My twin sister ran the New York City marathon this month, for the second time. The first time she ran, I took the train up there, leapfrogged her by subway so I could cheer her on at various intersections, and then, as soon as it was over, I was back on the subway home. It was awesome, but this time I decided to stay in Baltimore and "watch" her "run" from the comfort of my phone app as I took a beautiful fall hike around Harper's Ferry, and we planned a celebratory trip, meeting up in Charleston, South Carolina the following weekend.
I'd never been to Charleston before, but I have been to South Carolina. The ladyfriend and I drove to Greenville once for a wedding, and I remember crossing the state line between the North and South Carolinas and all of a sudden the road turned to rubble. There's something about Southern poverty that feels exceptional, the generations of abdication of such socialist ventures as roads and schools paying its dividends. Charleston, though, might be different, I thought. Maybe it's one of those Southern towns that has hit the jackpot with "Gone With The Wind"-style tourism or, in its efforts to cash in on "Southern charm," as least shines up to look like it has.
I did a little reading up on the city before I got there, though, and it didn't seem like it would be able to hide its ugly histories of slavery for long. South Carolina is the only state of the original colonies that never had a settlement without enslaved people. Charleston was, for a time, the richest city in the colonies, ahead of New York City and Philadelphia, and all that wealth came from the trade in people. An estimated 40 percent of all enslaved people who were brutally forced here entered at Charleston. Charleston's plantations grew rice, a crop that took an incredible amount of skilled labor that was done virtually entirely by enslaved people from the West African coast. Rice became the other part of Charleston's fortune—called "Carolina gold," a reminder of the many layers of abstraction necessary to turn people and resources into these things called "commodities." If there were a capital of slavery on the Atlantic coast of the U.S., Charleston would most definitely be in contention for that dubious honor.
Given all this, I expected that much of what we would see in Charleston, at least at its historic sites, would be attempts to grapple with this past that still shapes the present. Some sites were better than others.
First, for the not so good at grappling: Our first stop was at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, a National Park site that, along with Fort Sumter, interprets the history of the nation's coastal defense system. We watched the park film—a gem from the 1980s—and learned about the fort's role in defending Charleston during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, its battleground status during the Civil War, and its journey through the first and second World Wars to its status as National Park. We toured the fort itself, saw its 1940s period rooms and views of Fort Sumter, imagined the first cannons lobbed over there from here that started the Civil War. We returned to the Visitor's Center and finally, in a corner, learned that this was also the point of entry for many slave ships, and that on this very ground were the "pest houses" that quarantined the sick and dying before they were forced into the city for sale. That trade and the work of those people are what made the port something worth protecting, but it's reduced to a footnote.
Much better was McLeod Plantation, a city-owned interpretive site that just opened in April on the Country Club Drive just west of the city—really, it's on Country Club Drive. I demanded we take the guided tour, much to the chagrin of my sister who dreads the oh-shit-I'm-trapped feel of most guided tours. But this one turned out to be phenomenal. Christine, our guide, told us about the history of this place as a very present story, because slavery still is just that. She drew lines for us between slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow, between slavery, sharecropping, andtenant farming, between the legacies of wealth accumulation in slavery and the unequal distribution of resources and life chances today. And she showed us the slave quarters that are still there, preserved without running water or electricity, just as they were left when people moved out of them, in the 1990s. Yep, those houses stood as the banks and gas stations and chain sandwich shops opened up across the street. We're not talking about the distant past here, even if we call it "history."
We made lots of other stops on this trip that I'm still trying to think through, because thinking through how to think in such a haunted landscape takes more time than this. Magnolia Plantation was massive enough to dedicate an enslaved man as gardener and then it reopened just five years after the end of the Civil War as Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, the gardens tended by that same formerly enslaved man and his descendants for several generations, and here I am paying $15 to look at the gardens, so that family is still making money off this bloody land, and well, I'm not sure how to think about all this.
I ended my trip in downtown Charleston, walking along King Street, past its gourmet cookie and Louis Vuitton shops and back up Market Street, a right on Calhoun (look that guy up) for a moment of silence at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where nine people were gunned down in June. That was a massacre, and then there's the everyday, also deadly, but we don't call it a massacre; we're hooked on the event, as if it can be separated from the rest of this. It was all too much, finally, and I headed back to the airport, in tears, because what can be done?