It is not possible to tell Charleston’s story without weaving in the narrative of African Americans. The grand plantations, the beautiful historic houses and the immense agricultural wealth that made them possible were built by the hands and expertise of enslaved Africans as part of a horrific epoch of American history.
It is not an easy subject to discuss with children, but Charleston’s past is a complex web of freedom and oppression, honor and disgrace. The African American experience — slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and civil rights — is stitched thickly into the history of our beloved community.
Living in the Lowcountry affords us the privilege of proximity to so much history-making. Spectacular educational opportunities are available to families here at low cost, offering parents and children a window into the world we now live in.
“You cannot understand the present if you don’t know the past,” notes Ruth Miller, author of the book Slavery to Civil Rights and leader of a walking tour of the same name. “You can’t understand why civil rights are so important to African Americans if you don’t know what they lived through.”
When you think of the centers of civil rights in the United States, Charleston probably doesn’t jump to mind. We likely think first of Martin Luther King’s home in Atlanta; the sites of protests in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama; the school district headquarters in Topeka, Kansas, whose Board of Education was sued by Oliver Brown; the U.S. Supreme Court and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
But Charleston may truly be the birthplace of the African American experience. To teach your children about the struggle from slavery to civil rights that persists today in the United States, many of the most telling landmarks are right in your backyard.
The civil rights movement in the United States begins way before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier or Rev. King announced that he had a dream. It dates to the importation of enslaved Africans, 40 percent of whom arrived on American shores in Charleston. The history of civil rights was written by African Americans who involuntarily built most of the city’s renowned historic landmarks and made the community one of the wealthiest in the nation. And of course, the war that brought an end to slavery in this country started with shots fired at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor from Fort Johnson on James Island.
To explain the full story of civil rights to children requires returning to the 18th century and the mass shipment and sale of Africans to the American South.
“There is no other colony in America whose history comes close to Charleston’s when it comes to African Americans,” says Franklin Williams, owner/operator of Frankly Charleston Black History Tours. “Everywhere in the South had slaves but in Charleston slavery was an industry.”
Many slaves arrived by ship to Charleston and were auctioned along with other property like rice, dry goods and farm equipment at the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon at the corner of East Bay and Broad Streets. The Old Exchange is open for docent-led tours every day 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during which this part of its history is explored, along with its role in the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution. One tour focuses specifically on enslavement and Reconstruction.
When open air slave auctions were banned in 1856, they moved inside to what is now The Old Slave Mart Museum at 6 Chalmers St. Make reservations for staff-led programming aimed at children in third grade and above.
A gorgeous 37-acre Gullah-Geechee heritage site, McLeod Plantation has carefully preserved both its 600-year-old oak trees and its history. The story of all its inhabitants — the enslaved Africans as well as the rich white owners — are recounted in detail.
“McLeod Plantation gives a voice to the enslaved,” says Courtney Hicks at the Avery Research Center. “Sure, it’s beautiful, but get beyond the house and learn about how the people were treated, how young children were worked, the trauma and the pain.”
Charleston is home to several of the oldest churches for African Americans in the South, started informally before the Civil War and officially dedicated immediately after its conclusion. Among the notable are Morris Brown AME Church, Mt. Zion AME, Old Bethel Methodist Church and Emanuel AME Church, the oldest black church in the South. Mother Emanuel served as home church for Denmark Vescey and Morris Brown, allegedly leaders of a slave insurrection in 1822. The assassination of nine parishioners five years ago demonstrated that the violent history against African Americans is not simply an antebellum issue.
Most of these churches are easy to tour, though Mother Emanuel requires reservations. The best way to visit, says Franklin Williams of Frankly Charleston Black History Tours, is to attend services.
Most locals avoid Market Street and the hordes of tourists, but African American history is on display in the form of sweetgrass basket sales, says Avery’s Courtney Hicks. “Ask the women about their raw material and about the history of the baskets because Gullah history and West African history are part of Charleston’s history,” she says.
Another site that can be seen and understood simply by walking around historic downtown are the identifiable iron creations of master 20th century blacksmith Phillip Simmons. His decorative wrought iron gates, fences, balconies and window grills can be seen extensively on the upper East Side and Rainbow Row, and identified by their tight coils and intricate patterns. Simmons was considered a national treasure until his death in 2009.
Simmons’ pieces, along with sweetgrass baskets and other artifacts of African American life in the Lowcountry are on display at the Avery Institute at 125 Bull Street. Once an elite private school for black children before public schools were desegregated, it is now open as a museum with a restored classroom, a Denmark Vesey exhibit and rotating showings of African American artists.
Avery Institute is a must-see for anyone interested in the civil rights movement, says Franklin Williams. “It’s a treasure trove — a Fort Knox — of African American history,” he says.
Before her name was on the Charleston crosstown, Septima Clark was the mother of the civil rights movement here, rising to prominence after being fired from her job educating black children for joining the NAACP. She went on to continue her fight for education and worked beside Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, who called her the “Mother of the Movement.”
In 2020, the country continues to be roiled by racial discord. Perhaps a deeper understanding of the African American experience by parents and children alike can help us all appreciate the common human condition.