“What does Charleston, South Carolina even look like?” I wondered aloud to my Folly Beach hosts.
“Oh, you MUST go see it after we finish filming this tourism video,” the hosts gushed, almost knocking over the biscuits and gravy we were eating, imagining the disgrace of a human being so close to Charleston and not visiting.
“Did you know Charleston was named the best city in the world to visit by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2016?”
“Wait… best city IN THE WORLD?!” I gasped. “Ok, I’ve clearly got to see Charleston before I fly back home to Boston from Folly. But what’s the best way to tour it?”
As if by magic, my phone suddenly buzzed.
“Hello!” appeared an Instagram message. “My name is Kate. We’ve never met in person, but we connected online three years ago when you interviewed me for an article on your other website, Teaching Traveling.”
I quickly pulled up Kate’s article, and memories of our emails flooded back. Kate is a joyful and talented writer (see her website, here), and was a teacher in Colombia when I featured her story.
“Kate!” I typed back. “What’s up?”
“Well,” Kate responded, “I see on Instagram that you’re in Folly Beach, just a few miles away from me. I’ve finished my teaching job in Colombia and am living back home in Charleston now.”
“What a crazy coincidence!” I typed.
“If you finish your video shoot with enough time before your flight,” Kate responded, “I can take you around Charleston. I grew up here, and love showing people around.”
WOW. Social media and the internet have their downsides, but beautiful, timely connections like this are not among them.
As luck would have it, our team finished our video shoot several hours early due to the fact that my co-star, Roni the Travel Guru, and I are just so darn talented. (Insert humble emoji here.)
Roni kindly drove me the 25 minutes from Folly to Charleston, and all of a sudden I was in the arms of Kate: a person who I knew, but didn’t know, but knew.
I mean, look at Kate’s face, pictured below. How could you not want to embrace her?
Kate and I walked and talked for miles around the heart of Charleston. She danced between recounting her adventures in Latin America, detailing stories of growing up in Charleston, and pointing out architectural details I never would have noticed, like the ornate metal-work around the city, emblematic of the city’s rich blacksmithing tradition.
My new-old friend’s personal experience with the city meant she was able to drape on layers of lived detail to each scene, far beyond a casual tourist’s gaze.
Take the White Point Gardens gazebo in my photo above, for example. Kate revealed that when she was a child, she and her friends would wiggle their way into the nook underneath: a cold stone cave with bars on the windows.
Now we have an evocative personal story layered upon my tourist’s view of a pretty park and patio. So, what was the last layer to unfurl? History.
“Was that secret basement space,” Kate wondered aloud, “used by enslaved people to hide? Or were people kept imprisoned there?”
And so we come to the weight of Charleston’s history in the trade of human lives.
I had no idea about this until researching, but it is estimated that over 40% — nearly half — of all enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States entered through the port of Charleston, South Carolina. WHAT?!
According to this New York Times article, “Between 1738 and 1808, some 100,000 slaves, arriving from across West Africa, were transported through Gadsden’s Wharf and other South Carolina ports.”
By 1860, 400,000 enslaved people — 10% of all those in the United States — lived in South Carolina, comprising more than half of Charleston’s population.
As Charleston’s Post and Courier writes, “Any history of slavery in America begins with Charleston.”
Knowing this, I’ll never forget the display at Washington DC’s National Museum of African American History and Culture which reads as follows:
“The lives and labor of enslaved African-Americans transformed the United States into a world power. Yet they received no recognition or payment for what they created. By 1860, four million enslaved people produced well over 60 percent of the nation’s wealth, and the slave trade valued them at $2.7 billion.”
Not only was our country built on the back-breaking labor of enslaved people, but there were also specific innovative contributions by Africans and African-Americans which I’ve only recently learned about, at the age of 36, in a Teaching Africa professional development seminar for fellow public school teachers.
Here’s the biggest one. Much of the booming 18th-century wealth of South Carolina, and by extension, the United States, was generated from rice cultivation, right? But how did South Carolina planters learn how to grow the crop so well, when they started out “completely ignorant of rice cultivation“? Read on…
Enter: the ingenuity of Africans, plus a coincidence of geography.
Professor Judith Carney uses striking evidence in her book, Black Rice (affiliate link), to show that enslaved Africans were able to transfer their skills in rice cultivation from West African regions such as Sierra Leone to the geographically similar South Carolina Lowcountry.
In other words, it was Africans who taught the American planters how to make their rice crops succeed — and earn.
WHAT?! Why in the world did I never learn this detail in my 18 years of schooling?!
Carney argues that it’s poisonously simple racism. The innovative, skilled contributions of Africans and African-Americans in building our country have been willfully forgotten and erased, immense though they are.
Want another example of these often-erased skill contributions? In 1721, an enslaved African named Onesimus saved the lives of countless citizens in my native Boston during a Smallpox epidemic, by teaching Cotton Mather how to create a vaccine for the disease!
These thoughts raced through my mind as Kate and I walked past “Old Slave Mart” (now a museum) in the heart of Charleston’s tourist district.
I live in Boston: a city with a rich and important African-American history, but with few sites that as overtly lay bare the pain upon which our nation’s wealth was built.
In the hours that I toured Charleston, listening to Kate’s personal stories swirl with the ones from centuries ago, I became aware of how present the history is in that city.
As an American, it is a profound experience to walk through what Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates calls, “‘Ground Zero’ for blackness, black culture, the African experience, the African-American experience, slavery — however you want to slice it.”
Given this context, what makes Charleston consistently top the rankings for the best city in the country and the world to visit? For sure, it is the force and importance of its history. But what else generates its power?
It is the beauty of the architecture and parks, as you can see from these photos… down to the details of each flower planted in each box, and each lamp’s metal-sculpted spiral.
It is the vibrance of its arts scene and entertainment. It is its proximity to dreamy beaches, kissed by pink sunrises and foamy waves. And finally… it is the food.
Unfortunately, I got only a small sample of the deliciousness Charleston food scene has to offer, but word is that it’s second to none.
WHEN I return to Charleston, I’ll plan a trip similar to the one my husband and I just did in Portland, Maine — another famous foodie destination — which was an itinerary summed up in one word: “EAT.”
For people who know Charleston, please start giving food recommendations in the comments section of this article, and I’ll follow up… with my tummy!
The day we toured Charleston, the sky was a heavy, “womp, womp” oatmeal gray — the kind that takes my passion for vibrant colors and punches it in the face. That oatmeal sky turns the world a sickly green, and stomps on photos, left and right.
Yet somehow, on that gloomy day, sparkles of human ingenuity like ornate lampposts, and flames of nature’s glory like magenta flowers, held their colors for my camera.
Somehow, out of the murk that is the Internet, a kind woman connected, and opened her city to me — and in turn, to you, reading this.
And somehow, out of the horrific, gray history of our country, a beautiful city is rising up.
“I wish I could stay and keep exploring Charleston!” I sighed to Kate, “but I’ve got to catch my flight home to the munchkins. I’ll just call an Uber.”
“Beep, beep!” giggled Kate. “Your Uber is here! I’ll take you.”
May Kate’s kindness be repaid by the universe, tenfold, and may the warm heart of Charleston continue to grow.
So what about you? Have you visited Charleston? If so what were your thoughts? What places would you recommend? What questions do you have?
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