Editor’s Note: I had a single day in Charleston before I started The Royal Tour, a day that was so rainy and foggy that I couldn’t even see the water from a waterfront walkway. Even soaking wet and cold, Charleston was beautiful, and this longer look into this historic city from Sam Spector is making me itch for a return trip. For more of Sam’s writing, click here to visit his index page.
The past few months, I have been enjoying family leave after welcoming my new daughter, Esti, to the world. When I previously took leave after the birth of my first daughter, I wrote about how traveling was one of the best things I did on my leave, as it gave me the opportunity to bond with my family, unplug, and not have to use my coveted vacation time. With my older daughter rapidly approaching her second birthday, meaning that we will have to buy her expensive plane tickets, I have been thinking not just about international travel, but turning my sights to domestic locations. Over my current leave, I got the opportunity to visit the city that has been the top destination on my USA wish list for years: Charleston, South Carolina.
Charleston is frequently ranked among the top cities in the United States to both live in and to visit, and it is easy to see why when you get there. With old homes and buildings dating back hundreds of years as well as cobblestone streets, Charleston has the history and the charm that I do not usually associate with the United States and think more of in regards to European villages and colonial Latin American towns. Charleston is indeed one of the most historical cities in the nation, having been founded all the way back in 1670. Over the past 353 years, Charleston has been home to many notable chapters of American history, though not all of it is positive. Charleston was perhaps the most prominent city in the United States during the slave trade, with approximately 40% of all African slaves that arrived in America entering through the port of Charleston.
In Charleston, it is important to visit the many places that tell the story of what has been dubbed “America’s Original Sin.” In the heart of Historic Charleston is a building called The Old Slave Mart Museum. In 1856, Charleston banned public slave auctions on the street, but slave auctions were still allowed to occur inside buildings. The Old Slave Mart building was built in 1859 specifically for the purpose of holding such auctions, and today a small museum tells the story of the city’s slave trade from 1856 until 1863. In the powerful exhibits, stories are told of individuals who were separated from their families and treated like cattle as opposed to human beings. There are also artifacts such as whips and other instruments used to beat people into submission. Outside of the historic district in the suburbs are many plantations that housed thousands of slaves during the mid-19th century. Visiting plantations is a must-do in Charleston; the estates are beautiful and also sad when you think of the history that took place there. While there are many different ones that you can visit, the two that I visited (and highly recommend) were Boone Hall and McLeod Plantation.
Boone Hall is a massive, sprawling plantation with a tremendous mansion in the center of the property, built on 738 acres of land. It has been featured in many movies, notably The Notebook, particularly due to its incredible alley of live oak trees covered in Spanish moss. Inside the mansion, you can take a half hour tour and see the elegant library, dining room, and patio. In stark contrast, a short distance away from the mansion are the houses of those who were enslaved. These small shacks were cold in the winter and housed upwards of a dozen people. In the 1800s, Boone Mansion had on record about 300 enslaved individuals, but these numbers were often lowballed to evade taxes; one expert told me he estimated there were over a thousand individuals enslaved at the mansion. While there, you can hear a presentation of Gullah culture. Gullah is an ethnic group of enslaved people who came from Angola and West Africa. They have a Creole-like language, as well as their their own cuisine, traditions, and cultures, which remain prominent to this day in Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. Also at Boone Hall, take a tractor ride through the estate, where you will pass the many crops grown on the plantation, along with a lake that has alligators and turtles.
McLeod Plantation is considerably smaller than Boone and not on everybody’s radar. It is today less than 10 acres, and the house is less impressive than Boone Hall. However, I chose to visit this plantation because it is unique in that the guides tell the story of the plantation from the perspective of the enslaved people. This tour has caused members in the Daughters of the Confederacy to complain about the site, and on websites like TripAdvisor, the one-star reviews are typically from people who did not want to hear about slavery but rather the “good ole’ days” of the plantation. These complaints are exactly why this tour is so important and why visiting McLeod Plantation is necessary, especially at a time when learning about history is under attack in many parts of our country. At McLeod Plantation, you will see the slave quarters, which are even (and considerably) smaller and less livable than those at Boone Hall. What is most shocking though about these shacks is that the descendants of the enslaved people lived in them until 1990 and paid $25 a month in rent. Close to McLeod Plantation is Angel Oak, a live Southern oak tree that is 500 years old, has branches that extend longer than 180 feet, and covers a shade area of 17,200 square feet. It is one of the best known and most jaw dropping trees in the country and worth a quick visit, which is free of charge.
Another historical site of major significance in Charleston is Fort Sumter, which was where the first battle of the Civil War was fought. To get to Fort Sumter, which is on an island, you have to take a half-hour boat ride. Park rangers will excitedly tell in vivid detail, holding everyone’s attention, the story of the battle at Fort Sumter and make the argument that the Civil War was indeed about slavery, despite the common narrative of otherwise in the South. After their presentation, visitors have an opportunity to explore the island, see the cannons, and visit the museum inside, which holds the original American flag from the battle and other artifacts. On the boat ride, you will get great views of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, stretching over 1500 feet, making it the one of longest cable-stayed bridges in the Western Hemisphere.
Less related to the Civil War, but still of significance, are other spots in Historic Charleston. Two places of worship that should be checked out are the French Hugenot Church and the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) synagogue, both current buildings dating to the 1840s. The French Hugenots were Calvinists from France and the pink stucco church is a unique structure; as it is the only independent Hugenot church in the United States, its design and traditions are unlike any other in our country. KKBE’s history dates back to the 1700s, but its current building is from 1841 and was built in the Greco-Roman architectural style, as was popular at the time. The structure has massive columns and does not look like a typical synagogue. An uncomfortable fact about the synagogue building, especially as I visited it during Passover, was that the building was built using slave labor. Though there are some synagogues in the United States that are older, namely the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, KKBE will be quick to tell you that they are the oldest Reform synagogue in the United States, and the longest continually used synagogue, as Touro was closed for a while. Take the tour of KKBE by one of the docents and get a lesson on the history of the city, as well as an important chapter of American and Southern Jewish history.
Near the synagogue is the City Market, a market dating back to 1841 that is full of vendors, food, and souvenirs. It is a historical landmark, but also a great spot to go shopping and get a bite to eat. A popular misconception is that the City Market was used for slave auctions, but this was not the case.
Finally, perhaps the best thing to do in Charleston is to just walk around and enjoy one of America’s most beautiful and historic cities. A popular spot to go is the waterfront where you can take a picture in front of Charleston’s most iconic attraction, the beautiful Pineapple Fountain, which has become a symbol of the city. Down the street from the waterfront you will see Charleston’s famous Rainbow Row, probably the most photographed street in the city. These thirteen homes date back to the late 1700s, and were painted various rainbow colors in the 1930s, making it a warm and fun place to visit. Just down from the Rainbow Row is The Battery, with a waterside walkway. Since the 1700s the wall on which the walkway is built has been used to keep out flood waters, but also had on it cannons (hence the name of The Battery) to keep out pirates, and then as an important defensive position for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Along The Battery are antebellum mansions that are beautiful, historic, and today worth millions of dollars.
While I only had the luxury of a couple of days in Charleston, it became obvious why the city is so highly regarded. From culture, to shopping, to history, to natural beauty, to charm, it is one of those rare places that has something for everyone. For the past decade it has been the city that I have most wanted to visit in the United States, and I am happy to share that it did not disappoint!
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