In Charleston, Leaving Nostalgia Behind
In Charleston, the land bears witness. But the water is where the story begins.
It was on the waves of the Atlantic, beginning in the 16th century, that hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans—packed tightly into the cargo holds of European slave ships—were transported from West Africa to the Americas. If they survived the treacherous crossing known as the Middle Passage, most would arrive at Sullivan's Island, a two-and-a-half-mile-long barrier island separating the city of Charleston from the Atlantic Ocean. After a period of quarantine, they would be transferred to mainland Charleston, to a dock known as Gadsden's Wharf, and sold to the highest bidder.
Before the American Revolution, this enslaved labor force built the South Carolina Low Country into a place of unfettered prosperity, with Charleston as its epicenter. The goods wrought through its plantation economy—indigo, rice, and later sea island cotton—made Charleston the wealthiest city in the 13 colonies. Isolated and forced to toil on these hot, humid coastal plantations, West Africans were able to retain pieces of their culture, passing down songs, stories, and foodways from their home across the ocean. After emancipation, some stayed on and created self-sustaining coastal communities. Their descendants became known as the Gullah Geechee. A swath of land along the coast, which stretches from Wilmington, North Carolina, down to Jacksonville, Florida, is now called the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Every year descendants of Sullivan's Island's earliest arrivals hold a ceremony to commemorate their ancestors, though today there's little to mark the significance of this place beyond a black metal bench perched on a marshy overlook. The structure is part of Toni Morrison's Bench by the Road Project, established to create memorials to, and sites of contemplation for, the horrors of this period. “It's never too late to honor the dead,” Morrison said at the bench's dedication ceremony in 2008. “It's never too late to applaud the living who do them honor.”
This dictum—to honor and to applaud—brought me to Charleston this past December. I'm a seventh-generation South Carolinian, reared in the counties of Newberry and Spartanburg. But although I'm a direct descendant of those who were brought here, I was never told about Sullivan's Island growing up. It's only now, at the age of 36, that I've finally come face-to-face with it.
I was also drawn by curiosity. Charleston, or the version of it depicted on shows like Bravo's Southern Hospitality, has long been the picture of charm: a wonderland of pastel townhomes and ancient live oaks, buoyed by an internationally recognized food scene and an ever-expanding roster of comfortable upscale hotels. Coupled with its verdant natural landscapes and thriving cultural scene, the city is a popular destination for travelers who want to experience the bucolic ease of the so-called Low Country lifestyle. Much of this nostalgic sensibility, of course, leaves out Charleston's origin story. But in recent years, the city has gone to great lengths to address this omission. It is this effort—to make visible that which has for so long been hidden—that brought me here, to the water's edge.
The long-awaited International African American Museum (IAAM), some 20 years in the making, is perhaps the most prominent way the city has sought to acknowledge the caesura in Charleston's story. The $125 million complex, which opens to the public on June 27, sits on the former site of Gadsden's Wharf, its pale oblong frame hovering on a series of pillars that appear to lift it off the sand. It looks like a beacon, calling back the descendants of the enslaved people who were sold there. People like me.
I wonder what this place must have looked like to the ships bobbing in the distance; what my ancestors thought about the land coming into view. I follow the wood walkway leading to the museum entrance, noting the brick pavers that outline a large square: the site of a former slave storehouse, unearthed by builders during the wharf's excavation. The space isn't much bigger than the house I live in and yet repositories like this once held as many as 700 people at a time. A refrain from Maya Angelou's poem “Still I Rise,” a paean to Black resilience, is etched into the granite around the outline: “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
This pairing—the acknowledgment of brutality with the commemoration of persistence—is a strategy the museum deploys continuously. “It's important that the space communicates not just the death and destruction that happened here,” Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, the president and CEO of the IAAM, tells me, “but the life and the resilience and the fight too. This is one of the greatest gifts the African American journey gives to our nation, if not the world: the ability to simultaneously hold the sensations of trauma and joy.”
About midway through the museum's nine galleries, I enter a large room split in half by a wall of picture windows. The left side, titled Departure, is filled with the names and ages of West African children—Oobah, 16; Bonnaseah, 8; Seeahiah, 6; Marpoo, 4. The right side, Arrival, offers the anglicized versions of those names: Anna, Bess, Cicero, Daniel. There are no ages here, as if to demonstrate all that has been stripped away.
I find myself needing sunlight and return to the big windows overlooking the harbor. Below me, there is a tide pool near the museum entrance. At the ground level I'd noticed silvery aberrations beneath the surface of the water, which I'd taken for random artistic punctuations. But they are the outlines of bodies—more specifically, as I later learn, figures packed onto the slave ship Brookes. Matthews explains that the water will flow in and out over the forms with the coming and going of the tide.
“When the waters are lowering, I'm reminded of those we lost in that space,” she tells me. “But when they rise, I think of those who rose up and out of it.”
We have survived, I think. Our stories are safe here, protected behind glass plates, where bits of the past and present converse with one another: A woven winnowing basket from Burkina Faso sits in a different gallery near the basket made by the renowned Gullah Geechee artist Corey Alston, who sells his work at Charleston City Market down the street. There are also presentations of the music, storytelling, and food produced in this city. One highlights the local chef Kardea Brown, the Food Network star whose show streams into my home every week; another, Darius Rucker, the lead vocalist for the South Carolina band Hootie and the Blowfish. Despite the very real threats of gentrification, inflation, and rising seas, Black people in Charleston are still innovating, not only paying homage to the traditions that allowed their ancestors to survive but also using their imaginations in ways their predecessors didn't have license to.
“Charleston is a maritime city,” the visual artist Jonathan Green tells me later that day. We're standing in his airy, light-filled studio a few blocks inland from the museum. “It's on the ocean, and therefore it has an international presence. It always has.” Two works in progress recline on easels, opposite each other. On the first canvas, two women in straw hats navigate a bateau, or small boat, down a creek; on the second, a woman gazes out over the water, the reeds licking at the hem of her dress.
Water, and the knowledge of it, is elemental to Green's work, which often depicts scenes of Gullah life. Most artists use gray tones to underpaint their subjects, a technique known as the grisaille method, but Green uses a watery indigo instead. For the Gullah Geechee people, the color blue—haint blue, specifically—is also meant to keep evil spirits away. “I need all the protection I can get,” Green says with a chuckle. He then paints vibrant shades onto the outlines, allowing them to capture the fullness of his heritage: the reverence and belonging as well as the joy.
The next morning I continue my journey around the peninsula, to a dock in Brittlebank Park that is nestled into a curve in the Ashley River. The water and the sky are the same color, separated only by the grass that grows at the water's edge. I've come, along with nearly a dozen others, for Casual Crabbing with Tia, a two-and-a-half-hour experience during which we'll learn how to fish and catch crabs, the way people in this region have for eons.
Tia Clark arrives wearing a snug beanie and a turquoise shirt tucked into her fishing bib. Now 43, Clark began crabbing only five and a half years ago. Like many on the peninsula, she spent decades working in the hospitality industry, until a sudden illness forced a lifestyle change. A cousin took her crabbing as a way to add physical exercise to her daily routine—a gesture that also allowed her to reclaim a piece of her family's story. She began taking people out on the water and detailing her exploits on Facebook and Instagram. Soon a full-time business was born.
Clark regales us with facts about Callinectes sapidus, the ancient Greek name for the Atlantic blue crab. “It means ‘beautiful, savory swimmer,’ ” she explains before demonstrating the proper way to hold one. The sun rises higher in the sky, and we shed our jackets as the day warms. I learn that there is an art to throwing a cast net. It must fan out just so in order for the weights to land on the bottom of the river and trap unsuspecting prey. But time after time mine lands with a splat, and at first I come up with nothing more than half an oyster shell.
As I heave my chest forward and fling the net over the railing, I imagine my ancestors watching each attempt, and by the time our session is over, I've managed to catch a couple of the crustaceans. I smile wide for the camera, holding one of them exactly the way Clark taught me, and silently resolve to bring my mother and brother back here—to show them what it took for our folks to survive.
I feel the soreness in my upper arms as I get in my car and head south, to the place where the Ashley River meets Wappoo Creek, a section of Charleston called James Island. There, on a stretch of the riverbank, sits the McLeod Plantation Historic Site—the 37-acre remains of what was once a 1,700-acre plot and a major producer of sea island cotton.
I find my guide, Toby Smith, at the water's edge. A Charleston native herself, Smith is only three generations removed from slavery; her great-great-grandmother Idella was taken from Ghana at the age of eight and sold, likely at the city's slave market. Since 2020, Smith, a historian, has served as an interpretive guide and is currently the cultural history interpretation coordinator; she spends her days combing its archives and looking for clues about the lived experiences of the men, women, and children held there, citing her desire to highlight their humanity and individuality. This approach has increasingly been emulated at sites like Middleton Place, some 15 miles northwest of Charleston, which offers guided walks through the spectacular gardens that were once tended by enslaved hands, and Aiken-Rhett House, which reveals urban life in antebellum Charleston with tours offered through the lens of the enslaved people who maintained it.
Smith tells me the story of Leia Brown, who was a little girl when she was purchased by the McLeod family in the 1850s, and the generations she spawned. “She would live long enough to become a grandmother, and that granddaughter would live long enough to see Barack Obama elected and reelected,” Smith tells me. In September 2022, McLeod held a ceremony to honor Leia's memory. More than 70 of her descendants attended, scattering roses into the creek that brought their matriarch to this place. “Seeing that was something that I'll never forget,” says Smith.
Smith's role represents a pointed departure from the moonlight-and-magnolias mystique that has long flavored tours of the region's historic sites, which have traditionally lavished attention on the architecture of grand plantation houses and the social milieu of the wealthy families that occupied them. Most upkeep efforts were directed toward these spaces, while the slave quarters—relegated to the margins and accessed via specialized viewings that always cost “extra”—were erased from the landscape. On traditional tours, guides tend to speak highly of merchant families with “shipping interests” rather than slave traders. This kind of deceptive language is one reason many of the country's deepest wounds are allowed to fester—until catastrophe strikes.
Each time hate erupts, Charleston must choose the type of city it aspires to be. In June 2015, a white supremacist opened fire on Black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church, one of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal churches in the southern United States, killing nine members. Just four days later, the church opened its doors to give the community a place to grieve. The planned Emanuel Nine Memorial will be the city's next step in grappling with its past.
The citizens of Charleston—and the country writ large—were once again prompted to reckon with the past in 2020, following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, when crowds took to the streets demanding justice. Soon after, a statue of the politician John C. Calhoun, a staunch supporter of slavery, was dethroned from its pedestal on Marion Square. More than a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, Charleston is still figuring out how to talk about Black history. But the efforts now underway, everywhere from its plantations to its newest museum, are slowly moving the conversation forward.
On my way out of town, I stop by Charleston Harbor, just a few blocks from the IAAM, and stare out across the horizon. My gaze goes past Castle Pinckney, over Sullivan's Island, and then, finally, out to the Atlantic Ocean. Slowly, I dip my fingers into the water, knowing that it leads to another continent thousands of miles away—and to more clues about how my ancestors got here.
Where I eat
With its traditional meat-and-three plates and Low Country staples like seafood purloo, a regional take on rice pilaf, Gillie's Seafood never fails to satisfy. I also love its modern spins on comfort food. Try the soul rolls, deep-fried egg rolls filled with collard greens and pulled pork.
The crab rice at downtown Hannibal's Soul Kitchen is top-tier, and from time to time I'll order one of the menu's hard-to-find seasonal specials, like shark steak (just trust me).
Marcus Shell, one of the city's lauded Black executive chefs, helms downtown brasserie 39 Rue de Jean. Expect imaginative riffs on French classics like scallops Provençal and coq au vin.
From sweet-potato cheesecake to Charleston Chewies, a brown sugar blondie studded with pecans, you can't go wrong at family-owned Daddy's Girls Bakery in North Charleston.
The whole-hog barbecue that legendary pitmaster Rodney Scott serves is smoky, tender, and downright tasty. Between the throwback R&B jams and the disco ball in the center of the seating area, Rodney Scott's BBQ feels like an old-school get-together.
Where I stay
In the heart of the city, Hotel Bennett feels to me like a European getaway with its Italianate exterior; inside, it is full-on opulence, with marble and limestone to heighten the palazzo effect. Stop in at Camellias, the hotel's Champagne lounge.
The Charleston Place is my tried-and-true Charleston stay. It's only one block from Charleston City Market and within walking distance of numerous must-visit locations downtown. I love the comfortable, well-appointed rooms, attentive staff, and sweeping views of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. Ordering room-service breakfast (try the eggs Benedict, served on buttermilk biscuits) while watching the sunrise from bed is one of my favorite ways to start a day here.
On each visit to The Dewberry, I find a new detail to admire, and the views from the rooftop cocktail bar are stunning. Take advantage of its spa services—I always book a signature massage to unwind after a long day of strolling the city's cobblestone streets.
What I do
Brightly hued jewelry and accessories shop The Tiny Tassel Charleston stocks products made by local artists, including art prints, stationery, and size-inclusive clothing designed by founder Mimi Striplin and her mother, Keiko.
From April to December at the Saturday-morning Charleston Farmers Market, you'll find fresh produce from nearby islands, stalls selling prepared regional food, and performances by local musicians. I usually pick up ravioli from pasta maker Rio Bertolini, confections from Bert and T's Desserts, and greens and tomatoes from Johns Island–based Joseph Fields Farm.
The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture's archives are filled with photographs, artifacts, and memorabilia—the items that interest folks who want to explore the nuances of Black life in the Low Country. Its reading room has resources that can assist researchers doing genealogical work.
A great tour guide can change the way you see a city—and how you understand its history. Franklin Williams of Frankly Charleston, a walking tour, and Al Miller of Sites and Insights Tours Inc., a bus-tour operator, visit often-overlooked sites relevant to Black history and they don't shy away from talking about gentrification and its effects on generations of Black Charlestonians.
This article appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here. All listings featured on Condé Nast Traveler are independently selected by our editors. If you book something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler