People often say Charlestonians love their history. Yet, does the city love history or just specific romantic aspects of our past? This year Charleston celebrates the 350th anniversary of the city’s founding. A survey of the city’s most prominent monuments, however, tells a different story. Monuments to the Confederacy dominate our city’s landscape. The city appears obsessed with just four years of its history.
When you examine what is told on historic markers around town and on many carriage tours, it becomes clear that it isn’t just the Confederacy, but a nostalgic image of the world the Confederacy fought to maintain, that many hold dear. Despite this focus on the antebellum period, Charleston’s role in facilitating centuries of chattel slavery is often downplayed. Yet, one cannot overstate the importance of Charleston being the largest importer of enslaved Africans to British North America to its historical, political, and economic significance. The city’s proprietors gained their wealth by exploiting the labor and ingenuity of enslaved people through violence and other insidious means. It was the enslaved who built the agriculture and architecture for which Charleston is heralded. Essentially all the pre-1865 historic buildings that tourists love to look at were built and funded by enslaved labor.
It is ironic that African American history is so often overlooked in Charleston, considering that South Carolina had a black majority from the 18th century until after the turn of the 20th century. Only recently have we seen the addition of historic markers commemorating African Americans’ contributions, such as the marker discussing Robert Small’s stealing of the Confederate ship Planter. But these only scratch the surface
Southern history is not just stories of Confederate men or genteel white antebellum families. An accurate historical narrative of Charleston would increase the presence of African Americans. A more inclusive history would move beyond the Confederate and romantic old South narratives that not only tend to erase the presence and contributions of African Americans but hide the violent, traumatic and deeply racist nature of African enslavement. A closer examination would reveal enslaved people’s fright upon landing at Gadsden’s Wharf, the humiliation of being sold to the highest bidder in a slave mart, and the frequent occurrences of violence, rape and family separation. Charleston’s city government profited from slavery, requiring enslaved artisans to carry state-issued licenses, charging enslavers to jail and issue corporal punishment to enslaved people, and utilizing enslaved laborers to fight fires for the city’s fire department.
When thinking about African Americans’ place within Charleston’s history, slavery is not where our efforts should end. For example, Frances Rollin, born free in antebellum Charleston, brought one of the first civil rights cases following the Civil War, suing a steamship captain who denied her access to a first class cabin. Her successful lawsuit was heard by a military tribunal at the Citadel Military Academy (now the Embassy Suites on Marion Square). Charlestonian Alonzo Ransier served as South Carolina’s first black lieutenant governor in 1870 before representing South Carolina in the U.S. Congress. Black activists from Charleston spearheaded a women’s suffrage campaign in the late 1860s, 50 years before the 19th Amendment. In the 20th century, Charlestonians like Septima Clark were at the forefront of the nationwide civil rights movement, creating literacy programs and training activists to battle for justice and equality.
Even the Civil War history so frequently recounted across the city is skewed. Where is the monument to the 21st United States Colored Troops, a unit that included numerous black Charlestonians and liberated the city in 1865? It is disingenuous to claim Charlestonians care about history when the city commemorates the failed “Confederate Defenders of Charleston” but ignores the story of those South Carolinians who triumphed and ended slavery.
We often hear cries about “erasing history,” but commemoration and history are not the same thing. White Charlestonians illustrated a willingness to change the city’s commemorative landscape when it removed the original monument to John C. Calhoun and replaced it with a new model in 1896. On June 24, the city permanently removed that statue erected in 1896. With Calhoun removed, Charleston now has an opportunity to begin crafting a fuller, more inclusive, and accurate history of the city.
Dr. Shannon C. Eaves is an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston. A native South Carolinian, her research focuses on enslaved women in the antebellum period.
Dr. Adam H. Domby is an assistant professor of history at CofC and the author of The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory.
Cappy Yarbrough is a former research assistant for the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.
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