As I mentioned in my last post, Charleston, SC is a beautiful city with an amazing amount of history and beautiful gardens and architecture. It is full of stately and large homes with wonderful porches. I think the large southern porches are one of my favorite things about living in the south.
What many visitors choose to ignore is hinted at by what you see on top of that lovely wrought iron fence. See those spikes? The ones who built this fence had reason to be afraid.
You see, their wealth and luxury was built on the enslavement and forced labor of men, women, and children.
Charleston was a port city, a center for the thriving import trade in captured west african slaves. Charleston’s plantations were massive agricultural endeavors growing the rice, dubbed “white gold” that made the Plantation owners wealthy. There was more than one attempted slave revolt in the history of this city. The weather was so bad and malarial that those who could, left for the summer. Charleston’s slave population far outnumbered the white population for most of it’s history.
Slave Markets were one of the first stops for the captive survivors of the horrific journey across the Altantic. They were kept imprisoned and fattened up – coached on how to respond to buyers questions so they’d fetch a higher price. Slaves from west African countries such as Sierra-Leon were valuable because they knew how to cultivate rice – something that proved too difficult for the Plantation owners original native-american slaves and indentured servants.
If you head to Charleston make sure to visit the Old Slave Mart Museum and learn about the history of slavery in this city. It’s more complicated than you’d think. Those attempted revolts? Most of them failed only because other slaves told their masters. There were free blacks who owned slaves themselves. There were free black societies where you had to have skin lighter than a brown paper bag to join. You’ll see just how brutal the slave brokers were and get an idea of what it must have been like to survive the passage only to have your children torn from your arms and sold away. The evil of racism was and is insidious and very complicated.
It can be hard to reconcile a love for the beauty of the place with the ugliness of it’s historical underpinnings. That doesn’t mean I don’t love Charleston. I still do. I acknowledge and try to learn about that history and think long and hard about it’s current ramifications. My heart breaks for the families torn apart and the brutality of it all. I honor those who worked against the odds and sacrificed for their freedom. I respect the amazing contributions of the African-Americans of the time to a rich culture and history and will continue to struggle with understanding it all. I think I’ll have to be content with the struggle – knowing there really isn’t a way to understand it completely. Just remember when you tour the houses and listen to lots of information about furniture and generals and politicians and genteel women, that it was whips and chains that made it possible. And then love it for what it is… dark and light and complicated.