Charleston's main tourism marketing organization is rolling out an all-new online platform about African American history and culture in the region, and, according to its creators, the existing site is just a start.
"In my opinion, it will never be finished," said Perrin Lawson, deputy director at Explore Charleston.
The new website, "Voices: Stories of Change," is a complete overhaul of its predecessor, Lawson said, which had not been updated in about a decade.
Work on the recently published site started about 18 months ago. The process began with interviews with community members about what events, ideas and issues the platform could highlight.
"That took the most time, but it was the time most well spent," Lawson said of the meetings, which were conducted by Blue Ion, a local firm that provides digital marketing services to Explore Charleston.
The main takeaway, Lawson said, was the wide range of perspectives gathered. That led the project team to seek out local contributors with personal connections to the subject matter.
For example, an article on Robert Smalls was written by outgoing International African American Museum CEO Michael Boulware Moore. Smalls, who famously stole a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor and later became one of the first African Americans elected to Congress, is Moore's great-great grandfather.
Another contributor, Joseph McGill, wrote about his experience founding the Slave Dwelling Project. By spending the night in former slave dwellings and holding corresponding educational events, McGill has tried to raise awareness of those structures, which are often not restored or are uninterpreted.
Most of the pieces are relatively brief, between 300 and 500 words, and fall under a selection of themes. The articles are also connected to a timeline, which starts with pre-Colonial history and leads up to the present day.
An interactive map marks notable spots, primarily on the peninsula, like Emanuel AME Church, the local NAACP office and the Avery Research Center.
Millicent Brown, a longtime community advocate and educator, served as one of the key advisers for the site's creation. She described the site in its current form as a "work in progress," saying it still needs to more directly address the brutality of slavery.
"The pain has to be there front and center," Brown said.
Addressing that pain is a stated goal of the site. The page explaining the project's purpose states that Explore Charleston "will not attempt to rewrite the past."
"We will tell the story in full, and not hide those parts that are ugly and painful," it reads.
The "continued goal," Brown said, should be to ensure that African American experiences — there isn't "an 'African American experience' in Charleston, but many experiences," she said — are present in every resource available to visitors. This separate site can serve as a deeper dive, Brown said, but these stories should be more visible on every platform.
"There is black history embedded in almost every corner of this city," Brown said.
"Voices" isn't a directory of attractions or businesses and won't be used in that way, said Lawson of Explore Charleston.
The stories and the interest they're intended to evoke are its primary purpose, while visitors will be redirected to the bureau's main website for trip planning and business listings.
The site also provides links to several local resources, like the Avery Institute, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and the Slave Dwelling Project, and includes a page where people can contact Explore Charleston with comments, questions or ideas for additional articles to publish on the site.
Explore Charleston is actively seeking out more contributors, Lawson said, and intends to frequently update the content.
Interest from visitors in African American history and culture in the Charleston region has "always been there," but has "only increased," Lawson said, particularly in the last couple years as plans for Charleston's International African American Museum have progressed.
The museum, which will be built on city-owned land along Charleston Harbor, secured approval for its construction contracts last week and will break ground this fall.
One of the hopes for this website, Lawson said, is that it will engage visitors even before they come to the city in a "fuller history" of Charleston.
"It's our job to get people to want to visit Charleston, but it's also our job to get people to visit for the right reasons," Lawson said. "And this is one of the right reasons."