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2019: A year of culture and creativity in Charleston, in review

This last year of the 2010s decade revealed much about Charleston that has changed, and much that remained the same. In a sense, then, it was like any other year. But was it really?

It’s not every year that we can mark the 50th anniversary of the last grand nonviolent battle of the civil rights movement — the 1969 Charleston Hospital Workers Strike. It’s not every year that beloved storytellers, Dorothea Benton Frank and Anne Rivers Siddons, leave us too soon. It’s certainly not every year that a new jazz club, Forte Jazz Lounge, is opened, or a great Lowcountry artist, Mary Whyte, reveals the product of a nine-year effort to portray America’s war veterans.

It’s not every year that the influential founder of a robust Jewish Studies Program, Martin Perlmutter, steps aside to make way for someone else. And it’s not every year that an important arts institution, the Gibbes Museum, doubles down on its effort to face an uncomfortable past, confess its own biases and seek to remedy imbalances in its collection.

Other institutions — Clemson University, the College of Charleston, the Medical University — also determined that their historic role in maintaining white supremacy and exploiting black workers required redress. Each launched initiatives to improve diversity on campus and make amends.

Ranky Tanky album cover (copy)

"Good Time" was released earlier this year on Ranky Tanky's label Resilience Music Alliance. Provided

Our state’s cultural bounty was enriched in 2019 by artists of all kinds whose work dug into difficult issues, such as opioid addiction, or gained global recognition. Ranky Tanky, the Gullah folk-jazz-gospel band that calls Charleston home was nominated for a Grammy Award for its sophomore release “Good Time.”

A tall ship took the seas. A new arts center came into its own. A town added color to its roadsides and traffic intersections. A historic neighborhood strived to find a way to maintain its identity despite inexorable development and gentrification.

So, yes, in many ways it was a year like any other, and year of urgent originality at the same time. The Post and Courier looks back at some of the big feature stories of the year, invites our readers to revisit them and to consider the road ahead.

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Anne Rivers Siddons in 2003.

Dottie Frank new photo

Dorothea Benton Frank. Steve Rosamilia/Provided

• In 2019 we lost two great dames of Southern fiction, Dottie Frank and Anne Siddons. The former wrote 20 novels, all set in the Lowcountry, and gained millions of fans. The latter was part of the first generation of Southern writers to grapple with a new social order after desegregation, and to assert the importance of the female literary voice.

• Fifty years ago, nurses and other workers at the Medical College and Charleston County Hospital — mostly black, mostly female — went on strike to protest low wages and mistreatment. The demonstrations dragged on for months and drew support from the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Coretta Scott King and Ralph Abernathy joined local leaders such as Mary Moultrie in what would be the last big nonviolent march of the civil rights era. A compromise was reached permitting strikers to claim victory, but it was somewhat bittersweet.

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• That event was remembered by the Medical University of South Carolina and community leaders in 2019. MUSC offered The Post and Courier an inside look at efforts to foster more diversity on campus, both on the hospital side of the enterprise and on the university side.

• Other schools — the College of Charleston and Clemson University in particular — also looked back at a racist history and introduced new efforts to rectify past wrongs. Campus diversity is the stated goal, but it can’t be achieved without a reckoning, officials said. The College of Charleston made a documentary and laid plans to do more; Clemson further developed a robust project titled “Call My Name.” 

• Charleston-based watercolor painter Mary Whyte called 50 names in 2019. Her ambitious project, “We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America,” was launched after seven years of mostly secret planning, travel, interviews, sketching and photographing, and meticulous studio painting. Whyte unveiled 50 portraits at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park in the fall, introducing viewers to veterans of all ages, every branch of the military, and many conflicts.

• The Gibbes Museum of Art has been working with deliberation for a decade to acquire more works by black artists. Its historical neglect of people of color was made explicit in 2010 with the special installation “Prop Master,” which revealed that the museum’s collection of 10,000 objects only included 40 works by African American artists. Since then, the Gibbes has added around 30 works, and it has its eye on many more.

• Two Charleston area boats made the news during 2019. The Spirit of South Carolina, a double-masted schooner that’s an exact replica of a 19th century ship, forged a new partnership with the College of Charleston and upped the ante on a noble bet: that Spirit would become a great, floating school. Its educational priorities include study-abroad opportunities, team-building in Charleston Harbor, access to underprivileged school kids and more. Meanwhile, J. Henry, a 40-foot yawl manned by Tripp Brower and Zach Bjur, set sail on a two-year adventure with a mission to examine how climate change is affecting communities around the world, and how enterprising people are finding ways to cope with sea level rise and other challenges.

• A young South Carolina filmmaker made a short movie about drug addiction in Myrtle Beach. Though the movie relies on an actor in the lead role, his character is based on the experiences of three real people, each of whom fell into the abyss then, somehow, managed to climb out. The film, made in a cinema vérité style, serves as an eye-opener and a warning.

• Ooo, that sweet Gullah music. The band Ranky Tanky — whose members all have ties to the Lowcountry and plenty of experience in jazz, gospel, R&B, pop and world music — has embraced African American folk songs and injected them with a contemporary swing and groove. The results are two terrific albums (so far), a growing fan base around the world (thanks to touring and publicity) and a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Regional Roots Music Album.

Those are some of the cultural highlights of 2019. Much more transpired during an active year in the Lowcountry, from performing arts, literary and film festivals to some compelling new work by watercolor and fiber artists. Albums were made, unique plays produced.

The city-operated Cannon Street Arts Center, located in a former church building, settled into its role as a critical space for Pure Theatre (its anchor tenant) and artists and organizations such as Fletcher Williams III, George Younts and Art Forms and Theatre Concepts.

Soon we will start a new decade of cultural exploration and creativity in the Lowcountry. Here’s hoping its full of adventures, surprises, thrills, challenges and beauty.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

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