African-American History Sites in Charleston
Charleston is still coming to terms with its difficult history of slavery. Historians estimate that slave ships brought 200,000 to 360,000 men, women, and children into Charleston’s harbor over the course of America’s period of international slave trade. Charleston’s mayor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr., goes so far as to estimate that more than 80% of African-Americans in the U.S. today can trace at least one ancestor back to Charleston. Fortunately, more and more Lowcountry institutions are now recognizing African-American history and creating learning opportunities for locals and visitors. There’s growing interest in Gullah language, crafts, food, and culture. And we’re finally going to have the African-American Museum that local leaders have been talking about for years. The city and other partners recently announced plans for a $75 million International African-American Museum to be open by 2018 near the South Carolina Aquarium. In the meantime, here are five African-American history sites worth a visit in Charleston.
Even the humblest beach houses on Sullivan’s Island are now homes to millionaires, but in the 18th century, the now-posh island was used as a quarantine space for enslaved people brought here from West Africa and the Caribbean. At the beachfront fort that’s operated by the National Park Service, look for signs and exhibits exploring this period in South Carolina history.
The Cigar Factory
Built in 1882 as a cotton mill and converted for cigar making 20 years later, the massive brick building on East Bay Street that’s currently being developed into offices and shops is also a landmark of the Civil Rights movement. Local records show the song “We Shall Overcome” was first used in protest here during a strike by American Tobacco Company workers.
Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture
Now part of the College of Charleston, the handsome brick building on Bull Street was originally the Avery Normal School from 1865-1954: the first grade school and secondary school for African-American students in the city. The research center’s archives and museum are open to the public for tours on weekdays.
Phillip Simmons Gardens
Philip Simmons (1912 - 2009) was a giant in the world of Lowcountry ironwork. Many of the remarkable iron gates in Charleston were made by Simmons, who is also remembered for his contributions to black history. He designed the fences and gates at this public garden on Anson Street, where the bell that hung (and rung!) in his workshop for more than 50 years is also on display.
This 63-acre park of gardens, ponds, and oak groves is also home to a significant monument to Charleston’s pre-Civil War history. A new life-sized bronze statue was unveiled this year recalling the life and history of Denmark Vesey, a free black Charlestonian who was executed in 1822 for organizing an aborted slave revolt.