Want to Really Get to Know Charleston? Explore Its African American History

From the arrival of the first slave ship through the civil rights era and into the present, Charleston’s Black residents have shaped the Holy City’s food culture, art, music, agriculture, faith, and reputation.

Want to Really Get to Know Charleston? Explore Its African American History

The Old Slave Mart Museum once had a slave jail standing behind it.

Courtesy of Explore Charleston

When you’re visiting tidy, pretty Charleston, it’s easy to forget the ugly fact that slave labor built all those handsome old townhouses, historic state buildings, iconic church steeples, and even the brick forts on islands in the harbor. The enslaved people who lived here forever changed Charleston—and not just through their work in construction and in the fields, houses, and kitchens of the region. They introduced their own languages and rich traditions to the local culture. In South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the blended creole language of West African dialects and English—and the speakers of the language—became known as Gullah, and their foodways, art, crafts, and music exerted influence that still shapes Charleston.

To understand and learn about the centuries of Charleston’s racial conflict and coexistence, visitors to historic sites can see relics of the past that still resonate today: from the statue of a freedman who was executed for fomenting an uprising to the location of a lunch counter sit-in by Black teenagers to the slave quarters of an old plantation.

White church with red car parked in front of it

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Mother Emanuel, on Calhoun Street is the congregation’s third home; the first was burned by white citizens, the second was destroyed in an earthquake.

Courtesy of Explore Charleston

Mother Emanuel AME Church

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the southern United States, was founded in 1816 in Charleston and has been a touchstone of racial tension in the city ever since. In 1822, local whites burned down the church and executed 35 men, including church elder Denmark Vesey, for their involvement in a slave revolt plot. Fear of more potential uprisings led white Charleston to outlaw Black churches, so Mother Emanuel’s congregation met and worshipped in secret until after the Civil War.

During the 20th century, the church hosted thinkers and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Booker T. Washington and maintained a reputation for race activism and labor rights. In 2015, a shooting at Mother Emanuel by a 21-year-old white supremacist left eight congregation members and the pastor dead. The national press seemed almost as shocked by the congregation’s graceful and swift forgiveness as by the unspeakable crime. In June 2019, Emanuel, a documentary chronicling the massacre and the church’s reaction of forgiveness and faith, was released.

Old Slave Mart Museum

Visit: general admission tickets are $8; oldslavemartmuseum.com

Often staffed by docents who can trace their family history to enslaved people from the area, the Old Slave Mart Museum tells the story of Charleston’s prominent role in the brutal system of purchasing and trading human beings. Around 40 percent of the enslaved people entering the United States came through the port of Charleston and were handled by the city’s brokers, lawyers, and auctioneers. When 19th-century visitors to Charleston began to chronicle their horrified reaction to the sight of people being bought and sold, the city decreed that the slave auctions be moved indoors, away from the prying eyes of outsiders.

This structure, built in 1859 in Charleston’s French Quarter, is believed to be the last extant slave showroom and auction house from the scores that once existed. Inside the museum, through photos, text panels, and a few chilling artifacts, visitors learn about the city’s slave trade and about the people who were held and sold here.

Charleston City Market

Erected in 1804, the Charleston City Market is one of the oldest public markets in the United States and its over 300 vendors sell T-shirts, souvenirs, gourmet sandwiches, and, notably, local crafts like sweetgrass baskets and homewares made in the Gullah tradition. The coiled construction of the baskets is a technique handed down by enslaved people brought here from Sierra Leone, and many of the basket shapes are well-suited as tools for rice farming, both in West Africa and in the United States.

Wooden bedframe a room

Visit the slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation to explore an often-unspoken part of the story of Charleston.

Courtesy of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Visit: general admission tickets are $29; magnoliaplantation.com/admissioninfo.php

People generally go to Charleston’s most-visited plantation, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, to tour the grand house and walk the impressive gardens to admire the azaleas and camellias. Those who wander a bit further can view the four slave cabins still standing to see how the plantation’s other residents lived. An engaging 45-minute guide-led tour offered by the plantation, “From Slavery to Freedom,” allows visitors to explore an often-overlooked dark side to historic houses.

Denmark Vesey Statue

In 1799, Denmark Vesey used the $1,500 he won in the East Bay Lottery to purchase his own freedom from slavery. Vesey remained in Charleston to be near his still-enslaved family and worked as a skilled carpenter. As an early member of the founding body of the local African Methodist Episcopal Church, he advocated for education and freedom for all Blacks. In 1822, Vesey was arrested, tried, and hanged with others for taking part in a plot to overthrow local slave owners. A life-size statue of Vesey was unveiled in Hampton Park in 2014. The monument was the site of a Black Lives Matter vigil held the day after the 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church.

The Old Citadel

The castle-like building on Marion Square known as the Old Citadel was first constructed in 1829 as the South Carolina State Arsenal because the city’s white populace—outnumbered by enslaved people by nearly 30,000 at the time—were increasingly uneasy about the possibility of a rebellion, especially after the thwarted slave revolt of 1822. The arsenal was converted into a state military academy in 1842. Just a month after South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, Citadel cadets fired some of the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Moultrie. After the war, the building was under U.S. federal control until the military academy was re-established there in 1882. The Citadel Military College moved to its present location on the city’s west side in 1922; the Old Citadel building is now part of an Embassy Suites hotel.

Fort Wagner or Battery Wagner

Book a tour: Morris Island tours are $250 for up to 6 guests; flipperfinders.com/specialty-tours/morris-island-drop-off/

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a white abolitionist, led the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, most famously at the 1863 Second Battle of Fort Wagner on Morris Island in Charleston Harbor. Shaw was among the many who died during the assault. The formation of the regiment—the second African American regiment of the Union Army—and the South Carolina battle were dramatized in the Academy Award–winning film Glory. Morris Island, and the crumbling fortifications left of Fort Wagner, can be visited via guided tours from Mount Pleasant or Folly Beach.

Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, formerly the Avery Normal Institute, has a collection of nearly 4,000 primary- and secondary-source materials that document the legacy of African Americans, especially those living in the Lowcountry. From its founding in 1865 until its closure in 1954, the institute trained African American students as teachers, leaders, and businesspeople. In 1985, Avery was reborn as a research center for scholars and brought into the College of Charleston.

Although the center is not currently open for tours or walk-in researchers, its formidable collection is expanding and important scholarship continues. Exhibits normally open to the public include the Avery Room, a recreated 18th-century social studies classroom, and the McKinley Washington Auditorium that holds displays of artworks and artifacts from the collection.

Painted portrait of a person wearing a collared shirt and brown pants

A self-portrait by Gullah artist Sam Doyle is part of the Southern art collection at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Onk Sam (self-portrait), By SamDoyle (American, 1906–1985); House paint on wood panel; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles L. Wyrick, Jr.; 2017.010.0003

Gibbes Museum of Art

Visit: Adult tickets are $12; gibbesmuseum.org/visit/admission

The Gibbes Museum of Art, home to more than 10,000 works of art, includes influential pieces by such African American artists as Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, and Romare Bearden, as well as fine examples of local sweetgrass baskets. Three extraordinary artworks on display, in particular, resonate with local flavor and are worth seeking out: full-length portraits of Black citizens, painted in house paint on panels of scrap wood and metal by self-taught Gullah artist Sam Doyle.

South Carolina Historical Society Museum

Visit: Adult tickets are $12; schistory.org/museum/#tickets

The Robert Mills Fireproof Building, a National Historic Landmark, was designed in 1826 by the architect of the Washington Monument and constructed by enslaved people. Since September 2018, the landmark has served as home to the South Carolina Historical Society. Visitors can tour galleries that showcase 350 years of state history, from displays of artifacts and documents like carved stone mileposts, auction notices, notable correspondences, daguerrotypes, and plantation maps to modern interactive kiosks that narrate the experiences of several citizens and documentary films.

S.H. Kress & Co.

On April 1, 1960, two dozen Black students from Charleston’s Burke High School gathered at S.H. Kress & Co., a five-and-dime store located at King and Wentworth streets. The lunch counter there—and those at other Kress stores—denied service to Blacks at the time. The teens refused to leave their stools and were eventually arrested. Their brave action and subsequent arrest inspired a new surge of support in the local civil rights movement. A brass plaque mounted on the front of the three-story art deco building, now an H&M department store, marks the site.

African American History Tours in Charleston

Frankly Charleston

Book a tour: $32 for adults; franklycharleston.com

A family business led by professional tour guide Franklin D. Williams, Frankly Charleston teaches visitors about the African American history of downtown Charleston. Walking tours cover the antebellum section of colonial Charleston’s Fifth Ward (now known as Wraggborough), showing how urban enslaved people lived differently from their rural counterparts.

Gullah Geechee Tours

Book a tour: 1 hour, $50 for adults; gullahgeecheetours.com

With an unflinching look at Charleston’s role in the slave trade, Gullah Geechee Tours presents a new perspective on Holy City history. On walking tours of the Battery (which leave from the Confederate Defenders of Charleston statue), Gullah historian and self-described “full-blooded Gullah Geechee” Godfrey Gullah Jac takes visitors to hanging trees, slave auction blocks, underground dungeons, and more while teaching about contemporary Gullah Geechee culture.

Sights and Insights Tours

Book a tour: 1 hour, $20 for adults; sitesandinsightstours.com

For an in-depth look at Charleston with an emphasis on African American history, book Sights and Insights’s “Charleston Black History, Gullah Geechee, and Porgy & Bess” tour, offered in one- and two-hour versions. Led by certified tour guide, author, and lecturer Al Miller, the bus tours cover important sites in downtown Charleston like the Aiken-Rhett House, Catfish Row, and the Old City Jail.

Charleston African American Tours

Book a tour: $35 for cash-paying customers and $37.50 for credit cards; charlestonafricanamericantours.com

Nate Hutchinson and John Warren are both licensed tour guides—and descendants of enslaved Africans. Nate speaks fluent Gullah, while John specializes in Charleston rice culture. As part of Charleston African American Tours, they lead a variety of excursions to sites like Old City Market, the Sea Islands, the historic Battery, and Charleston’s many former plantations and teach about topics like Gullah Geechee culture, the Stono Rebellion, and important African American figures.

Beyond the Fields: Enslavement at Middleton Place

Book a tour: “Beyond the Fields” tour is 40 minutes, included in the general admission price of $29 ($32 in person) for adults; middletonplace.org

You can visit Middleton Place on your own, but for a more thorough experience, book the “Beyond the Fields: Enslavement at Middleton Place” tour, which offers an in-depth look at the former plantation’s role in the larger institution of American slavery.

This article was originally published on July 3, 2019; it was updated on November 16, 2022, with current information.

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