A City With a Past – Charleston, South Carolina

One evening during our visit to Charleston, as we clambered into an Uber and buckled in, the driver held up a palm-sized Alexa device and said, “Pick a song!”

Unprepared for this unexpected invitation, the four of us – Dave, Edie, her husband Dave, and me – waffled a bit before Edie called out, “Alexa! Play ‘Build Me Up Buttercup!” As the music filled the car, the driver distributed strawberry candy, switched on the strobe lights of a mini disco ball, and said, “Welcome to Abdullah’s party car!”

What? So fun! The music was loud, and we sang along and rocked out as “Addicted to Love” followed “Buttercup” during the drive from dinner back to The Vendue, our hotel. Abdullah got a great tip, and we experienced yet another example of the surprises travel can hold.

The Uber party was quite the contrast to our day of touring Fort Sumter, the Nathaniel Russell House, and the Aiken-Rhett House. But Charleston is a city of contrasts: breezy porches, aromatic gardens, cobbled streets, and beautiful homes, many built of bricks… bricks bearing the fingerprints of the enslaved people who made them.

Beautifully restored and maintained, slave owner Nathaniel Russell’s home, now a museum, is only one part of Charleston’s history.

During a walking tour on our first day in the city, our guide, Theresa – slim and blond, lively and informative – pointed out the fingerprints. A Charleston native with family ties dating back to 1763, Theresa had an abundance of current connections too, and she waved and promised phone calls to those she encountered along our way. She was proud of her city, and with feigned indignation, said that Charleston’s history was not confined to slavery and the Civil War; she felt its role in the Revolution had been overlooked. Two signers of the Declaration of Independence had lived there, and the city had survived British shelling and a siege.

The weather was fine during that walk, and we admired magnificent churches, craftswomen weaving baskets, perfect pink camellias, gracious homes shaded by live oaks, and the harbor beyond the sea wall. When Theresa pointed out the “earthquake bolts” fortifying several houses, we marveled at Charleston’s endurance despite bombardment by man and Nature.

Along the streets of Charleston, craftswomen make and sell crafts and baskets.

Perhaps it was the chill and rain that followed over the next few days, but it was hard for me to slip off the shadow of Charleston’s pivotal role in the slave trade. 40% of the enslaved entering America came through the city’s port, and Charleston has been diligent in documenting the torment of the people who pressed their fingertips into those bricks. Reminders of that torment are ubiquitous as slavery was enmeshed in every aspect of the economy. Bronze plaques mark auction sites in parks and on street corners, and the former slave market and Old Exchange are now museums.

Perhaps the shadow was sustained by the book I was reading, “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. The story is inspired by abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké, sisters whose childhood in a wealthy slave-owning family gave rise to their abhorrence of slavery. Ms. Kidd is a masterful writer, and it was painful to read her portrayal of the oppression of those enslaved.

In touring two museum houses, Ms. Kidd’s book attained reality, substance, and color, as the home of the Grimké sisters would have been of the same era and opulence. Slave trader Nathaniel Russell’s house is fully restored with extravagant moldings, elegant table settings, and period furniture. The Aiken-Russell House, on the other hand, has been preserved – though not restored – along with the slave quarters, kitchen, stables, and work yard. During the self-guided audio tour, we learned, to the extent recovered by research, the names, positions, skills, relationships, and rooms of the enslaved people whose harsh lives of toil enabled the luxurious lifestyle of their owners.

In contrast to the gracious Russell House, the Aiken-Russell House offers insights into the life of slaves.

Visiting these homes in the city and region that prospered because of kidnapping and enslavement forced me to reflect on a life with no rights, no recourse, and no refuge, one’s worth measured in dollars, and documented as property. Trouble-aversive as I am, I could imagine too easily the fear of making even minor mistakes given the threat of flogging or punishment in the workhouse. And when exhausted from constant labor, how much more likely those mistakes – excess salt in the soup, a spilled tray, a broken vase – accidents common to us all?

And what of resentment? How would one quell it?

Some politicians seek to suppress the evils of the past, even as they inflame residual prejudice and grievance. I seethe at the anachronism of white supremacy, the spirit of the Klan still fueling policy. America’s history is marred by shame, but the journey has always been one of aspiration. To its credit, Charleston has chosen education to confront its grim legacy. May the power of painful lessons guide us forward.

Photos by Lea Sylvestro

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