Tours are not just for tourists. Charleston’s history, entrenched in centuries-old architecture and calming natural landscape, offers year-round delights to natives and long-time transplants. One thing is for certain: There’s always something new you can learn about what’s old in the Lowcountry.
Acknowledging the full extent of Charleston’s role in the slave trade, understanding Gullah Geechee culture, learning about the LGBTQ community’s past and connecting with the environment are topics often left out of standard tours geared towards visitors.
But new tour companies now reconcile an often canned version of Charleston’s history with the exciting stories of the city’s past.
Bringing the past into the present
North Charleston native Akua Page started her own walking tour company, Geechee Experience, about a year ago.
“I was just frustrated with the lack of accurate history,” Page told the City Paper. On a tour of Charlestowne Landing years ago, she heard the guide say Charleston was founded by Native Americans, Africans and Europeans who worked together to build the city.
“I’m like, ‘That’s not what really happened though,’” she said. She became determined to tell the true story. “That’s what people want to know — they want to know what really happened.”
When Page realized there were no touring companies in her hometown of North Charleston, she was inspired to do something about the lack of common knowledge of the area’s history.
“Riverfront Park, the old naval base in North Charleston, used to be a rice plantation,” Page said. “There is no historical marker. There is nothing out there that acknowledges that history whatsoever. There’s also a small structure called ‘The Dead House,’ and it’s claimed that nobody died there, but it was built during slavery.”
Page shares her own research into her Gullah Geechee heritage during her tours, which started with recording oral histories from her elders.
“I would say about 80% of the knowledge comes from sitting with my elders and from my experience growing up,” she said.
For Page, it’s important for people to experience homegrown tours like hers so they can see the real Charleston and have conversations that bring healing.
“I know people say, ‘Why do we keep talking about the past? We need to move forward,’” she said. “But it’s hard to move forward if nobody is addressing the harm that has been done.”
Page’s Geechee Experience tour is not just about the past, but also the present.
“I talk about the now,” she said. “I bring it to the present and the future. I wrap it all together — how Gullah Geechee [people] are still living. I think what separates my tours from other tours is that I’m showing people how we still balance between worlds — living in Western society and being Gullah Geechee. They’re getting more of a connection and personalized experience of Gullah Geechee culture in Charleston.”
“The Real Rainbow Row”
Gullah Geechee culture is not the only part of history often overlooked in tours; few stories of the LGBTQ community in Charleston are widely known, which is part of what led Tyler Wright to launch her company Walk and Talk Charleston in 2018.
“Charleston got a bad rap for kind of telling the Gone With the Wind version of history for a long time,” Wright said, “and I think the tour community, the hospitality industry in general and the education community have done a really good job of trying our hardest not to tell that story [anymore] and reassess the narratives that we tell.”
Though she grew up in Rye, New York, her father’s side of her family is from Virginia and her mother’s side from Bermuda, which sparked a curiosity about her family’s history. She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Virginia and took a class called “Arts and Culture of the Slave South,” which was taught by two professors who worked for the Historic Charleston Foundation.
“It was really fascinating and refreshing to me,” she said. “They taught it in a way that I’d never heard before. [Other history tellings were] so drenched in [Civil War] Lost Cause history.”
Wright said she developed an interest in learning history outside the narrow confines of traditional tellings. Now, she spends a lot of time researching and working with College of Charleston’s Special Collections scholar-in-residence Harlan Greene, who provides historical knowledge for her tour, The Real Rainbow Row.
“I have a lot of friends and family who are part of the [LGBTQ] community, and I wanted to show support and show that this isn’t a new agenda. This has always been a part of our history,” she said.
“Particularly in light of what our governor has said recently, I think it’s just that much more important to talk about the history. It’s history. It’s not a new lifestyle, it’s not a new part of our society,” Wright said, referencing Gov. Henry McMaster’s statement that he does not support gay marriage. The comment came during the governor’s Oct. 26 debate against former S.C. Rep. Joe Cunningham.
During The Real Rainbow Row tour, Wright takes guests through cobblestone streets to historic downtown homes and landmarks to tell stories of important LBGTQ figures such as Prentiss Taylor, a gay artist from the Charleston Renassisance period, and Laura Bragg, a mentor to young queer people. She was the first woman to lead a public museum in the country. All proceeds from this tour go to the College of Charleston’s SC LGBTQ archives.
Wright’s tour also weaves in historical information and isn’t afraid to acknowledge ugly parts of Charleston’s history like white supremacy and homophobia. Walk and Talk Charleston also offers other unique tours such as her Classic Charleston History and Historic Gossip Tour.
Connecting to the water
Tia Clark, owner of Casual Crabbing with Tia, uses her experience to teach people how to crab and care for the natural environment.
“It’s the culture here,” she said. “This is my culture, Geechee culture — crabbing just goes hand-in-hand with my culture. And I think people that live here now all need to come crabbing. You learn something about the place that you live in … There’s a whole special way of living next to the water. And if you get a chance to live next to the water, you need to have a relationship with it.”
Clark, who grew up in downtown Charleston, instantly fell in love with crabbing when a cousin took her crabbing as an adult for the first time in 2017 at the Northbridge Park under the bridge off of Cosgrove Avenue.
“That changed everything,” she said. “I grew up knowing how to eat blue crabs. I can eat anybody under the table with blue crabs. All my traditions and memories have involved blue crabs, but somehow I never even connected the dots that this thing that I was eating, I could go and catch.”
Clark began crabbing every day after her first experience, and people who followed her Facebook page asked her to teach them. She turned people down for about a year, but after friends and family convinced her to join Airbnb Experiences in July 2018, a new business took off. Within three months, Airbnb flew her to San Francisco for a meeting because she offered one of the top four experiences in the world.
Now, Clark runs crabbing tours March through January from a private marina downtown. During the 2.5-hour experience, she teaches two ways to catch blue crabs: fishing with handlines and throwing a cast net.
“Folks come out and I teach them all about crabs — all of the weird facts — and I teach them two ways to crab, an easy way that really is kind of guaranteed for success and the harder, more traditional way. It’s just a really active or laid-back experience. It can be whatever people want for their buck.”
At the end of the experience, Clark removes everything but the shell and meat from the caught crabs, breaking them into halves for guests so they can take their haul home to cook or bring it to the Charleston Crab House, which offers “you hook it, we cook.” The Crab House cooks and packages crab clusters for $12.99 along with two sides of your choice.
Clark said it is rewarding to share her knowledge of crabbing, Gullah Geechee culture and caring for the ocean. Many of her guests are locals who come back multiple times. Some previous guests have even taken up crabbing as a hobby and regularly send photos of their latest excursions.
Clark said she believes a connection with the water is essential for anyone, locals and tourists, and she tries to educate guests on conservation, too.
“We take people crabbing, and they take stuff out of the water, but we work hard to put stuff back in the water to make sure that things in the water can really thrive,” she said.
Clark sits on Charleston Waterkeeper’s board of directors and the S.C. Aquarium’s sustainability board. She also works closely with the state Department of Natural Resources’ Oyster Recycling and Enhancement program to build artificial reefs and recycle oyster shells.
“This whole journey has brought me closer to my family, and it’s the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m closer with my community, with the food I eat every day. It’s just the best time in my life right now.”
Get to know Charleston better with diverse tours
Charleston touring companies have something for everyone, whether you want to learn about spooky ghost stories, get an inside look at Holy City history or immerse yourself in Lowcountry art, cuisine and nature.
- Bulldog Tours of Charleston (bulldogtours.com)
- Gullah Geechee Africa Tours (gullahgeecheetours.com)
- Gullah Tours (gullahtours.com)
- “The Lost Stories of Black Charleston” tour (buxtonbooks.com)
- Sights & Insights Tours (sitesandinsightstours.com)
- The Gibbes Museum of Art tours (gibbesmuseum.org)
- First Friday Artwalks (charlestongalleryassociation.com)
- Tour Charleston (tourcharleston.com)
- Alliance Sailing Charter harbor tours (alliancesailingcharter.com)
- Charleston Culinary Tours (charlestonculinarytours.com)
- Undiscovered Charleston (undiscoveredcharleston.com)
- Explore With Muima (discoversouthcarolina.com)
- Frankly Charleston (franklycharleston.com)
- Charleston African American Tours (charlestonafricanamericantours.com)
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