One story goes like this: A free young African American grows up in Charleston in the early 1800s, loses both parents, but is determined to learn all he can. He reads voraciously, studies geography and English grammar and arithmetic, begins tutoring others, starts a school in 1829, studies more — botany, geography, ancient languages — grows the school, grows it more, then must shut it down in 1834 when state lawmakers, fearful of rebellions, make it illegal to teach free and enslaved people of color to read and write.
“Sometimes it seemed as though some wild beast had plunged his fangs into my heart, and was squeezing out its life-blood,” wrote the man in his autobiography. “Then I began to question the existence of God. ...”
Soon after, he left Charleston. In the years that followed, Daniel Alexander Payne became a leader of the AME Church and the key founder and first president of Wilberforce College in Ohio, a stop along the Underground Railroad.
Another story goes like this: A Neapolitan journalist, Luigi Giarrusso, visits Charleston in the 1950s and meets an old countryman, Giosué Guida, on East Bay Street.
Guida waxes nostalgic about the city’s small group of Italian mariners, the once-busy port, the coins dropped by drunken sailors onto the cotton-covered streets and retrieved by enterprising young boys.
“On this street has transpired a large part of the history of Charleston,” he told the journalist. “Half a century ago, we needed three policemen in two blocks, just to maintain order amongst the hundreds of sailors from all nations who were unloading here. Now one half policeman would be enough. But probably it was more beautiful then. ...”
These are the sorts of nuggets one finds in the private Facebook group “Charleston History Before 1945,” which began modestly enough in 2014 and now boasts nearly 29,000 members. The group, started by novelist and Charleston native Josephine Humphreys, is where you might share interesting tidbits about the Lowcountry’s people, buildings, enterprise, literature and art, reliance on slavery, racism, international trade, old neighborhoods and religious communities.
You might want to know details about a particular building. Someone surely will be able to provide them. You might uncover some interesting historical event. Someone surely will know all about it. You might like to understand a certain family connection. Someone in the group surely will be able to fill you in.
Its members include academics, amateur historians, residents with long Charleston lineages, residents new to the Lowcountry, writers and artists, nonprofit administrators, tour guides, journalists and those merely curious about the place in which they live. Many members have but a tenuous link to, but strong interest in, the Charleston area.
“It’s bringing together so many people in Charleston and beyond who love Charleston history, love to talk about it, love to learn about it,” said English Purcell, one of three administrators.
'It took off'
Humphreys first had the idea to start a group devoted to old Charleston in 2013 and launched “The Charleston Nobody Remembers.” But the group became too nostalgic, too sentimental, too personal, so she nixed it and tried again, this time with a more specific name and a clear rule: Nothing after 1945 was allowed. Which is to say, nothing (or not much) in living memory.
“1945 was the year I was born,” Humphreys said with a wink.
That rule helped a lot. The group was far more objective, better able to analyze information rather than react emotionally to it.
“It just kind of took off,” Humphreys said. “At some point, I guess it was two years ago, I handed over the administration to the wonderful people who do it now.”
Purcell is assisted by administrators Brandon Coffey and Rebeccah Williams Connelly, and by moderators Kevin Eberle and Josh Dukes.
The rules are even more strict than before: No politics, no aspersions, no fake names. Posts deemed inappropriate are quickly removed. These people are serious about protecting, and respecting, local history (and the people associated with it).
“Almost every week, someone will stop me on the sidewalk or in the grocery and tell me how much he or she enjoys the page,” said Eberle. “They uniformly explain that it is the only page that they actually look forward to reading. The five of us work really hard to immediately delete any sort of improper content or comments.”
That’s not to say difficult topics cannot be broached and debated, but foul language, name-calling and partisanship are not tolerated, he said.
“Charleston (loosely defined as the Lowcountry) has an abundance of interesting historical topics,” Eberle said. “We pretty strictly enforce the expectation that posts will be topical precisely to avoid having the group become a collection of ‘Does anyone else remember when ...?’ posts and jokey memes.”
'People who care'
Coffey, a 34-year-old Charleston native, joined soon after the group was formed, partly because of his intense interest in historic plantations.
“It became a natural place to share things that I had found,” he said.
Over the years, the group has become loosely affiliated with the Charleston Historical Foundation, Preservation Society of Charleston and other such organizations.
As the membership grew over the years, so has the body of information.
“You can post a question expecting no one could possibly provide an answer, then an answer comes,” Coffey said. “You actually do get a lot of answers and have a lot of people who do really care.”
For members of the group, the answers — any answers — are very exciting. A normal person might not care much about what material originally was used to build something in town, but these people do. They care a lot.
Recently, Eberle bought a photo on eBay of the old Gothic-Revival lodge that once stood at Magnolia Umbra Plantation (which became Magnolia Cemetery in 1850), and he posted the image to the group page. Coffey and others were delighted to discover that the fence surrounding the lodge was originally made of wood, not iron.
Purcell, a 48-year-old manager at the Port of Charleston, said she loves plantation history, genealogy and first-edition books. She joined the group early on. Over time, she has become increasingly interested in the “bad part” of Charleston history, taking an interest in the lives of enslaved people and the places they worked and lived, she said.
She partnered with Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project and the Historic Charleston Foundation to help organize the “Beyond the Big House” tours in 2017.
This is just one way discussions among the members of the Facebook group become something more: projects that peel back the layers of time to reveal details that, together, constitute what we call history.
Sometimes certain ideas or theories are posted that, upon scrutiny, don’t hold up. That’s good, too, Purcell said. “We love it when things are debunked.”
It’s all in the service of the greater good.
“People appreciate having a safe place to come a talk and learn and debate,” she said. “We don’t take sides. Some of us are liberal, some of us are conservative, and that doesn’t matter, all that matters is historical accuracy.”