Charleston maps Black history from slavery to civil rights

Gloria Ford tells the story of the Gullah people at Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. 
Courtesy of Boone Hall

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Gloria Ford tells the story of the Gullah people at Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Courtesy of Boone Hall

Travel in the South

I’m gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside. I’m gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside, and I ain’t gonna study war no more.

This sonorous lamentation resonates throughout Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens near Charleston, South Carolina. Gloria Barr Ford, an African-American interpreter of Gullah culture and slave life, sings this poignant spiritual outside one of nine brick cabins that once housed enslaved people.

Wearing a purple head wrap and matching long apron, Ford, 72, taps a tambourine softly against her thigh and sways as the audience joins in on the call-and-response.

The song is part of a music and storytelling presentation that celebrates the traditions of the Gullah people, American descendants of West African slaves who lived isolated on South Carolina’s sea islands for generations after Emancipation. This seclusion helped preserve much of their language and heritage.

As a Gullah descendant, Ford welcomes the opportunity to share the contributions of this unique culture with visitors.

“I hope they see that the Gullah deeply depended on God and continue to seek his presence,” said Ford. “I hope visitors leave with a longing to learn more about the Gullah culture and

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Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Courtesy of Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens

Credit: HANDOUT

Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. 
Courtesy of Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens

Credit: HANDOUT

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Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Courtesy of Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

the retention of African customs, which make the Gullah the purest form of Africanisms alive in America today”

Visitors to Boone Hall, established in 1681, can tour the 738-acre grounds, the gardens and the graceful, Georgian-style mansion built in 1936 that contains a collection of antiques. But the real attraction is a self-guided tour of the humble cabins built between 1790 and 1810 by enslaved people whose fingerprints remain visible in the bricks.

Boone Hall is one of several historical sites that preserve Charleston’s sordid history as the epicenter of the North American slave trade for nearly 200 years.

Historian Ruth Miller leads private walking tours of African-American history in Charleston called “Slavery to Civil Rights.” She’s also written a 34-page self-published guidebook by the same name with Alec Cooley available on Amazo

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The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a history museum in Charleston, South Carolina. Courtesy of Explore Charleston

Credit: HANDOUT

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a history museum in Charleston, South Carolina. 
Courtesy of Explore Charleston

Credit: HANDOUT

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The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a history museum in Charleston, South Carolina. Courtesy of Explore Charleston

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

n and the Charleston Visitor’s Center for $20.

Highlights of the tour include the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, a National Historic Landmark and museum adjacent to a public square where Africans were sold by auction. Based on written historical accounts, the sales were a spectacle with bellowing auctioneers touting the skills of individuals who would be torn from their families and sold to the highest bidder. They are the “The Nameless Enslaved,” says Miller, people whose life stories are nonexistent except for mentions in wills, bills of sale and runaway slave ads.

Another point of interest is the Blake-Grimke House, the 18th century structure where abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke grew up in the lap of antebellum luxury with staff of enslaved workers to attend to their every need. Eventually the sisters rebelled against the injustices of a society built on slavery and moved North where they spent their lives fighting for the emancipation of slaves and women’s rights. “American Slavery as It Is,” written by the Grimke sisters and Angelina’s husband, Theodore Dwight Weld, features Sarah’s account of the brutal slave punishments she witnessed in her youth. Published in 1839, it was a powerful anti-slavery treatise.

Today the siblings’ family home houses law offices, but a historical marker honors their memory.

Also noteworthy is the former Jenkins Orphanage at 20 Franklin St., a refuge for black children from 1895 to 1937. Instead of being a somber place, this orphanage resonated with music.

The famous Jenkins Orphanage Band started as a ragtag group of musicians, but it evolved over time and went on to perform for presidents and royalty. William Alonzo “Cat” Anderson, the Duke Ellington Orchestra trumpet player known for his powerful high notes, got his early musical training at the orphanage, as did prolific jazz and blues composer Tom Delaney.

The tour also shines a light on the frequently overlooked “free people of color,” those of African descent or mixed race who were either born free or earned their freedom. In the antebellum period, they had an in-between social status in which they weren’t enslaved, but neither did they enjoy all the rights of white citizens.

Many were skilled craftsmen and business owners who helped shape Charleston society. Some former slaves, like hotel owner Jehu Jones and caterer Sally Seymour, depended on slave labor themselves.

“Visitors are sometimes very surprised that free people of color were slave owners,” Miller said. “It was the economics. It’s so hard to put our frame of reference into the frame of reference of another generation.”

The house where Seymour’s daughter Eliza lived with her husband and at least 22 slaves can be viewed at 92 Tradd Street. A classic Charleston single house, the residence was also a pastry shop and an event venue that members of white society rented out for festivities.

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Emanuel AME Church was the site of a racially motivated massacre in 2015. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Emanuel AME Church was the site of a racially motivated massacre in 2015. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

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Emanuel AME Church was the site of a racially motivated massacre in 2015. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Fast forward to 1960 and the lunch counter sit-in at the Kress & Co. building on King Street, an art deco landmark that was once a popular department store. Students from the all-black Burke High School courageously staged a non-violent protest with the goal of ending racial discrimination. By 1963, Charleston’s lunch counters were integrated.

The building now houses various retailers, but a historical marker commemorates that long-ago sit-in that helped spark the civil rights movement in Charleston.

Perhaps because the atrocity that occurred there is still so fresh in our memories, the Mother Emanuel A.M.E Church on Calhoun Street is the most sobering stop on the tour. The oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South is the site of a horrific mass murder by white supremacist Dylann Roof in 2015. Survivors and family members of victims publicly forgave Roof, and the church has become a symbol of Christian forgiveness and healing.

In the current environment of racial reckoning, a sojourn through Charleston’s black history presents much to contemplate. It chronicles the strides that have been made toward a more egalitarian society, but it also inspires reflection on how far the country must go to achieve true racial harmony.

If you go

Things to do

Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens. $12-$26. 1235 Long Point Road, Mt. Pleasant, S.C. 843-884-4371, www.boonehallplantation.com

Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. $5-$10. 122 E. Bay St., Charleston, SC. 843-727-2165, www.oldexchange.org

“Slavery to Civil Rights, a Walking Tour of African-American Charleston.” A private walking tour for up to six people with Ruth Miller, $200. 843-766-0802, www.lowcountryinc.com

Where to Eat

Nana’s Seafood & Soul. Specialty is garlic crabs, an iconic Gullah dish. Entrees $10-$20. 5117 Dorchester Road, North Charleston, S.C. 843-937-9311, www.nanasseafoodsoul.com

Nigel’s Good Food. Soul food with a Lowcountry spin. Entrees $10-36. 3760 Ashley Phosphate Road, North Charleston, S.C. 843-552-0079, www.nigelsgoodfood.com

Where to Stay

Hotel Bella Grace. A boutique hotel in the Ansonborough district. $199 and up. 117 Calhoun St., Charleston, S.C. 843-990-7500, www.hotelbellagrace.com

HarbourView Inn. A boutique downtown hotel overlooking Charleston Harbour. $269 and up. 2 Vendue Range, Charleston, S.C. 843-853-8439, www.harbourviewcharleston.com

Tourist info

Charleston Visitor Center. During renovations of its 375 Meeting St. location, the center is temporarily housed at Best Friend of Charleston Museum, 23 Ann St. Charleston, S.C. 800-868-8118. www.charlestoncvb.com