Charleston, at its original site when it was Charles Town, was founded in 1670. The original site was abandoned and relocated to the present location in 1680, soon becoming the new nation’s fifth-largest city. The foundation for Charleston’s growth was its role in the international slave trade. What made Charleston unique from other American port cities was that independent slave traders like Joseph Wragg broke the monopoly of the Royal African Company that was England’s effort to monopolize the slave trade to the colonies. The Navigation Act of 1660 provided that only English ships could enter colonial ports.
I’d been to Charleston before. My college roommate (Hey Will) was from there, and I visited him there during one summer break. His father was pastor of Greater St. Luke A.M.E. Church, and I attended service while there. Will took me around the city; we saw Rainbow Row, the most extensive collection of Georgian row houses in the United States. We saw other sites, I’m sure, but as a twenty-year-old, I didn’t have the same interest in history I do today. I’m sure I didn’t comprehend the role South Carolina and Charleston played in the enslaving of Black people in America.
I returned to Charleston in October of 2020, amid a pandemic. This time my interest was specifically about viewing some historical sites related to enslavement while maintaining social distancing. There is a port plaque; some of the wording didn’t match my perception of South Carolina.
“SINCE THE LATE 1970s. RACIAL HARMONY, ECONOMIC REVITALIZATION, A CULTURAL RENAISSANCE, AND ATTENTION TO URBAN DESIGN HAVE BROUGHT CHARLESTONIANS A NEW MEASURE OF PROSPERITY AND PRIDE IN THEIR CITY.”
When I read of the “Racial Harmony” that Charlestonians started enjoying in the late 1970s, I thought of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, an avowed segregationalist who was repeatedly reelected to the Senate until he retired in 2002.
“I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and our churches.”
Thurmond personally defeated a Civil Rights Bill by staging a one-person filibuster lasting over twenty-four hours. I suppose he did have one contribution to racial harmony by sleeping with the family maid, having a daughter he never acknowledged during his lifetime. He was 22 when she was born, and the maid was 16, unlike Thomas Jefferson’s family, who for decades denied that Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings. The Thurmond family acknowledged the relationship. See racial harmony.
In the 1970s, the Confederate flag still flew over Charleston and the rest of South Carolina. That flag wasn’t removed until 2015, after the teenaged white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people after they prayed with him at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof had been photographed holding a Confederate flag. When Dylann Roof was captured, he was taken to Burger King to get a bite to eat before being taken to jail. Thirty-year-old Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole at a monument at the statehouse and removed it; afterward, she was promptly arrested. Thirteen days later, South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from state buildings for good.
I visited Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Because of the pandemic, it was closed to visitors. The location of the church was unexpected. I am used to finding Black churches in predominantly Black neighborhoods, but Mother Emanuel, founded in 1817, was solidly in the mostly white Historic District. It was literally around the corner from the slightly older and white Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, built in 1809. Both buildings showed signs of decay around their steeples and roofs. There were memorial items for the nine dead, though there were no services, people, white and Black, stopped by to take pictures. Five years later, the heinous shooting is not forgotten.
Charleston was once the South’s largest port where enslaved Africans were brought to America. Two of its citizens, Charles Pinckney and John Rutledge, contributed to the writing of the Constitution. South Carolina played an outsized role in shaping our nation. The interests of slave-holding states in the South differed significantly from the northern colonies, also dependent economically on enslaved people’s trading. The Constitution is full of compromises designed to protect the institution of slavery and ensure the slave states their rights wouldn’t be infringed on. Many of those compromises were hard-won by Pinckney and Rutledge, including the Electoral College, the three-fifths clause, and the one clause they believed would protect their slave-based economy but ultimately destroyed it, Article One; Section Nine: Clause One.
“Clause 1. The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
This part of the Constitution guaranteed that the international slave trade couldn’t be ended for at least twenty years from ratification. In 1788 when ratification took place, tobacco farmers in Virginia and Maryland had excess enslaved people. Their crops were failing due to overfarming and failure to rotate crops, and they were looking to sell enslaved people further South to the rice and cotton plantations that were desperate for help. Charleston was meeting that need with imported enslaved people landing at their vast port. Sullivan’s Island in Charleston County is estimated to have received forty percent of the enslaved Africans that came to America. A full half of present-day African Americans have relatives that came through Sullivan’s Island. The Virginia plantation owners that negotiated with Pinckney, Rutledge, and other southerners were planning to cut Charleston out of the slavery business from the day the Constitution was signed.
Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slave-holder with excess slaves, became President in 1801. During his second term, the expiration date of the Clause prohibiting the prohibition of international slave trading would come due, and Jefferson was more than ready. In 1807, the year before he could change the law, he passed legislation that would end the international slave trade in America, the first day possible on January 1, 1808. He had already ended the international trade in Virginia in 1778.
“I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.”
He pretended it was all about human rights. Others credit him with taking a step he hoped would lead to eliminating slavery, which wouldn’t end for almost sixty more years after the Civil War. Instead he enriched the pockets of himself and other Virginia plantation owners by eliminating the competition to the domestic slave breeding and increasing their value. Worse yet, it created incentives for those same farmers to increase the production of slaves since their value had risen. This was accomplished through the forced breeding of enslaved people, often via rape, which some historians have covered up by calling it “natural increase.”
I visited Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, where many of the cannons that protected the Port of Charleston still exist. The facilities there were closed, so I don’t know what history would have been told there. I can only hope it to be more accurate than that told in the historic district.
Charleston was admittedly beautiful in the areas they showcased. I drove through some of the blighted areas not highlighted and noticed many Black people missed out on the “economic revitalization” the city brags about. “Racial harmony” sometimes seemed missing as well. I don’t know when I’ll get back to Charleston. I hope one day to present a better report.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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