A Graceful Little City Built on a Soul-killing System
Packing Charleston’s expansive visitor center, tourists signed up for pirate tours, ghost haunts, dungeon walks, and plantation garden tickets. But George and me? We picked up a freebie map and strolled toward the Old Slave Mart. About our speed.
Charleston proved to be unsettling—an unhinged, continual ying-yang. Its well-preserved historic beauty and progressive present melded with a past of stark evil. The majority of stolen Africans shipped to America arrived via Charleston harbor. Longtime mayor Joe Riley speculated that 80 percent of African-Americans could connect an ancestor to Charleston.
The Old Slave Mart museum, small and dramatic, was housed in the last existing building actually used as slave auction “gallery” after public slave sales were banned in 1856. The ground floor seemed no larger than a pet shop. Its first section was the showroom. The word gave me gooseflesh, dehumanizing the merchandise sold here 150 years before, as if human beings were mere machines, Jeeps or Toyotas. (The structure actually served as an auto dealership in the 1920’s.)
The recreated voice of a slave narrative from the WPA project boomed around that first squeezed showroom. Blunt and vivid, the former slave’s memories detailed the auction’s degradations. Around a corner, sound effects intruded—traders’ voices, horse hooves clomping—as we read panel after panel supplying uncompromising facts about the slave business, the efforts of slaves to display themselves as more healthy or more worthless, to avoid cruel owners, gain bearable positions, and keep their families intact. We were spared a visit to the barracoon, where slaves were shackled before auctions, and the “dead room,” both long razed for a rear parking lot. Absorbed and appalled, George and I explored the slave mart realizing that we’d actually joined a ghost tour after all. Slavery seemed a haint that couldn’t be ignored in pretty, preening Charleston, rattling its chains across the centuries.
The relentless procession of facts overwhelmed us, such as the small number of Carolinians actually involved in owning and trading most slaves—3 percent owned 95 percent. Three lousy percent. It royally pissed me off to the consider horrific global and national consequences from this tiny number of slave masters. Four years of fratricidal war to preserve such a rare prerogative?
After our tour, we circled back to the gift/book shop. George stepped out for fresh air (and reprieve, I think) while I perused a Gullah dictionary. A young African-American woman behind the counter wanted to know if she could help me, and I said I’d love to know how to get closer to the Gullah dialect. She took umbrage. “Start with that children’s book, then,” she said, pointing, “because you will be like a child when it comes to learning Gullah.”
I caught her tone and attitude, familiar to me from my halting forays among black radicals when I was a student. Ah, I was again the Blundering White Dude, trespassing where he wasn’t welcome, another whitey bound to misunderstand. With no idea that I was interested linguistically, the clerk pivoted toward bad faith. Maybe she thought I was going to break out in ridicule, pronouncing deese’s and dat’s.
But after we chatted about the cultural biases we all so easily slip into, country folk versus city slickers, South versus North, she pivoted back and warmly shared with me a detailed picture of Gullah in her own background—she grew up just outside the city—and her family’s relationships, her girlhood adventures with her country relatives on the Sea Islands and those who lived in and around Charleston itself. Her relatives, she recounted with pride, had once hosted a white linguist while he studied the Sea Islands Creole. “If I figure you out in time,” she was told me, “I might just invite you for dinner at my granny’s.”
It wasn’t exactly a firm invitation, but I appreciated it. When George came back into the museum foyer and stood at my side, the clerk shared a few common Gullah sayings with him. She seemed amused and bemused by George, this tall, self-possessed Northern black man, and recounted some of our conversation about Gullah culture for his benefit. She implored George to understand that Gullah was virtually the lodestone of all Black English. She teased out a few phrases from him, innocuous and commonplace phrases, and assured him that wherever he went and whatever he said, Sea Islands Creole was the wellspring of his vocabulary and outlook. He carried the South with him everywhere, whether he knew it or not.
“That’s why we’re here,” I told George after we left the museum, “to discover your South Carolina roots. Right, Gullah Guy?” As we hustled across the cobblestones, dark clouds massed over the afternoon’s bright blue. Despite the oncoming storm, we were determined to walk the southern tip of Charleston, the storied Battery neighborhood.
George was taken aback that by the clerk’s aggressive expectation that he embrace his hidden-but-ever-present Southern cultural identity. Still, he reminded me there were doors upon doors unopened behind the clerk’s attitudes, pain and struggle that made her so ready to expect injury from a white guy looking at a Gullah dictionary in a gift shop. George explained what was on his mind as he’d strolled, alone, the block around the Old Slave Mart. “Since Savannah, maybe I’m hyper-vigilant about the ways that African Americans do and don’t get included in the city’s history. So thank goodness for that young woman at the museum, for her Sea Island stories and Gullah vocabulary. She’s providing some color around here, and fiercely protective of her people.”
Following a sidewalk across from the wide harbor, we crossed the threshold of Charleston’s yin and yang, from the slave market towards its opposite as we walked south. The luxurious results of forced labor, antebellum homes became palatial, fenced behind wrought iron, facing the harbor’s marine horizons. The dark clouds finally unloaded and a massive squall hit the city’s Battery, Atlantic winds whipping the palmettos.
Defenseless, without rain jackets or umbrellas, we took refuge on the porch of the Edmondston-Alston House Museum. Waiting out the storm, we joined the day’s last house tour. Our guide was a maternal blonde who remained enchanted and excited by the house’s material comforts and original décor. But for all her love of the finer details, I was nonplussed by her failure to scratch the posh surface. It felt disconcerting, immediately after the slave market, to wander lavish rooms, exhorted to note every silver pattern and gilded frame. Our guide’s brief mention of a slave stairwell and slave quarters in a back wing only highlighted how whiplashed labor made this self-celebratory antebellum household function and flourish. We learned so little about the family’s contributions and careers, our guide’s narrative concentrating on the things they left behind. I studied portraits in the dining room only to feel the dullness and stupidity of the aristrocracy’s blithe lives of ease. A graceful, beautiful little society built on a soul-killing system, to which a tiny minority–The Three Percent–clung more vociferously than anywhere in the South.
When I noted dynastic bullshit like the Alston family “Coat of Arms” and learned that the upstairs piazza hosted General Beauregard’s view of the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter, I recalled that Charleston’s Sons of Confederate Veterans had thrown a Secession Ball on December 20, 2010 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s withdrawal from the Union. Described in invitations as a “joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” 300 white Charlestonians reveled in period dress while a multiracial crowd of more than 100 protested outside, including Mayor Riley. NAACP officials compared it to Japanese-Americans celebrating Pearl Harbor or German-Americans celebrating the Holocaust. When Mayor Riley declared, “the cause of this disastrous secession was…to protect the inhumane and immoral institution of slavery,” Secession Ball revelers shouted down their mayor as a liar. Each celebrant had paid a hundred bucks, after all, to celebrate the courage of their ancestors in defending their Southern heritage.
My head again spun from yin to yang as our guide led us through the master’s study. She pointed out an island, Shutes’ Folly, in Charleston harbor, exulting in how the tiny islet was visible from the study’s window. She speculated that the architect deliberately framed the “charming view.” The guide did not mention how a fort on that island, Pinckney’s Castle, imprisoned 304 African children in 1858, and no wonder. The incident is little recorded or acknowledged, and I had resort to a contemporary report in the Dec. 1, 1858 Anti-Slavery Reporter to confirm the story. U.S. federal forces seized an illegal slave trader, the Echo, a half-century after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, packed with stolen African children. “Dying at the rate of ten a day,” the children were held there as authorities in Charleston decided whether to sell them on local slave markets or return them to West Africa, where they’d been purchased for “fifty cents to one dollar” per child. The Anti-Slavery Reporter left the matter unresolved, “there to remain till it should be determined how to dispose of them.” The journalist noted that the nearly worthless individual children would bring profits of $178,000 as a cargo, concluding “such gains are too tempting to be resisted by those who make haste to be rich.”
* * * *
We had Shute’s Folly, now a castle-less sand spit, in our sights again as we cruised to Fort Sumter the next morning. The fort occupied a man-made reef where the Atlantic met the harbor. Whitecaps whipped low rocks, flags whipping straight north. The reconstructed, walled fortress occupied every inch of its Atlantic reef. Fort Sumter felt unreal, just as sail-away ephemeral as Charleston itself, barely tethered to land. It seemed vulnerable to the open Atlantic and attack from any direction on multiple shores. I hustled onto the gangplank, half-believing the island fortress might roil away on a current before I reached the dock.
A young ranger, Jim, a native Charlestonian, herded the boatload of us near the original wall remnants and, as the opening shot of his narrative, asked, “Who fired the Civil War’s first shot?”
Out of a crowd of visitors from all around the U.S. North and South, a middle-aged man yelled, “We did!”
Jim stressed the length of the siege and the ruination of the original fort, which was not yet finished when the Confederates fired on the site on April 12, 1861. Despite everlasting Southern claims that the Civil War was about preserving states’ rights and not about preserving slavery, the war began exactly where the mass of captured Africans were shipped to our shores, here on the lip of Charleston harbor’s open mouth.
Schoolbook versions seemed to begin and end with that first shot, but the long drama of Sumter enacted the entire Civil War in microcosm. The longest siege in the global history of warfare since ancient times, the Confederates took the federal fort shortly after that famous first shot and held on to it. But in1863, the Union focused on recapturing Sumter, forcing the Confederates to endure two years of siege. Accounts focus on the soldiers’ deprivations, the supply lines tenuous or cut altogether, the constant bombardment and rebuilding.
We learned that 500 slaves were the real heroes of Confederate-occupied Sumter, risking their necks and breaking their backs to sandbag and rebuild those improvised walls. Unpaid forced laborers toiled, hopeless as Sisyphus, in the service of their own further enslavement. That’s Historic Charleston for ya.
The young ranger and I stood high on the replica ramparts, overlooking the neighborhood just across the water where he went to high school. I asked Jim how the War was presented in his schooling. “As a battle for state’s rights,” he said, without hesitation. “And only that.”
His forthright answer sounded tinged with regret and wonder. I confessed that my Northern education stressed the ending-slavery narrative and mostly overlooked the excesses of Union destructiveness and occupation. Every day, Jim dealt with that inevitable answer to his opening question–“We did”–and none of us really know who we are, a hundred-fifty years after that War Between the States, that War Against Northern Aggression, that Civil War. We can’t yet even agree on a name for it; we have to come to national parks to get a balanced view of the war’s origins and motives. In our nationwide curriculum, Civil War history seems spun with bias instead of threaded by facts and counter-facts.
Jim hurried with me to the afternoon’s return voyage, breathless with explanations. I was breathless, too, trying out counter-explanations as if I were rehearsing for a debate that would never end, wishing like I could float, Chagall-like, above the whole scene, ethereal, released from this strange, eternal controversy. Fort Sumter felt immaterial, woven of a gauzy, unanswered question. Why does this old, settled conflict feel so raw, so vital, still contested at its very origin?