I’ve always been fascinated by the USA’s deep south, so when I was planning my trip I made sure to include several of the southern states. Charleston is a fairly small and incredibly picturesque city in South Carolina. Their state flag features a crescent moon and a Palmetto tree.
Charleston has been named the best southern city of 2017 thanks to its beautiful buildings, southern cuisine and (fairly) safe neighbourhoods. This southern city does have a darker side, however, and you are never too far away from the echos of the American revolution, the American civil war or the transatlantic slave trade.
A Brief History Of Charleston
The civil war started on Fort Summer, one Charleston’s neighbouring islands, and they have a lot of monuments and graves dedicated to those who fought and died in the civil war. Thankfully (and a little surprisingly) I didn’t see any confederate generals in the mix. They are really into the revolution though.
That Southern Heat
A few people had warned me about the southern heat, but I wasn’t prepared for that level of sheer humidity. You could feel, taste and smell the humidity and I was literally praying for it to rain – which it did, several times. Charleston will make you truly appreciate the beauty of a cold water bottle.
Charleston also has a really handy visitors centre with all the tourist information as well as two sets of toilets and free drinking taps. It can be a lifesaver when you’re craving the cooling caress of air con or you need to steal a few minutes of WIFI.
The Old Slave Mart Museum, Charleston SC
The Old Slave Mart Museum is the only place I had planned to see prior to arriving in Charleston. It’s a fairly small museum consisting of two floors. Both floors display information, artefacts and personal stories from the new world slave trade.
The Old Slave Mart was actually used as a slave market in the 1800s. The slave trade originally took place on the streets of Charleston, but as time went on and slavery became more and more unpopular the residents started to worry that such a blatant display was ruining their public image, so they moved it indoors.
Most of the museum is made up of informative posters which describe the day to day workings of the slave trade.
The bottom floor focuses on the process a of slavery it and explains what an enslaved person was thought to be ‘worth’ depending on their age, gender and skill, how the slaves were kept in a prison, split up from their spouses, parents and children, and how the traders would dye the men’s beards black and shine the women’s hair to make them look younger and healthier. Instead of, y’know, actually taking care of them.
We also looked into how some highly skilled enslaved people were able to earn money, purchase their own freedom and buy their own slaves. Some would use this as an opportunity to bring their family and friends back together, but others would become fully fledged slaveholders. It also described the process from the kidnappings in Africa, the long and often deadly journey and life after enslavement.
I don’t think it’s right to visit a city which owes so much of its wealth and status to enslaved people without remembering who really built the city and how they were treated.
The museum could have done with a few more personal accounts, especially in regards to rebellion and resistance, but it was still an important place to visit. I’m glad such a place exists and Charleston doesn’t try to cover up their colonial past. Not everywhere is so willing, to be honest.
The Old Slave Mart Museum is pretty affordable and it won’t take up too much of your time. I would urge anyone planning a visit to Charleston to include it in their itinerary.
Free Walking Tour: Charleston
Free walking tours are always a great way to get to grips with any city or town that you’re visiting, but they are especially helpful for a small city like Charleston because you cover so much ground and you get to see a lot of the sights in just two hours.
This tour focused on colonial churches, architecture, a beautiful old theatre, the history and culture of Charleston, the civil war, slavery and how important it is to preserve Charleston’s historic appearance.
The city has laws in place which doesn’t allow the destruction of historic buildings, and this makes Charleston a truly unique city in the USA because it will never have skyscrapers or big glass buildings. Technology and businesses will change, but Charleston itself will always look like it’s stuck in a time warp.
Charleston is a very walkable city and there are lots of little galleries, shops, buildings, and museums to discover.
These spikes were built after a slave rebellion plot was discovered.
You never notice your accent until you go somewhere where no one sounds like you. I always thought my accent was kind of neutral and not super obvious, but whenever I say two words to an American they instantly know where I’m from.
Every time the walking tour guide mentioned the British in relation to the civil war she would look pointedly at me!
Day Trip To Magnolia Plantation, Charleston SC
There are several plantations scattered around the outskirts of Charleston. One of the most popular plantations in the area is the Magnolia plantation and gardens.
This plantation has a huge romantic (i.e wild) garden, several swamps, alligators, the famous white bridge, overgrown rice fields, an introductory cinema and a petting zoo!
There were four other people on my tour, all in their forties at least, and we got to the site at about 11:am. The tour I booked included a nature tour of the swamps and a house tour.
The nature tour was really cool. The guide had a gorgeous southern accent, we saw several alligators bobbing their heads out of the swamps, and we covered quite a lot of the grounds in the space of an hour. It was really nice to sit in the shade of the nature tram and not have to stroll around in the sticky wet heat, which reinforces how hard the working conditions would have been for slaves who were forced to work on the grounds all day long.
Can you spot the alligator head?
The house tour was nice, but if it hadn’t been included I wouldn’t have chosen to do it. The inside of the house is nice enough and I can imagine it was great to live there if you were part of the family, but it wasn’t a highlight.
Magnolia plantation runs slavery to freedom tour which I would’ve preferred to go on. It felt a little uncomfortable to visit a plantation and hear about slavery as part of the background rather than the main focus.
The Drayton Family Are Denying the Past
The Drayton family has owned Magnolia house for nine generations and current family members sit on the board and make decisions about the tourism and marketing of the plantation.
This is probably why the entire tour seems so obsessed with telling you how fabulous the Drayton family apparently is.
Both the guides and the induction video go on and on about how nice the Rev. Drayton was, how he made this garden for his wife, how he managed to make a success out of the estate despite being thrust into it from such a young age, and they are very determined to remind you how good the Drayton’s were to their slaves.
The introduction video kept trying to push the idea that, because of Rev. Drayton had two feminist aunts who were heavily into the abolition movement, that must mean he supported abolition too.
There could be a slim grain of truth in this. I’m sure the reverend Drayton thought he was a good man, that he believed he was a humane slave owner. But you have to remember that this family had one of the largest plantations in Charleston. They had hundreds if not thousands of slaves that they seem to have had no interest or intention in freeing.
I know it was a different time and you’re not meant to see it through a modern lens, but I do not believe you can be a ‘humane’ slave owner if you are profiting from other people’s servitude.
It’s 2018 and the Drayton family are still making money off the legacy of slavery. They have been rich for centuries. The Drayton’s were rich even after that awkward moment when they invested all their money in the Confederate army and had to sell their cotton plantation.
I don’t care how ‘nice’ the old Draytons were. All I know is that their fortune was built on hundreds of slaves who did hours upon hours of hard labour in humid, sweaty and bug infested conditions and then they had to go and share a tiny hut with their entire family if they were so lucky to have been allowed to stay with their family in the first place.
These were not nice working conditions. This was not the nice side of slavery. It was perfectly possible for the lovely Drayton’s not to have slaves, but without slaves, their home wouldn’t be the huge tourist attraction it is today.
The Drayton family owe everything to slavery, so naturally, they’ll want to sugarcoat it as much as possible. They probably do it to convince themselves as well, because no one wants to believe their ancestors were bad people.
I’m not saying the living Drayton’s are bad. No one can help the family they are born into. But can we not act like one of the richest slave owners in the region practised ‘ethical slavery’?
There is nothing ethical about paying for a bunch of kidnapped people to do everything for you while you sit around waving your fan and reading the Bible.
Americans, Politics & Tragedy
The journey back from Magnolia Plantation was pretty illuminating. I was driven back with a middle-aged and they kept asking me about the U.K. They thought we used the euro and seemed genuinely confused when I corrected them!
I guess it’s something you wouldn’t really need to know if you’re from the USA, but I couldn’t help feeling a little irked by that. I guess Brexit is starting to rub off on me.
In any case, it was a really interesting conversation. They tried to explain the American health system to them, I explained why no one likes Theresa May, we all agreed that Trump is a freak. When we got back to Charleston, all the roads were blocked because there was a hostage situation involving a disgruntled employee and a gun. The streets were empty and, as I walked back to my hostel, an employee peaked out of Starbucks and asked me if I wanted to come inside. I didn’t know about the hostage situation until I went into a shop on the way back to buy a beer and the guy told me about it.