Want To Really Know Charleston, SC? Explore Her African-American History

The Old Slave Mart Museum once had a slave jail standing behind it. From the arrival of the first slave ship through the Civil Rights era and into the present, Charleston’s Black residents have shaped the Holy City’s food culture, art, music, agriculture, faith, and her national reputation.

When you’re visiting tidy, pretty Charleston, it’s easy to forget the ugly fact that slave labor built all those handsome old townhouses, historic state buildings, iconic church steeples, and even the brick forts out on islands in the harbor. The enslaved people who lived here forever changed Charleston - and not just through their work in construction and in the fields, houses, and kitchens of the region. They introduced their own languages and rich traditions to the local culture. In South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the blended creole language of West African dialects and English - and the speakers of the language - became known as Gullah, and their foodways, art, crafts, and music exerted influence that still shapes Charleston.

To understand and learn about the centuries of Charleston’s racial conflict and coexistence, visitors to historic sites can see relics of the past that still resonate today: from the statue of a former slave who was executed for fomenting an uprising to the location of a lunch counter sit-in by Black teenagers to the slave quarters of an old plantation.

Courtesy of Explore Charleston - Mother Emanuel AME Church The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Mother Emanuel, on Calhoun Street is the congregation’s third home; the first was burned by white citizens, the second was destroyed in an earthquake. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the southern United States, was founded in 1816 in Charleston and has been a touchstone of racial tension in the city ever since. In 1822, local whites burned down the church and executed 35 men, including church elder Denmark Vesey, for their involvement in a slave revolt plot. Fear of more potential uprisings led white Charleston to outlaw Black churches, so Mother Emanuel’s congregation met and worshipped in secret until after the Civil War.

During the 20th century, the church hosted thinkers and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Booker T. Washington and maintained a reputation for race activism and labor rights. In 2015, a shooting at Mother Emanuel by a 21-year-old white supremacist left eight congregation members and the pastor dead. The national press seemed almost as shocked by the congregation’s graceful and swift forgiveness as by the unspeakable crime. In June 2019, Emanuel, a documentary chronicling the massacre and the church’s reaction of forgiveness and faith, was released.

Old Slave Mart Museum Often staffed by docents who can trace their family history to enslaved people from the area, the Old Slave Mart Museum tells the story of Charleston’s prominent role in the brutal system of purchasing and trading human beings. Around 40 percent of the enslaved people entering the United States came through the port of Charleston and were handled by the city’s brokers, lawyers, and auctioneers. When 19th-century visitors to Charleston began to chronicle their horrified reaction to the sight of people being bought and sold, the city decreed that the slave auctions be moved indoors, away from the prying eyes of outsiders. This structure, built in 1859 in Charleston’s French Quarter, is believed to be the last extant slave showroom and auction house from the scores that once existed. Inside the museum, through photos, text panels, and a few chilling artifacts, visitors learn about the city’s slave trade and about the people who were held and sold here.