Selling the Past: Heritage Tourism in Charleston, South Carolina

Michael Stephens
Philip Street
Photo by Michael Stephens

Since heritage tourism is Charleston's lifeblood, and the city's main attraction for heritage tourists is its status as capital of the preserved antebellum lifestyle, it might be said that Charleston still profits from slavery. Almost as soon as slavery ended, Charleston's plantations fell into disrepair. It was only in the 20th century that these dubious monuments were restored to financial viability as tourist attractions. Charleston may sell a cotton candy version of its history, but Yankees consume it as enthusiastically as southerners.

"Slave property is the foundation of all property in the South. When security in this is shaken, all other property partakes of its instability . . . The ruin of the South, by the emancipation of her slaves, is not like the ruin of any other people. It is not a mere loss of liberty, like the Italians under the Bourbons. It is not heavy taxation, which must still leave the means of living, or otherwise taxation defeats itself. But it is the loss of liberty, property, home, country — everything that makes life worth living." — "The Terrors of Submission", Charleston Mercury, 11 October, 1860
t face="Verdana,Geneva,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif" size=1>"Step back into the past and experience Charleston's history by visiting the local historic plantations and gardens. See original plantation houses, gardens, slave cabins, smoke houses, and other remnants from plantation life. " — Attractions: Charleston SC, January 2004

Selling Charleston's History

Forty percent of the slaves imported into 18th century America entered through the port of Charles Towne in South Carolina. In 1800, slaves outnumbered whites in Charleston by a ratio of three-to-one. By 1830, 75 percent of white families in Charleston owned slaves, a higher percentage than anywhere else in America at that time. Many of the 18th and 19th century homes that are highlights of the heritage tours of present day Charleston were built by slaves and financed by profits from the slave-based economy. The same is true of preserved plantations like Drayton Hall and Boone Hall. A slave market, now transformed into the "Slave Market Museum", is also a tourist attraction.

Charleston is regularly listed in the Condé Nast Traveler as one of the USA's Top 10 tourist destinations. Over four million visitors come to Charleston each year and spend $4.5 billion, almost one third of the tourist revenue of the entire state of South Carolina. Tourism in South Carolina increases five percent annually, but heritage (or historical) tourism increases at a rate of 30 percent. Since heritage tourism is Charleston's lifeblood, and the city's main attraction for heritage tourists is its status as capital of the preserved antebellum lifestyle, it might be said that Charleston still profits from slavery.

Selling the past is the defining theme of downtown Charleston life. The many companies that sell guided tours of Charleston offer a smorgasbord of heritage theme tours: Ghosts of Charleston, Pirates of Charleston, Patriots of Charleston, the Civil War Walk, the Historic Homes Walk, and the Gone With The Wind Saga tour. This romantic, ghost- and pirate-haunted version of Southern history sells tour tickets ranging from $18 to $50. Tourists are encouraged to consume Charleston's history as a kind of sensory feast: "Experience the finest that Charleston has to offer: Rhett Butler's Old South. See Rainbow Row, Cobblestone Streets, French Quarter, Slave Mart, Colonial Lake, Waterfront Mansions, Catfish Row, Pirates Gallows…".

The central significance of slavery in Charleston's history is downplayed by the heritage tourism industry in advertisements like this; slavery is bracketed as one picturesque element in Historic Charleston's colorful "experience", along with cobblestone streets and pirates, a part of the mythical South of Gone With The Wind. In fact, the extravagant mansions and gardens that make Historic Charleston such an attractive tourist destination could never have been built and financed without the unlimited supply of free labor provided by the slave trade. Almost as soon as slavery ended, Charleston's plantations fell into disrepair and the downtown mansions of the slave-owning aristocracy were auctioned off or transformed into hospitals and schools. It was only in the 20th century that these dubious monuments were restored to financial viability as tourist attractions.

Slavery's part in Charleston's history is not entirely neglected by the tour companies: one company includes a "Slavery and Freedom" tour in its selection, and two small African American-owned tour companies offer a "view of historic Charleston locations and events from a black perspective". However, the few tours that do justice to the slaves' role in creating Historic Charleston appeal to a small and mainly African American section of the tourist demographic. Gullah Tours, offering "a view of Charleston not available on other tours", knowingly implies the major tour companies' tendency to minimize the black perspective in their account of Charleston's history. So although the topic of slavery is not entirely censored, it is politely minimized in the majority of tours. Two versions of Charleston's history — one white and one black — are sold by the tour companies, but the white version is overwhelmingly dominant.

The organization and tone of tourist websites like Celebrate Charleston show Charleston's polite reticence in regard to the slave-based economic past that is still the foundation of the modern tourist economy. None of the website's main sections mention slavery or black history. In an obscure corner of the Attractions and Tours section, however, 12 sentences are devoted to "African American Influences on Charleston". The section begins: "African Americans played an enormous role in the growth and success of Historic Charleston . . . A tour of Charleston should include several stops that showcase the contribution of African Americans to the city". The bland, upbeat tone of the language encourages the reader to focus on slavery-as-accomplishment: the slaves "enormous role in the growth and success of Historic Charleston". An end-justifies-the-means logic is implied, while the term "contribution" transforms unpaid labor into a charitable-sounding, gift. Such storybook descriptions and their low-key positioning on the website are typical of a widespread tendency in Charleston's heritage tourism industry to diminish and prettify slavery when the topic cannot be avoided.

But since Charleston was not viewed as "Historic Charleston" when the slaves were building it, this passage unintentionally acknowledges a truth about the contemporary Charleston economy: the slaves were unknowingly building — since their workmanship has endured for two centuries — an empire that would not only house and feed their 18th and 19th century masters, but whose preserved shell would continue to reap profits for an almost exclusively white-owned tourist industry in the 20th and 21st centuries. The same section notes, without apparent irony, that at Middleton Place Plantation, "slaves once worked for the economic success of others". In fact, the plantation's present day owners continue to enjoy the benefits of the slaves' labor.

White Mansions

Middleton Place was built in 1730, and became part of the dowry that Mary Williams brought to Henry Middleton when they married. In 1741, Middleton hired an English garden designer to draft a set of ornamental gardens. Following the style of John Aislable, the most celebrated water garden designer in England at the time, Middleton's designer created the earliest and most magnificent landscape garden in America at the time: an enormous, 65 acre display that included a set of six grass-covered terraces, shaped from earth and requiring enormous labor to construct. The terraces emulate the gentle descent of a stepped waterfall, and "flow" into two lakes in the shape of butterfly wings. These gardens, conceived to emulate the extravagance of English aristocratic estates, took 100 slaves 10 years to construct. After the Civil War, without slave labor, the gardens could not be maintained, and fell into disrepair. They were finally restored in 1917, and opened to the public in 1921. These gardens are now the central feature of tours of Middleton Place, for which tourists pay $20 a ticket to see.

Most of the information in the previous paragraph is derived from Kirk Johnson's article on Middleton Place's gardens (, 6 February, 2002). I have selected and structured the information to reflect in outline the content of tour narratives of historical Charleston homes: facts about the white owners are placed first; the owners and their families are individualized with much attention to their personal lives; the property and design history are detailed to reflect the taste and extravagance of the original owners; the overall history of the property traces the rise and fall of the Southern aristocracy; slavery is mentioned, but only in general or quantitative terms that emphasize the opulence of the white owner's lifestyle. Omitted from the typical tour narrative of Middleton Place, however, is the perspective that Kirk Johnson gives in his conclusion:

"I feel a bit uncomfortable because this article is more about the slave owners than about the slaves who did the work. The fact of the matter is that ornamental gardening really began in the southern colonies rather than in the northern ones and it was always closely connected with slavery. The white plantation owners may have been interested in plants and garden design, but it was black slaves who executed the designs and actually grew the plants. It could be said that the first great ornamental gardeners in North America were black, so those great plantation gardens are a part of the heritage of African Americans".

The same could be said of almost all the mansions that make up Historic Charleston. If Charleston's heritage tours gave the slaves who built the mansions the same attention that they give to their owners, tourists would receive a more balanced picture of Charleston's history. Instead, heritage tours focus on the splendor of a bygone aristocratic lifestyle. This approach may not be surprising, considering the culture of wealth-worship in America, but it is particularly disturbing in the context of Southern history. Heritage tours of Charleston encourage a kind of envious nostalgia for the extravagance of the slave-owners' lives: a maid for every lady; a nursery maid for every child; the Italian fabrics and English silverware imported for the eldest daughter's wedding; the parties, balls and concerts; the connections and rivalries between old Charleston families; the preferences and peccadilloes of the master of the house.

The rich, personalized detail given to the lives of whites in heritage tours is in stark contrast to the anonymous descriptions of slave life. "While many of the slaves' duties occurred in the main house, they spent most of the time in the back lot where the slaves living quarters and work spaces were located. Slaves lived in small rooms above the kitchen and stable". In many cases the slaves' "living quarters" have not survived, in spite of the millions of dollars spent on the immaculate preservation of their masters' homes. The historic relegation of slaves to the back of the house is, in a sense, preserved in the prioritization of black history in modern Charleston.

The Nathaniel Russell House in Charleston's Historic District is a popular heritage tourism destination. It is owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF), a preservation organization that controls construction on the Charleston peninsula with a lace-gloved iron hand. The HCF was founded in 1947 by a group of influential (white) property owners who wanted to preserve the city's historical architecture. Since then, the Foundation's influence on city life has increased as Charleston's economy has become more and more based around heritage tourism. HCF representatives routinely attend city planning meetings in Charleston. Their input ensures that, for example, plans for high rise parking lots are not allowed to violate regulations protecting downtown Charleston's historical streetscapes. The HCF also buys and restores homes in the Historic District and draws revenue from them as tourist attractions. The Nathaniel Russell House is one of the mansions that the HCF displays for an $8 fee. A visit to the Russell House is included by many heritage tour companies in their tours. The lucrative associations between heritage tour companies, preservation organizations, and city government ensure that the heritage paradigm of Charleston history permeates Charleston life at every level.

The HCF's website gives this description of the Russell house: "Set amid spacious gardens, the mansion is recognized as one of America's most important neoclassical dwellings. The graceful interiors with elaborate plasterwork ornamentation, geometrically shaped rooms and a magnificent free-flying staircase are among the most exuberant ever created in early America. Furnished with period antiques and works of art, many of Charleston origin, the house evokes the gracious lifestyle of the city's merchant elite". The same page describes Nathaniel Russell and his family in this way: "A native of Bristol, Rhode Island, Nathaniel Russell (1738-1820) arrived in Charleston as a young man in 1765. As an agent for northern merchants, he quickly set about amassing a huge fortune in his adopted city. His marriage in 1788 to Sarah Hopton (1752-1832), daughter of William Hopton, another of Charleston's merchant princes, amalgamated two fortunes based on the bounty of rice and indigo". The page ends with a description of the Russells' charitable activities: "The Russells were benefactors to many of the city's charitable associations. Mrs. Russell's beneficence aided the establishment of one of America's first churches for the exclusive use of the poor".

It is only under a separate link entitled "African Americans at the Nathaniel Russell House" that this detail is added to Russell's biography: "Like many wealthy businessmen, Nathaniel Russell engaged in the slave trade". The location of this information suggests that Nathaniel Russell's slave trading is only significant within the context of African American history. The main page describes Russell as a "merchant prince" whose wealth was derived from "the bounty of rice and indigo". Even when Russell's actual trade is acknowledged, there is a justificatory tone to the phrase, "(l)ike many wealthy businessmen . . .". The phrase suggests that Russell was no different than his peers in his involvement with the slave trade. This apologetic tone is further amplified in the same section. "Although Russell clearly profited from his involvement (in the slave trade), by the end of the American Revolution he felt the conflict between commercial success and his deeply held religious beliefs". To support the idea that Russell was conflicted by his involvement in the slave trade, a quote is taken from one of his letters:

"I have sold a Cargo of Negroes and daily expect another in this Business . . . I must now rest satisfied with the little share of Health & Religion I have left . . . until the next summer when I am afraid it will be highly necessary to have a recruit of both, particularly the latter after selling Slaves in a free Independent Country". Writing in 1785, two years after the Revolution ended, Russell refers wryly to the contradiction between his business and the "free Independent Country" in which he practices it. Of course, if Mr. Russell had really felt conflicted about his occupation, he could have changed it, but the stressing of issues that may or may not have troubled Russell's soul is just another example of the tendency to explore and identify with the consciousness of the slave owners while depersonalizing and objectifying the slaves. Russell's self-questioning is also of less interest than the question of why the Historical Charleston Foundation feels the need to stress information that might dilute the negativity of Russell's occupation.

Of the two pages that are devoted to the history of African Americans at the Russell House, the first is taken up with this apology for Russell's involvement in the slave trade. The second page presents information about three of Russell's slaves: Daniel Payne, Lydia (no last name is given), and Tom Russell. Daniel Payne managed to leave Charleston and resettle in the North; his life, "epitomized the success that black Charlestonians could achieve outside the slavery system". Lydia was lucky enough to travel to Europe with her mistress and visited London, Paris, Florence, Rome and Naples. The positive tone of these tales is spoiled slightly by the last example.

Tom Russell was a blacksmith so skilled that he was allowed to keep his own shop, where he apprenticed whites, but Tom had to give his wages to Mrs. Russell each month. Russell was eventually convicted of forging weapons for Denmark Vesey's attempted slave uprising. When her slave was hanged on 26 July, 1822, "Mrs. Russell petitioned the South Carolina legislature for monetary compensation for her loss". This is the same Mrs. Russell whose donations helped build a church for the poor. Some juggling and restructuring of the information on the Historic Charleston Foundation website is needed to recognize that Tom Russell's wages and money derived from the sale and exploitation of other slaves was the ultimate source of Mrs. Russell's charitable contributions.

North and South of Calhoun

Historical preservation is usually considered a politically neutral enterprise; its goal is to preserve buildings of architectural and historical interest and help society maintain a sense of continuity with the past. Yet historical preservation, like every reconstruction of history, is an interpretation shaped by the dominant class and reflective of those values. An appreciation of historical architecture is an indicator of the educational priorities and taste codes of the elite class. In the United States generally, the majority of that class is still white, so historical preservation organizations and initiatives tend to be dominated by whites and to reflect white values and interests. In South Carolina, a state that has been boycotted by the NAACP since 1999 for its insistence on flying the confederate flag on the State House grounds, the politics of historical preservation are uniquely fraught with racial overtones.

The question of whose history is being preserved is also particularly relevant in Charleston because of the racial-economic geography of the Historic District. Charleston's Historic District is located on the Charleston peninsula, an area that is divided from east to west by Calhoun Street. North of Calhoun, the population is 80-to-100 percent black, with a median household income of under $30,000. South of Calhoun, the population is 80-to-100 percent white, with a median household income from $30,000 to $150,000 and up. The vast majority of the houses and buildings that the Historical Charleston Foundation and private preservationists consider worthy of preservation are located south of Calhoun Street, despite the fact that the official Historic District extends north of Calhoun Street. There are hundreds of historically interesting houses and buildings on the north side of the peninsula, including many "freedman's cottages", but the HCF has not shown much interest in preserving or exhibiting these examples of Charleston's historic architecture.

Freedman's cottages are one-story homes that were built by white developers soon after the Civil War to rent to freed slaves. These cottages, like shotgun houses, are among the few architectural forms associated with African American history. Yet, like the many other historical buildings in the black neighborhoods north of Calhoun, the freedman's cottages have been allowed to fall into chronic disrepair and these architectural links to the African American past may soon disappear altogether. In the last 20 years, property values on the Charleston peninsula have risen steeply, and as white developers gentrify the north side of the peninsula, each year the applications to demolish freedman's cottages increase, so that larger homes can be built in their place. The HCF is aware of the danger to the freedman's cottages, but as their website notes, "much more study of this architectural type needs to be undertaken to understand their importance and to assess their feasibility as affordable housing for the 21st century".

The relative "importance" and "feasibility" of these houses in terms of their preservation cannot be entirely unrelated to their location in poor black neighborhoods. A recent description from the Charleston Post & Courier (January 28, 2004) helps explain why these districts are not included on the tourist map. "Homeless men in ragged clothes sip from 40 ounce malt liquor bottles in a scraggly patch of woods, carpeted with jagged glass, wadded trash and pine needles. Young black men huddle on street corners, speak in muffled tones and glare at passing police. In this neighborhood, as in other predominantly black areas of the city, life lacks the carefree, postcard image that Charleston projects to the outside world". Even if the freedman's cottages were preserved, it is unlikely that they would ever become stops on the heritage tour circuit. The contrast between the immaculately preserved Historic District south of Calhoun and the poverty and decay that surrounds the Historic District north of Calhoun is too stark a reminder of the separate heritages of whites and blacks to appeal to tourists from the south or the north.

In many ways, the racial-economic division of Charleston is not so different or so harsh as the division between blacks and whites in northern cities. In contrast to the barren high-rise projects of Chicago and Detroit, at least the tenants north of Calhoun live in quaint, if dilapidated, two story homes. But Chicago and Detroit are sprawling cities with complex ethnic geographies, historically and geographically removed from slavery. The direct connection of the port of Charleston to the slave trade, the preserved traces of slavery, the small area of the Charleston peninsula and its vivid racial split combine to make Charleston appear almost as a diagram of race history. It is too easy, however, to project that history exclusively on the South. With its "The South Will Rise Again" bumper stickers and its confederate flag supporters, southern culture is easy for outsiders to use as a gauge of their progress towards the state of ultimate political correctness. Yet the raw history that Charleston embodies north and south of Calhoun is not just southern; it is American history. Nor is the reluctance to face that history exclusively southern. Charleston may sell a cotton candy version of its history, but Yankees consume it as enthusiastically as southerners.

The American Dream is a healthy dream of self-sovereignty through work and self reliance, but there is also a regressive American Fantasy that involves a life of unlimited, undeserved, un-worked-for bounty: winning the lottery, finding Margaritaville, becoming a movie star. If there is a historical basis for the American Fantasy, it is slavery: the unlimited free energy that once made the planters' most grandiose and infantile dreams come true. Americans are uncomfortable with historical reality and prefer an edited, airbrushed version because we are still a reality-challenged culture, stuck like satyrs, waist-deep in the pleasure principle. To look into history's undistorted mirror is to discern the causal chain that leads from there to here, and our reluctance to face the past is ultimately an evasion of the present.

If you visit Charleston, take a horse-drawn carriage down Broad Street and admire St. Michael's cathedral, the Four Corners of Law, and the mansions on the Battery. Then leave the carriage and travel north on America Street to the park; take a left and walk past the young men on the corner to the chain link fence that encloses the site of the new Piggly Wiggly across the street from Money Man Pawn, PayLess Shoes, and Church's Chicken. This is a short tour, but it shows how far we have come.

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