Day 8: Charleston, SC: Ellis Island of African-American Slavery

Charleston is as “ancient” as a U.S. city can possibly be, and today I took a wonderful walking tour of this gorgeous city.

My incredibly knowledgeable tour guide could not stop talking, one story inevitably cascading into another. Everywhere we walked, the colonial, Revolutionary War, antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction era were entangled right in front of me. The hill the British army marched down from is the same the Union army marched down 87 years later.

My hotel is on King Street—the oldest street in town, named after King Charles II, who awarded the land grant here almost 400 years ago. Of course, I’m also near evocatively named Queen Street, Cannon Street, and Market Street.

Evidence of staggering plantation wealth (first indigo, then rice, then cotton) is everywhere in the city—from the homes to the street layout to the monuments.

Charleston is called the Holy City because of the number and diversity of its religious institutions. Unlike other 17th century “American” communities, there were no religious restrictions here (except people had to believe in “One God”). 

You’ll recall, for example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was limited to Puritans. And utopian early Savannah explicitly excluded Catholics (and lawyers, but that’s another story).

Yet the plantation wealth and the religious freedom here had a darker side—the enslavement of African people. The more I learn about it, the worse it gets.

Charleston imported almost half of all slaves in the American colonies—the Ellis Island for Africans. When an occasional black was able to buy his freedom, his first step was to try to save money to purchase his wife—because he’d have rights over her as property, whereas as an enslaved woman, she’d have none. My guide described this as smart African couples gaming the slavery system; he was loudly disdainful about anyone claiming that this proved slavery wasn’t so bad.

The tiny shacks of free blacks were a huge contrast to the opulent homes of their former masters. I saw Boundary Street—south of which even free blacks couldn’t walk.

Ironically, it’s been renamed Calhoun Street, after States Rightist John C. Calhoun. Why is his statue so much taller than all the other local monuments? Apparently because people kept defacing it when it was at street level.

I saw the home in which Calhoun convened a committee in 1820 to articulate the Nullification policy, in which they said any state could ignore any federal laws they decided were unconstitutional—such as those limiting slavery. Later the house would be owned by Aaron Burr’s daughter.

I walked on opulent Legare Street. Named for the wealthy, mean-spirited cotton merchant living there, it’s pronounced “Luh-Gree”—which Harriet Beecher Stowe named her villainous slave-owner in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

On and on we walked—wealth and cruelty, history and more history, irony and more irony.

And off in the distance, sitting serenely in the harbor, if I squinted through the heavy sunlight, I could see Fort Sumter.

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1 Response to Day 8: Charleston, SC: Ellis Island of African-American Slavery

  1. Robert Badame says:

    Been there, absolutely stunning town.

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