remained the Southeast’s major settlement hub until the colony of Georgia came along in 1732. As a result, Charleston saw many folks come and go in its colonial history. Its first residents included white English settlers and free brown and black peoples from the British colonies of Bermuda and Barbados, who began establishing Charleston as a “great port towne.” Continued raids came from Spain and Native Americans, who hoped to drive out the English, and from pirates, including Blackbeard, who found Charleston’s waterfront location an easy target. (Wikipedia)
Eventually colonists began to fight internally as differing political ideologies developed; thus, two royal Carolina colonies emerged. Virginia farmers settled North Carolina, growing tobacco and selling lumber and tar, but used Virginia ports as North Carolina lacked its own. Meanwhile, South Carolina settlers took advantage of the fertile Lowcountry coastal areas by dealing in the deerskin trade, timber and beef. More importantly, they cultivated rice, indigo and, of course, cotton.
Among the white English settlers, free people “of color” and African slaves were Protestant French and Sephardic Jews. Merchants from these London-based communities were allowed to settle in South Carolina. They brought with them their own religious identities and tolerances, thus creating and supporting an intercultural South Carolina, as well as contributing to the famous commodities in the region.
Although South Carolina was “tolerant” and more inclusive than most areas at the time, it still relied heavily and eventually exclusively on Africans — specifically people who would make up the Gullah community — imported directly and definitively for their native coastal farming skills and labor. For a decade, the importation of African enslaved people was denied: “Seasoned” Caribbean slaves and their offspring were preferred over the more “rebellious” African slaves. This, of course, would not last. Unlike the term-limited indentured servants or prisoners brought from England or elsewhere to work new lands, slave labor was deemed indefinite and under the control of those that owned them, thus providing a more suitable and “sustainable” workforce. Economics — money, power and control — and racism would be the pivotal factors in choosing and maintaining the practice of slavery in South Carolina and the country.
South Carolina became the first republic of America on March 26, 1776, after adopting its own Constitution and the Articles of Confederation. But the American Revolution rocked South Carolina — not just because of slavery and economics, but because South Carolina had created a population of enslaved people. Many loyalists to the crown were slaves. African slaves and their descendants made up the majority of the population of South Carolina after 1708 (and into the early Twentieth Century). By 1780, British loyalists helped England reclaim South Carolina, but continued clashes with Americans led to a decline in English fortunes. During and after the war, enslaved peoples fled to regions perceived as freer or fought for the British. It is estimated that “25,000 slaves (30% of those in South Carolina) fled, migrated or died during the disruption of the war.” (Wikipedia)
This would have impacted Charleston in big ways. With the advent of the cotton gin, Charleston’s plantations grew, and so did its need for workers/free labor. Furthermore, the business of buying and selling slaves became a lucrative one for Charleston. Although the importation of Africans was terminated at a national level in 1808, the buying and selling of enslaved people continued freely within the United States, especially in the South. State wide, South Carolina stood firmly against increases in federally imposed tariff acts that would have cost them dearly. With this boom in commercial activity and the ramifications without it, South Carolina was ripe for rebellion on all sides, including one led by freed slave Denmark Vesey. Word spread about Vesey’s planned revolt, leading to fear among whites about the actions that might follow. Vesey and five other slaves were tried and hanged in July 1822. Shortly thereafter, twenty-eight more slaves were hanged. The uprising and its punishments resulted in tighter laws regarding the freeing of those enslaved, as well as the interaction among northern and southern slaves, creating a deep divide among communities, particularly between black and white. (Wikipedia) Resentment by now was high and strong.
All of this culminated into South Carolina’s major role in the growing anti-abolitionist movement. It is believed that “Antebellum South Carolina did more to advance nullification and secession than any other Southern state.” After Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, South Carolina voted to secede. Then, after a fire in 1861 that burned most of Charleston, Union leaders took advantage of it by further bombarding the city and creating blockades in the commercial district. By 1865, most of the city was under federal control, which remained so under Reconstruction. The damage was done: The Civil War wiped out prosperous Charleston. Freed blacks folks, who had been residents of Charleston well before the war, found new beginnings. Although faced with intense discrimination and rampant poverty, freed slaves took on new roles in government and established their own churches, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church — the very church that a young man would enter in July 2015 in order to ignite a race war by killing nine African Americans during Bible Study, over one hundred fifty years after Emancipation. (Wikipedia)
It just gets messier after that, and clunky, and it can be really exhausting to consider how profoundly ugly and awful the practice of slavery was and its aftermath. It was a choice by so many to perpetuate it, and so many couldn’t act in order to do otherwise. Many layers and ideologies existed in that decision making, the grandest being that someone else is perceived as lesser than human, or not human at all. Add economics and power, generalities and misgivings, and the turning of many-a-cheek, and it becomes a powerful and potent elixir. It’s like a big old family secret, about which everyone knows, but few will discuss, as the secret looms and festers until there is a change in the wind and a spark from a fire. Generations later, we’re still picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of it all.
So then, what remains in present day Charleston, South Carolina, that might make it appealing?
Well, it is true that there wasn’t much along the coasts of the Carolinas to lure us to them, at least in our opinion, although we know lots of people who love them. Everything floods when it rains and stays really, really wet. So when one enters busy Charleston, it’s kind of like a little firework in the middle of an otherwise long, dark, wet tunnel. The region of Charleston is a bit crowded. Expansive, undulating and often handsome roads and bridges connect Charleston and its islands to each other, and it is relatively easy to navigate them, even when traffic-jammed. It’s not a place made for large vehicles like RVs, but rather for zippy cars that seem to be in a hurry to get from one place to another, unless, of course, one is headed to relaxing Folly Beach or stunning James Island County Park. When it rains and if it floods, spaces become lessened or fewer or tighter, or disappear all together. Entirely flooded yards make homes, churches and businesses islands unto themselves and leads one to wonder what the hell they are doing there anyway. But, like any place else, Charleston is home to so many, despite history, despite climate, despite hardship, and maybe even because of it. It does have its charm.
James Island County Park is one of Charleston’s charming factors. The state and county park systems in the South are much different than those in the North. Open all year round, they can offer more to those that visit and they are beautiful. We were stunned when we entered the park, which, during the winter season, is home to one of the largest Festival of Light shows in the country. It is very romantic walking or riding through the park and around the campground adorned with every assortment of holiday themes available.
Another gem of the county park system is Folly Beach, aka “The Edge of America.” Along with Oval Beach on Lake Michigan and Maui beaches in general, Folly Beach in Folly Beach is one of our new favorite places. It is impossible not to relax.
The park system here also encompasses historic places in the South, much to its credit. One of those locations is the newly acquired McLeod Plantation. It is a place like no other — humbling, restful, respectful, quiet, yet speaking. If you ever desire to visit a plantation, please go here. No frills, no flowers, no zoos or glamour, just the voices of the people that lived and worked there. It is a snapshot in time and touched a nerve in me. I would go back to Charleston just to spend more time at McLeod Plantation, to listen and learn.
There are also lots of farm markets around Charleston. We chose the Sunday Brunch Farmers Market on James Island, where I bought “the only okra in South Carolina,” according to the farmer that sold them to me. I also bought from him delicious arugula and the hottest peppers we’ve eaten to date.
South Carolina is not exactly pro-women. Initially rejecting the Nineteenth Amendment allowing women to vote, the South Carolina legislature later adopted the amendment on July 1, 1969. Furthermore, “as of 2015, South Carolina had one of the lowest percentages among all states of women in state legislature, at 13.5%.” In 2011, South Carolina was number one in the U.S. “in the rate of women killed by men.” However, South Carolina did allow same-sex marriages in 2014. (Wikipedia)
There are two Charlestons: One that goes “Chahls-ston” and another that goes “Chohrls-ton.” The former describes what websites and magazines will tell you, that Charleston is “known for its rich history, well-preserved architecture, distinguished restaurants, and mannerly people,” that “Charleston has received a large number of accolades, including ‘America’s Most Friendly [City]'” and that it is “the most polite and hospitable city in America.” (Wikipedia) Maybe that’s what many visitors love about Charleston. Indeed, folks were fine and the architecture interesting, particularly in the French Quarter near the Charleston Waterfront Park. Charleston is also known for shopping, which isn’t really our thing, but if it is yours, you will find many high-end vendors around the French Quarter, as well as restaurants. We ate exceptional gelato at Belgian Gelato that everyone should try. Adding to its uniqueness, nearby you will find the Old Slave Mart, constructed in 1859, where enslaved people were auctioned, as well as Fort Sumter, where the Civil War was “born.”
So. That is all a lot. As we travel, we like to know about the beginnings of a place and what makes it tick. It is impossible to ignore the dark and worn tapestry that is Charleston’s history — part of the history of this nation — making it difficult to love it, but not dislike it. I certainly wanted to know more, but the more I knew about specifics, the harder it was to write about it. I’m not sure that we would return for much more than the beach and a bit of history. But it may be for you. It is definitely worth a stop if you care about the history and psychology of the U.S. and/or want to get to know the South.
Charleston is kind of like a raw oyster: Difficult, a bit ugly and rough on the outside, but there is a tender bit of juicy meat on the inside of that tough exterior. It will not be for everyone, but those willing to explore might find something they really like. Beneath, behind and beyond Charleston — it has a lot to unpack, and it certainly unpacked me.
And, for the record, our Charleston has an “r,” y’all. Maybe we like it after all.