2016-11-15 12:40:21
In Charleston, Coming to Terms With the Past

In the spring of 1862, cloaked in the predawn darkness of Charleston Harbor, 23-year-old Robert Smalls stood aboard the C.S.S. Planter, a Confederate transfer and gunboat, and plotted his escape.

In his day, Smalls was a rarity, a black enslaved harbor pilot. He was also clever: That morning, with his three commanding white officers carousing ashore, Smalls began executing his plan. With eight fellow slave crewmen in tow, Smalls, wearing a captain’s uniform, cranked up the vessel’s engines, and in the moonlit waters, headed toward the promise of freedom.

Guiding the ship past Confederate forts and issuing checkpoint signals, Smalls steamed up the Cooper River, stopping at a wharf to pick up his wife, child and his crew’s families. In dawn’s light, the Planter, flying a white sheet as a surrender flag, made it to his cherished destination: a Union Navy fleet whose officers eyed him, dumbfounded, as Smalls saluted them. “I am delivering this war material including these cannons and I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use,” he said. Freedom, for Smalls and his crew, had arrived.

On a recent sunny afternoon, more than a century and a half later, Michael B. Moore was standing on Gadsden’s Wharf reflecting on his great-great-grandfather’s remarkable journey — and other triumphs and tragedies born on that spot.

It took some imagining: The wharf, now a city park populated by soccer-playing children, dog-walking young professionals and commercial cruise ships, has morphed numerous times since its heyday as the busiest port for the nation’s slave trade capital. Between 1783 and 1808, some 100,000 slaves, arriving from across West Africa, were transported through Gadsden’s Wharf and other South Carolina ports, and sold to the 13 colonies. “This place personalizes for me what my ancestors lived through,” said Mr. Moore, chief executive of Charleston’s International African American Museum, scheduled to open in 2019. “I just can’t imagine what they felt here on this space. This is where they took their first steps on this land.”

Mr. Moore walked inland a couple hundred yards, where incoming slaves, after being quarantined off the coast at Sullivan’s Island, were warehoused — sometimes for months at a time. In what’s been called facetiously “the Ellis Island for African Americans,” thousands of slaves waiting to be auctioned off as domestics and laborers throughout the South died in those warehouses.

In a few months, construction crews will break ground to build the museum on the wharf. “Right there,” Mr. Moore said, pointing directly ahead, “in what’s now a parking lot, is where 700 black people froze to death. I can only wonder what we’ll find when we start digging up this place.”

Charleston, almost paradoxically, is an easy place for tourists to love. Visitors delight in the city’s cobblestone streets, its Gothic-style churches, Greek Revival storefronts, its array of trendy restaurants and hotels. As Travel & Leisure magazine, which earlier this year ranked Charleston first of its 15 world’s best cities, gushed: “Charleston is much more than the sum of its picture-ready cobblestone streets, clopping horse carriages and classical architecture. Much of the port city’s allure lies in constant reinvention and little surprises (like free-range guinea hens clucking up and down Legare Street, sous-chefs flying by on skateboards heading into work, or Citadel cadets honking their bagpipes on sidewalks in summertime).”

Yet for all its appeal, Charleston also evokes a brutal chapter of American life, a city built on and sustained by slave labor for nearly two centuries. Beneath the stately facade of this prosperous capital city is a savage narrative of Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan violence, right through the civil rights movement.

One doesn’t have to reach that far back to understand what makes Charleston a haunting place to explore (an estimated 40 to 60 percent of African-Americans can trace their roots here). Only in 2015 did the Confederate flag come down from its state capitol, prompted by a young neo-Nazi, Dylann S. Roof, who brandished a handgun and massacred nine people during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the nation’s oldest black churches and hallowed ground of the civil rights movement. That one of the casualties, Cynthia Hurd, was the sister of a close colleague only hardened my sense that the so-called Holy City, nicknamed as such after its abundance of churches, was holding fast to its legacy of racial hatred.

Even as this article went to press, Charleston was bracing itself for two racially loaded trials; on Broad Street, at the United States District Court, 22-year-old Mr. Roof faces 33 federal charges — including hate crimes and religious rights violations — in the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. A block away, at the Charleston County Judicial Center, the former Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager faces charges in the murder of 50-year-old Walter L. Scott, an unarmed black man gunned down as he fled a traffic stop.

And yet, amid a national climate of rising racial tension, the compulsion to engage this history was for me visceral, akin to the urge to revisit a crime scene. I can only suspect that a similar urge to peel back the layers of pain and survival of blacks in America, at least partly, is driving some of the rise in attendance at the nation’s black history sites, including the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, where advance timed tickets are reportedly no longer available through March 2017. I hoped that, on some level, engaging the painful history of human atrocity and heroism in Charleston might illuminate the racial chasms dividing Americans.

“There are stories of resilience and courage here that will lift everyone,” said Joseph P. Riley Jr., who retired from office this year after 40 years as Charleston’s mayor. For a white Southern politician, his politics were decidedly progressive: His decision back in 1975, upon being elected, to appoint a black police chief, for example, earned him the moniker of “L’il Black Joe” among white racists.

Still, it wasn’t until he read Edward Ball’s “Slaves in the Family” in 1998 that he came to fully appreciate — and lament — the gravity of the city’s past. “Slaves in the Family,” which won the National Book Award, chronicles the Ball family’s life as prosperous slave owners and traders in Charleston, an enterprise that started in 1698 and swelled to more than 20 rice plantations along the Cooper River.

Through interviews, as well as through plantation records and photographs, the author traced the offspring of slave women and Ball men, personally contacting some of an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 of these living children, and documenting heart-wrenching stories of his family’s cruelty and abuse as owners and traders off the coast of Sierra Leone.

“I really started to understand that we had an important role in the international slave trade, Emancipation and Jim Crow,” Mr. Riley said.

Around then, Mr. Riley began brainstorming ways to illuminate Charleston’s tale of two cities, which he says most historians and tour guides have shortchanged. Before the early 20th century, historical accounts of slavery generally downplayed the “peculiar institution” as paternalistic and something less than the organized, profitable industry it was. The oversight is egregious: By the mid-1800s, there were some four million slaves in the United States, with nearly 10 percent of them, or 400,000, living in South Carolina.

Fortunately, this changed during the first part of the century as publications appeared, like “Slave Trading in the Old South” by the historian Frederic Bancroft, whose research shed light on the lucrative business of domestic slave trading. Bancroft listed names of slave brokers, commission merchants and auctioneers, and detailed how slave auctions were advertised and carried out. As Bancroft wrote: “Negroes were displayed individually and in groups at the front of the building as auctioneers, planters, traders and curious onlookers watched.”

The United States banned international slave trading in 1808, but the practice continued domestically, and Charleston became a major port for interstate trade. Even in the mid-1800s, when the city prohibited public slave trading, traders moved into the brick enclosed yards downtown around the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon, at East Bay and Broad Streets. The building is a popular tourist attraction these days, highlighting its various uses throughout history, including holding prisoners of war during the American Revolution.

The primary catalyst behind South Carolina’s booming slave trade was rice production. The appeal of West Africans to plantation owners was simple: The moist climate of their homeland bore striking similarities to South Carolina’s swampy Lowcountry. English planters proved to be poor rice producers as the process of planting, cultivating, harvesting and preparing the crop for market was intricate and physically arduous. Plantation owners divided the tedious process between their expert men and women, West African slaves, with men doing the dangerous work of clearing swamp lands, and women sowing the rice.

The process was messy, physically draining and relentless; it included scattering rice seedlings onto mud-soaked soil, working them into the earth with bare feet, and then threshing after harvest, which required tediously removing rice from hulls, pounding the rice repeatedly and then separating the hulls from the rice in handmade winnowing baskets.

South Carolina’s dependence on slave labor was staggering. In the late 1600s some four-fifths of the state’s population was white; by the mid 1700s, slaves accounted for more than 70 percent of its population.

Vestiges of prosperity built on slave labor abound. For example, there’s Drayton Hall, an architectural masterpiece completed in 1742 for South Carolina governor John Drayton; slave labor was used on the plantation that grew indigo and rice.

Among Charleston’s biggest slaveholders was the Middleton family, which from 1738 to 1865 owned some 3,000 slaves on its numerous plantations. These days, led by a family descendant, Charles Duell, the 65-acre Middleton Place Plantation, a designated National Historic Landmark, creates exhibits around the genealogy and contributions of its enslaved workers. “Whether it was knitting or weaving or corn grinding, or tending the rice fields — all these activities were performed by African-Americans,” said Mr. Duell, who has hosted three reunions that bring together the property’s European American and African-American descendants. “They created the wealth that made all this possible.”

Magnolia Plantation, founded by the Drayton family in 1676, has similarly launched a preservation project. It celebrates the importance of Gullah culture, which enslaved West Africans brought to the Lowcountry, but also demonstrates how life was led in slave dwellings that date to 1850, several of which are being preserved.

Walking along the streets of downtown Charleston, the painter Jonathan Green describes a city that has been so enthralled with its plantation aristocracy that it has mostly neglected to celebrate its black heritage, or Gullah culture. That culture includes its Creole language, traditions in food and dance, and critical expertise in agriculture. Mr. Green himself was born and raised in a nearby Gullah community in Beaufort, and his bright, bold paintings of his ancestors — in church pews, on grassy landscapes and against ocean sunsets — offer a romantic antidote to the erasure of much of that Gullah past.

But walking the bustling city streets, Mr. Green proves equally adept at recalling black figures whose rich tales are integral to this city’s story. Along these well-preserved streets, Mr. Green’s reminiscing easily comes alive as we move past the Old Slave Mart, among the few remaining relics of the city’s interstate slave trade.

Not to be confused with the nearby outdoor Charleston City Market, the Old Slave Mart is a museum these days, housing African-American arts and crafts. I had walked through it on an earlier occasion; but standing now in its shadow, beside Mr. Green, I recalled its eerie cavernous brick rooms — the “barracoon” or slave jail in Portuguese, the morgue. “It would have been almost impossible to run away,” Mr. Green said. “From Jacksonville, Florida, all the way up to Cape Fear, North Carolina, was nothing but a human prison camp.”

Such oppression sparked many revolts, but few such insurrections proved more ambitious — or so scrupulously studied — as Denmark Vesey’s. Vesey’s birthplace has never been confirmed, but historians say he was likely born on a St. Thomas sugar plantation before being sold, around age 14, to the Bermuda-born slave trader Joseph Vesey, whose name he took, as was customary.

In the late 1700s, Denmark Vesey’s owner relocated to Charleston, and some years later, Vesey purchased his freedom from his master for $600 from a lucky $1,500 lottery ticket windfall. A few years later, in 1822, he attempted what historians agree would have been the nation’s most elaborate and largest slave revolt — planned, in part, to gain Vesey’s own wife and children’s freedom. It’s estimated that some 3,000 slaves got word of Vesey’s planned June 16 insurgency, and were prepared to follow his directive to kill every white person in sight, steal their weapons and cash from banks, and ultimately escape by boat to Haiti.

But some slaves, fearing retribution, leaked the plan to authorities. Vesey was hanged, with, according to various sources, as many as 35 others. Today, towering amid the oak groves and ponds of Hampton Park, is a life-size bronze statue of Demark Vesey, which the city unveiled in February 2014.

But Vesey’s most enduring contribution to Charleston is arguably his cofounding of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which, at 200 years old, is the oldest A.M.E. church in the South. Vesey’s botched slave revolt resulted in angry white mobs burning down the original structure, but the congregation continued worship services underground and rebuilt Mother Emanuel, as it is known, following the Civil War (this structure, designed by Vesey’s son, the architect Robert Vesey, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1886).

The Mother Emanuel I visited has been sitting grandly on Calhoun Street since 1892, its current white-brick-and-stucco facade prominent from blocks away. Inside the church, the pews, altar, Communion rail and light fixtures from the original edifice have been preserved, but it’s the church’s role in the fight for racial freedom, and the pantheon of leaders who have spoken from its pulpit — from Booker T. Washington to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — that make this site hallowed ground.

Charleston has recently begun trying to heal racial wounds by celebrating its black history. Last April, for example, in the heated aftermath of the Walter Scott shooting, a racially mixed group of nearly 100 local movers and shakers dined together in a re-creation of Nat Fuller’s long-forgotten racial reconciliation feast 150 years before.

Fuller was a former slave and classically trained chef who, in the 1800s, rose to become an elite caterer; his restaurant, the Bachelor’s Retreat (Fuller’s master permitted his ownership, and took a portion of the profit), was a favorite within Charleston high society, according to the University of South Carolina professor David Shields.

In the spring of 1865, in the aftermath of Charleston’s surrendering to Union forces, Fuller invited a racially integrated group of local whites and blacks — some who had purchased their freedom and others newly freed — to celebrate the end of the Civil War.

Despite a scarcity of food supplies caused by the war, the well-connected Fuller called for an abundant meal. As one white socialite had scoffed in a letter: “Nat Fuller, a Negro caterer, provided munificently for a miscegenation dinner, at which blacks and whites sat on equality and gave toasts and sang songs for Lincoln and freedom.”

Charleston’s recent commemorative feast — which, according to Charleston City Paper, included “poached bass, a ramekin of shrimp pie bursting with fragrant herbs. Capon chasseur, venison with currant demi-glace, squab with truffle sauce” — proved successful as well.

Among the guests at the feast was the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a state senator, who two months later would be among the dead at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Mr. Riley, the former mayor, said the church massacre inspired him to accelerate his efforts to make real a vision he’s nurtured for years: building the International African American Museum of Charleston, which today he calls “the most important work of my life.” He envisions the museum as an elevated space on Gadsden’s Wharf that features permanent and rotating exhibitions and a genealogy center. And similar to Civil War sites in Vicksburg and Gettysburg, he plans for the museum to develop a school curriculum that teaches students about the American slave trade. “The tragedy at Emanuel made me even more determined to bring this to fruition,” Mr. Riley said. “That hateful bigot clearly didn’t know his history,” he added, referring to Mr. Roof.

Earlier this year, Mr. Riley tapped Michael Boulware Moore to lead the museum, projected to cost $75 million. Mr. Riley said he liked Mr. Moore’s background as a successful senior marketing executive with such major brands as Coca-Cola and Kraft. Of course, Mr. Moore’s background as a direct descendant of Robert Smalls, whose escape on the C.S.S. Planter led to his rise as a South Carolina congressman during the Reconstruction era, was a plus, too. “His lineage couldn’t be better, but he’s also a very talented person,” Mr. Riley said.

Mr. Moore himself said the opportunity to build a museum on the same site in which his ancestors arrived as slaves is humbling — and carries with it an almost overwhelming sense of obligation to deliver. “I’ve heard from some people who are concerned there’s going to be Disneyfication of our African-American history,” Mr. Moore said, standing on the wharf. “That’s not going to happen. I feel a tangible obligation to our ancestors to do this right.”

At that moment, as if on cue, a white schooner with two masts appeared off the harbor. Mr. Moore gazed out into the distance “Wow,” he said, “That looks almost like a slave ship. Had we been standing here back then, a couple hundred years ago, that’s exactly what we would have seen. Yeah, it’s kind of freaky, isn’t it?”