A Bench by the Road in Charleston

For several weeks I’ve been trying to write what was meant to be a useful post for anti-racist parents wanting to have a non-white-supremacist visit to Charleston–something we put some effort into trying to do when we visited this past Labor Day weekend. After Freddie Gray. After Sandra Bland. After Korryn Gaines, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile. After my whole life as the child of Civil Rights organizers for whom truth and reconciliation mattered; for whom historical memory was key to social justice.

Before today. Before Tyre King. Before Terence Crutcher. They shot him while his hands were raised, like his father taught him a generation before, because we’ve been systematically hunting down Black men for centuries. Before Keith Scott. It was a positive and hopeful trip, but I don’t feel positive and hopeful. Writing it feels more important than before, but also more conflicted.

Before this trip, I’d never visited South Carolina, even though it was right next door. My family supported the NAACP boycott of the state, so it was off my vacation radar most of my adult life. After Ms. Byuarim-Newsome blew the minds of the entire country with her incredible act of civil disobedience, removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse, the gauntlet was thrown. I’ll never forget how overwhelmed and awed I felt as I explained to my kids what she was doing.

photo credit: Democracy Now

photo credit: Democracy Now

When we were looking for a long weekend trip this year, I tried to think of some places that were in driving range and that I’d never visited. The boycott is over, and I knew nothing about Charleston.

We wanted to have fun (and we did!), but how could we shape an anti-racist experience for our family in a place so loaded with painful history? And in a state so unwilling to take responsibility for the legacies of slavery and violent white supremacy? Charleston was the wealthiest city in the South at its heyday and was the main point of entry for slaves for many years. Information like this is readily available, but tips on how to craft an anti-racist visit were harder to come by.

When Google fails, I call my mother. Usually, it would have been faster to call her first. “Oh! So many amazing people from Charleston…Denmark Vesey, the Grimké Sisters, Septima Clark. You know Septima Clark was at Highlander when…” She told me more than I could remember, so I spent a few days reading. I actually remembered the Grimké Sisters because they were on this awesome feminist card game we had when I was a kid. Turns out you can actually do Grimké Sisters tours now because of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings.

photo credit: http://sweetgrassexpress.com/septima-clark-the-lady-behind-the-monuments/

photo credit: http://sweetgrassexpress.com/septima-clark-the-lady-behind-the-monuments/

A friend who had spent a lot of time in Charleston told me it had been a hard place for her. It was beautiful, but that beauty was built with blood money. The contemporary social legacy of that history still intensely colored her experience. The indulgence by monied whites in a tourist experience that celebrated without truth-telling depressed her. That’s the Charleston I was ready for. And yes, I could see that Charleston, but our experience was more complex than that…and somewhat more hopeful.

Our oldest child is a physically active six year old who isn’t interested in hearing grown ups talk, so we knew that we would need to mostly have our history in our heads and be ready for pithy explanations that didn’t break the stride of what we were doing, or we’d lose his interest fast.

The first time I ever talked with him about white supremacy was after Dylan Roof assassinated 9 black parishioners in Charleston at Mother Emanuel in 2015. He was five and I was crying in the public library parking lot after hearing the news on the radio. He wanted to know why someone would shoot people they didn’t know for no reason. I didn’t say mental illness or unemployment or drugs or even racism. I said white supremacy.

I talked about the crippling fear of loss of privilege, and also about how sick society is when you build it on so gross an institution as slavery; how that oppression infects all relationships in society. Owners to slaves, free people to indentured servants, men to women, Europeans to native people, parents to children. There are no relationships that come out unmarked, for both the oppressors and the oppressed. Because there has been no process of truth and reconciliation, no reparations, and no honest society-wide conversation about the legacy of slavery, these wounds have simply festered. Without justice, there can be no peace.

Because we had discussed the shootings (in words a five year old could understand), he had some context for our visit to Emanuel AME Church–the oldest AME church in the south, founded in 1816. We stopped to read the marker, to see the flowers and memorial. We talked about how whites had originally half-heartedly supported the network of Charleston AME churches because it eased the conflicts that arose within their own congregations of how to integrate (subjugate, cope with) the enormous community of black worshipers. How quickly they realized that any situation that gave enslaved and free black people the chance to gather, build community, communicate, and support each other was tremendously dangerous. They placed curfews on church activities; they began to worry that Sunday school was being used as a cover to teach slaves to read. And they were right.

Photo credit: Post and Courier

Photo credit: Post and Courier

I looked at the big bright walls of Mother Emanuel and imagined what a hopeful place it would have been–though the current building was not where Denmark Vesey preached, before he was hanged (after a hasty secret trial where he was not allowed to confront his accusers nor hear the testimony against him). The original building was burned to the ground and the congregation met in secret until the end of the Civil War. We told our son about how Vesey had been born into slavery and bought his freedom. About how he had not been able to buy his family because their owner wouldn’t sell them. About how the Haitian Revolution and the stories brought by the slaves accompanying fleeing white elites had inspired the uprising Vesey planned and was hanged for.

By chance we came across a street performance by a group of guys–almost all Black men–called Straight Outta Charleston. The ultimate showmen, they were deliciously irreverent and managed to work a mostly white tourist crowd–making them slightly self conscious and uncomfortable and fork over their cash happily, all at the same time. “Don’t be scared, we’re only going to hurt you a little bit!” Something inside me cackled with glee as they got a bunch of white bystanders to kneel with their faces mashed into the ground to wait for this…


We drove to Fort Moultrie, where I was prepared for what commentators had described as a small exhibit on slavery that could easily be missed. But in fact there were images of slaves and discussions of slavery woven into the main exhibit that could not be ignored and were powerfully worded–unabashedly laying the blame for Charleston’s success on its exploitation of slaves.





The slavery exhibit was hard to miss and, more importantly, no one was passing it by. I watched all the white patrons who entered turn down that corridor. The exhibit is well done, with original documents, powerful and truthful representations of the middle passage, and the story of a particular family through to modern times and their visit to the region of West Africa where their ancestors had been kidnapped. It was better than I expected, though it’s true I came in with low expectations. Our kids were not at a place where we could engage them with much of anything indoors as the tunnels and passageways of the fort beckoned. But we watched older kids taking time with the full exhibit.

In 1989 Toni Morrison spoke of the lack of historical commemoration of the Black experience in America:

“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to” (The World, 1989).

In 2006 the Bench by the Road project was launched and the Sullivan’s Island bench was placed in 2008. It is a chilling spot to contemplate the hundreds of thousands of kidnapped, tortured, and enslaved people carried to this place from across the Atlantic ocean. It is off the beaten track and utterly unadvertised. It’s directly between the parking lot and the water at Fort Moultrie and should not be missed.


img_20160903_191612323My kids were very taken with the horse drawn carriage tours, but we didn’t do one for a number of reasons. Since we walked around so much, we were still able to eavesdrop on much of the commentary. Some of them explicitly and progressively discussed slavery and race, which surprised me.

We did not visit any plantations because my sense was they were all still owned by the old white families–which might not be accurate–and I didn’t want to give them my money. While places like Drayton Hall advertise exhibits on slavery, reviewers on Trip Advisor say there’s no substantive discussion of slavery. As an aspiring homesteader, I watched the entryways pass by wistfully, but without a shred of regret. Maybe someday one will be run by and for the people whose blood, sweat, and tears created them. The drive down Highway 61 (Ashley River Road) is lovely and worthwhile, regardless.

We did not visit the Old Slave Mart because we missed its somewhat limited opening hours. But we had planned to go. I was uncomfortable about what a shopping destination it appeared to be, but the written text telling the history is supposed to be well done. We were not sure whether it would have been appropriate for our little kids, but were going to do it anyway. Instead we stopped at the entrance and talked about it from outside.

The Night Market, at the Charleston City Market, was a neat experience. The crowd was diverse and laid back. We gave our son a few dollars and helped him budget and check prices throughout the place. We learned a great deal and talked with lots of different people. The building itself is interesting, as the Market Hall at the front has a huge marker on it for the Daughters of the Confederacy. We were there at night and the kids were playing on the stairs while we waited for the trolley bus. Originally the impressive building was used as a Masonic temple, and became the home of the Charleston Confederate Museum in 1899. I can envision the complexity of booting an organization that’s controlled the space for that long, and how much more complicated that is than some other forms of historical justice (new monuments, new markers), but it still made me angry.

The “trolley bus” is a must. The DASH trolley opened in 2011 and is a free circulator through downtown. It’s paid for by the City, the SC Ports Authority, and the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau (businesses), not by CARTA. This is a more progressive financing profile that has been done for a number of downtown circulators. From the hour we spent riding around with the kids, it seems heavily used by local working class folks in the city center, as much as by tourists, which was great. When we were waiting for it once, we asked a local vendor whether it would take us near a part of town we wanted to visit and he said “no, in the rich residential neighborhoods they fought tooth and nail to keep it from coming through, so it stops just before.” Made me like it even more. There are old trolley booths on the inside of the cars and the kids had a blast.


The City of Charleston was governed by Joseph P. Riley from 1975 to 2016. While he’s best known for his long term protagonism of efforts to redevelop downtown Charleston, he also led a five day protest march from Charleston to Columbia to protest the flying of the Confederate flag in 2000. His legacy project–and we cannot wait to go back to visit it–is the International African American Museum on Gadsden’s Wharf, which will open in the fall of 2019. Hopefully the incredible excitement and momentum around yesterday’s opening of the African American History Museum on the DC Mall will be contagious. It gives me chills just thinking about how much it could change the tourist experience in Charleston. The site is where 40% of the enslaved people taken to the US were brought ashore.

The story of historical justice and the commemoration of the Black experience seems to generally be one of catching up and crowding out the racist propaganda, rather than getting it removed. Every once in a while a flag or monument comes down, but far more common is that spaces are carved out for truth telling, alongside these. There’s great debate about remove vs. rewrite and I find myself on the side of telling the truth about the racist monuments rather than taking them down, but generally that doesn’t happen either. Modifying them in any way has proven politically challenging in the extreme.

The Jonathan Jasper Wright historical marker was right beside our hotel.

The Jonathan Jasper Wright historical marker was right beside our hotel.

What is unexcusable in Charleston, though, is that the premier commemorative landscape at the Battery at White Point park has several Confederate monuments and even a huge gaping hole at a spot where several paths come together, which would be perfect for an enormous monument to the struggle for Black freedom, and yet there is nothing. It would be easy to visit that place and think not a thing about slavery.

The perfect spot, at the crossroads. The matching spot on the other side of the gazebo has a monument in it.

The perfect spot, at the crossroads. The matching spot on the other side of the gazebo has a monument in it.

Our visit to Charles Towne Landing ended the trip on a better note. It was a far more interesting place than I expected it to be. The park is the site of the original Charleston from 1670-1680, before it was moved to its current location. There is an early African American cemetery at the site, with signage that takes full responsibility for the fact that the park builders in 1970 destroyed it in their ignorance of what its contents meant. The artifacts and sites of the Native people from the area are marked and treated as central to the story. The expertise of the enslaved African farmers who made the experimental agriculture projects possible–as well as the eventually successful rice culture–is truthfully recounted. There are also exhibits about the role of women in the community, celebrating particular figures like Henrietta de Beaulieu Dering Johnston–whom I had never heard of.

Charleston is beautiful and bustling with much more than white apologists for the Confederacy, hoping wistfully for a return to an era of white dominance. Black tourists visit in large numbers, as well as increasing numbers of visitors of all backgrounds with a more critical approach to the city’s history. Under progressive leadership, the city’s tourist infrastructure reflects this reality. There is inescapable ugliness, and a delicate balance clearly struck with the old South Carolina elite that still controls so much of the economy. The Battery is a place to visit to illustrate how much remains to be done. When the International African American Museum opens, the city landscape will be strikingly altered for the better. We had an incredible trip; our kids learned much more about history and current struggles for justice than on any other trip we’ve taken, and the truth wasn’t buried as far below the surface as we expected.

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