Alphonso Brown always liked to show his friends and family the downtown Charleston sites with connections to former slaves and black history his ancestors and elderly churchgoers talked about when he was growing up.
At a glance
COMPANY: Gullah Tours
OWNER: Alphonso Brown
RESIDENCE: West Ashley
FAMILY: Late wife, LaQuines; three sons, Howard, Terrence and Joel
EDUCATION: South Carolina State University, degree in music, 1966; Southern Illinois University, 1982, master’s degree in music.
WORK EXPERIENCE: Music teacher at the former Rivers High School, retired 1996; started Gullah Tours in 1985.
One day in the mid-1980s, a tour operator near Marion Square asked him if he was a tour guide. “No,” Brown said. “Is there such a thing?”
Learning there was, he went to city hall, bought a Charleston history book for $25, studied it and after three tries passed the test to earn his license to become a tour guide.
“It’s a very difficult test,” he said. “And it should be. Charleston has some of the finest history in the world.”
Brown, a music teacher at what was then Rivers High School, started out taking people around in his car after school on what became Gullah Tours, a name he took from the language his ancestors spoke that tied directly into the places around Charleston with black history.
After a while, interest grew a little and he borrowed a van from his church, Mount Zion AME, in downtown Charleston to carry a few more people around.
“Word hadn’t gotten out then, and there wasn’t much interest,” said Brown, a graduate of South Carolina State University who later earned a master’s degree in music from Southern Illinois University.
In 1994, he bought his own 14-passenger van. Then, the next year, Southern Living magazine did a feature on Gullah Tours. Interest soared as he fielded calls and emails from across the nation.
“That’s why I had to get this bus,” he said of the 21-seat touring vehicle he still uses around Charleston.
Soon afterward, Brown retired from teaching to dedicate his full devotion to his new career.
By the turn of the century, tourists consistently filled his tour bus.
Today, he averages about 450 passengers a month during the warm weather season and about 300 during the winter months.
Starting the tour
Brown always begins his tours with a little bit of the language he grew up speaking at home in Rantowles, just south of Charleston.
“Weh unnah deh fum?” he asks his passengers, some local, many from across the U.S. and others from around the globe.
While some look befuddled, others pick up on key sounds to respond from whatever part of the country or globe they hail.
Brown translates for those who can’t understand what he said: “Where are you from?” and quickly kicks into his tour.
In school, English was a foreign language to him even though he was born and raised in the Lowcountry. He grew up around family members and friends speaking Gullah, a coastal dialect handed down by former slaves from Africa.
“English was always my worst subject — in high school and college,” he said. “Thank God a ‘D’ was passing. I did make a ‘C’ one time.”
On the tour, Brown talks about a lot of the things his white counterparts sometimes glossed over in years past.
He remembers being on a plantation tour near Charleston several years ago, and the tour guide mentioned the word “servant” twice during her presentation.
“You just can’t continue to evade that issue,” Brown said of slavery.
Today, plantations not only incorporate their slave-holding pasts into their tours but embrace them with restored slave quarters and other offerings, he said.
Brown’s knowledge comes from the black history he picked up while studying to be a Charleston tour guide, but a lot of it came from sitting around with senior citizens after their early morning church service and listening to the stories that were passed down to them from their ancestors, the sons and daughters of slaves.
He talks about the free black man, Richard E. DeReef, who owned a wharf and warehouse on the Cooper River before the Civil War, near where the S.C. Aquarium is today. DeReef owned 16 slaves, and Brown believes he might have dabbled in slave sales as well.
He talks about the graveyard at Bethel United Methodist Church, where whites were buried in one section and free blacks and slaves in another, an instance he called unusual because blacks usually were not buried in white cemeteries.
He talks about the Underground Railroad and the role Emmanuel AME Church played in helping slaves to escape. “The congregation was a major force in contributing to the Underground Railroad,” Brown said.
He always takes visitors by the East Side home of Philip Simmons, the late blacksmith renowned for his ornate artwork on gates and ironwork around Charleston.
He also dispels the commonly held misconception that the City Market, a bustling retail strip of renovated buildings in the heart of the city, was the trading post for slaves.
Slaves were first transported to Sullivan’s Island, where they were quarantined until they were determined to be free of pests. They then were brought to the warehouses on the Charleston waterfront, where they were sold to plantation owners, Brown said.
Brown points to the towering statue in Marion Square of former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun and explains it originally was erected much lower, but blacks desecrated the early monument to an ardent advocate of slavery, and it was later raised.
Brown takes visitors to The Battery and points out Fort Sumter, where the Civil War started, an event that led to eventual freedom for those enslaved. He also discusses the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an armed black unit of Union soldiers that made an ill-fated charge on Morris Island during the war. The 1990s movie “Glory” chronicled the infantry unit and climaxed with the unsuccessful attack.
“Sometimes, people pull me aside and ask what racism was like,” he said. “I encourage them to ask those questions. I call my tour, ‘All the things you wanted to know about black history but were afraid to ask.’ ”
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.
Gullah Tours owner Alphonso Brown has been offering tours about Charleston’s black history since the mid 1980s. Here he stands at the front of his 21-seat touring bus talking about the sites he shows tourists around the Holy City. 6/18/13×
Gullah Tours owner Alphonso Brown has been offering tours on Charleston’s black history since the mid-1980s.×