Charleston, S.C., in a new light
African American Cemetery at Drayton Hall, a
National Trust Historic Site near Charleston, S.C
where the entry to the cemetery is an the arch
crowned with three words: "Leave 'Em
Rest," words spoken by Richmond Bowens, a
descendant of slaves who was buried here in 1998.
The cemetery dates back to the 1790's.
S.C. — When the email proposing a business meeting in
Charleston popped up, it took all of three seconds to say
yes. I’d never been to South Carolina, but I’ve read
glowing dispatches from friends and colleagues for years.
Southern hospitality is not a myth, they insisted, as they
extolled the beauty of the area and its vigorous dining
and bar scene.
I started to research this coastal city, it was its Civil
War-era attractions that proved most compelling. After
all, the war "started" here when Confederate
forces forced Union troops from Ft. Sumter in April 1861.
And the city has a storied 19th century history, with a
long list of monuments, mansions, plantations and museums
that support it. So I scheduled some extra time during my
February trip and designed an itinerary that would take me
to four or five attractions each day.
tour of elegant homes and cobblestone streets, period
antiques and marble shrines was an excursion through the
histories of prominent families and institutions. The
guides were gracious; the structures, beautifully
maintained. But everything seemed so pristine, so
contained. Where were the stories and the artifacts that
acknowledge the inhumanity of slavery or the social
failures of Reconstruction?
visited cemeteries, plantations and city mansions, museums
and national parks, and I discovered that those narratives
exist — at some of the same places where antebellum
silver gleams. You may have to read beyond the first few
lines of description in the guidebooks to find experiences
that acknowledge slavery and its legacy, but without them,
the city’s story is unknowable.
started my journey where history, tradition, movie-worthy
scenery and cataclysm converge: Magnolia Cemetery.
cemetery, which was founded in 1849 and is on the National
Register of Historic Places, was a 15-minute drive from my
hotel in downtown Charleston. Starting at 9 a.m., I walked
the grounds for an hour without seeing another visitor. I
did encounter long-legged water birds, trees draped with
Spanish moss, pedestrian bridges over quiet ponds and
family plots with 19th century tombstones that recall the
sad mysteries of multiple infant deaths. Even so, "tranquillity"
was the word that came to mind.
was the word until I walked to a memorial surrounded by
several graves of men who died during the war. Many of the
small tombstones had been decorated with small Confederate
has the largest concentrated Confederate burial ground in
the area, but I don’t consider it a Confederate cemetery
because 33,000 people are buried here over 160-plus
years," Beverly Donald, Magnolia Cemetery’s
superintendent, said in an interview with Patrick Harwood,
a communication professor at the College of Charleston.
(Harwood posted the interview on his
CofCMultimediareporting blog.) But more than 2,000 Civil
War veterans are buried at Magnolia, and those rebel flags
invite contemplation of their history and their symbolism.
my time in the cemetery, I drove about 30 minutes to
Ashley River Road, a thoroughfare named after the river
that proved crucial to the wealthy men who built their
plantations nearby. That led me to Drayton Hall, an 18th
century plantation home noted for its Georgian-Palladian
usually make the distinction that Drayton, a National
Historic Landmark, has been preserved, not restored.
Because of that, the rooms were devoid of furniture and
accouterments; some of the walls were most recently
repainted in the 19th century. The emptiness was startling
at first, but it certainly focused my attention on Drayton’s
tour guide was well-versed on the seven generations of
Draytons associated with the plantation. John Drayton, who
built Drayton Hall, was the third son of Thomas and Ann
Drayton, who built the nearby Magnolia Plantation. She
also spoke about the lives of seven generations of African
Americans connected to Drayton Hall, even though little of
their physical world remains. (The impressive website www.draytonhall.org
includes a timeline of the Drayton family and the African
Americans who served them, many of them as slaves, others,
later, as domestic employees.)
found the most moving acknowledgment of slavery on the
plantation in a quiet wooded area — an African American
cemetery that, the website says, is "the final
resting place of at least 40 individuals, enslaved and
free." A wrought iron arch with the words "Leave
‘Em Rest" stands at the entrance, but there are few
up the road, Magnolia Plantation, which is often compared
with Drayton, tells a different story.
original plantation home at Magnolia burned in the 1790s.
A second home was burned in 1865; official literature
points a finger at Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s
"renegade Union troops." After the Civil War,
the Rev. John Grimke Drayton dismantled a nearby summer
home and had it reconstructed on the footprint of the
burned-out plantation house and agreed to open the
extensive gardens to paying visitors.
home was expanded over the decades, and today the public
can tour 10 rooms, furnished with family artifacts, quilts
and antiques. If Drayton Hall is stately and austere,
Magnolia is approachable and rambling, a larger version of
your great-grandparent’s farm home that your relatives
tried to update in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
minded visitors sometimes grumble about Magnolia’s
petting zoo (not exactly part of the original setup), and
some tour guides who don’t necessarily emphasize (or
even mention) the slaves who kept the place and its family
together. (My guide briefly referenced the slave
population.) But five years ago, Magnolia instigated a
series of tours that focus on a group of restored cabins,
most built to house slaves and domestic workers, that
acknowledge the different eras of the occupants, starting
with 1850 and running through 1969.
was eager to sample some of the Southern fare that has
prompted media coverage and visitor conversation. Husk,
which is in an elegant late-19th century house in historic
downtown Charleston, boasts Sean Brock, a James Beard
Award-winning chef who helped launch a much-acclaimed
ordered glazed pig ear lettuce wraps with kimchi-marinated
cucumbers and red peppers and cilantro; arugula salad with
shaved apple and honey-glazed beets, Asher blue cheese,
oat granola and bourbon vinaigrette; and a bibb lettuce
and tomato salad with cornmeal fried Carolina shrimp,
boiled egg, shaved onion and pancetta vinaigrette. The
verdict? Husk’s sterling reputation is well deserved.
next night, I dined with colleagues at FIG (Food Is Good).
The Capers Blades oysters and the sauteed golden tilefish
with Carolina gold rice grits, broccoli and benne seed
were remarkable. The vibe was lively with a promise of
Friday-night-giddy later in the evening. When we left, no
one wanted the party to stop.
it didn’t. We just continued to indulge across the
street at Charleston Place, the hotel where we’d
reserved rooms and meeting space. Besides two restaurants,
its bar, the Thoroughbred Club, serves appetizers and
desserts. The bar crowd was so well dressed and playful
that it almost seemed as though it had been stocked with
appeared to happen effortlessly at the hotel. The men and
women behind the registration and bell desks had a quiet
charm; the uber-chipper among them must have been
retrained or repatriated. The concierges, the valets, the
chamber maids — all congenial. Room service was swift.
All the better to race through breakfast and hit the
afternoon I visited two institutions that surely must
exist at opposite ends of some sort of cosmic spectrum:
the Old Slave Mart Museum and the Confederate Museum, a
10-minute walk apart. In 1856, Charleston passed a ban on
the public sale of enslaved African Americans; the
transactions then moved indoors to several sales rooms, or
marts. What is now known as the Old Slave Mart Museum is
"possibly the only known building used as an ...
auction gallery in South Carolina still in
existence," according to www.charleston-sc.gov.
is almost no memorabilia in the facility, which opened in
2007 and is owned by the city of Charleston. Instead the
small two-story structure is full of text-heavy wall
panels devoted to various chapters in the horrific saga of
domestic slavery. The juxtaposition of the exhibits in the
space and its past unsettled me.
contrast, the Confederate Museum is chock-full of
memorabilia: a lock of Robert E. Lee’s hair (attached to
a signed, framed letter), baby clothes, furniture, oil
portraits, buttons, rosters of Confederate soldiers,
Confederate money, Confederate flags and snippets of
flags, baskets, buttons, rifles, bayonets, swords and a
greenish-gray frock coat worn by Samuel Tupper Hyde, who
was 17 years, 8 months old when he died in a battle on
Morris Island in Charleston Harbor on July 18, 1863.
a strange, cluttered place — a perverse curiosity shop
— run by the Daughters of the Confederacy and crammed to
the gills (curator, what curator?). And here’s the
strangest juxtaposition of all: The collection is housed
in an 1841 Greek Revival building that sits atop the
Charleston City Market, where the vendors include African
American men and women who sell one of the most iconic
souvenirs of the Charleston area: sweet grass baskets, a
craft introduced to the area in the 17th century by
enslaved people from West Africa.
itinerary also included a self-guided walk past many of
the city’s well-preserved homes. There, as at many other
of Charleston’s attractions, the back story was just as
fascinating — or troubling — as the official
literature. The Aiken-Rhett House, for example, an
impressive structure open for touring, was once owned by
William Aiken Jr., a rice planter and governor of South
Carolina. He was also one of the largest slaveholders in
South Carolina, and it is that tangled history that
remains with me, after memories of fine food and historic
preservation have faded.
Charleston Place, 205 Meeting St.; (843) 722-4900, www.charlestonplace.com.
Part of the luxury group once known as Orient Express and
now known as Belmond (Santa Barbara’s El Encanto is part
of the group). In the historic district and close to many
attractions. Doubles from $275.
Lane Inn, 202 King St.; (843) 720-2600, www.fultonlaneinn.com/.
In the heart of Charleston. Doubles from $205.
George, 0 George St.; (843) 817-7900, www.zerogeorge.com.
Newish boutique hotel in restored Charleston houses with
adjoining courtyards. Doubles from $259.
Suites West of the Ashley, 2080 Savannah Highway; (843)
An affordable option that’s about 15 minutes from the
heart of Charleston. Doubles from $99.
76 Queen St.; (843) 577-2500, www.huskrestaurant.com.
In the historic center of Charleston. Locally sourced
foods with an emphasis on Southern cuisine. The
ever-changing menu might include skillet corn bread with
bacon and honey pork butter; slow-cooked pork, confit of
duck leg or snapper. Main dishes from $20.
232 Meeting St.; (843) 805-5900, www.eatatfig.com.
Low-country cuisine (South Carolina and Georgia coast)
with an emphasis on fresh ingredients. Corn flour-dusted
flounder, pan-roasted Alabama rib eye and Eden Farm pork
schnitzel were among recent entrees; main dishes from $25.
Cotton Maverick Bar & Grill, 199 E. Bay St.; (843)
Low-country cuisine. Recently featured main dishes:
pan-roasted golden tilefish, bacon-wrapped rabbit loin and
a low-country boil of mussels, clams, shrimp, Andouille
sausage, fingerling potatoes, corn, baby tomato. Main
dishes from $22.
Convention & Visitor Bureau, www.lat.ms/1k01JCh.
War Traveler, www.civilwartraveler.com
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