By Renée S. Gordon
“Die like a man.”
–Denmark Vesey at execution, July 22, 1822
Conquistadors began arriving in the New World, an area they referred to as “Las Indias,” shortly after the voyages of Columbus. They began with the Caribbean Islands and moved outward from there. In 1521 Ponce de Leon landed in Florida and attempted to start a colony. His lack of success did not deter 500 colonists in 1526, under the leadership of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, from attempting to begin the first settlement in South Carolina. This coastal colony included a number of Africans. They too were unsuccessful and the majority died in an epidemic by 1527.
King Charles I granted South Carolina’s first English land charter in 1623 but because of political upheaval no settlement was ever established. King Charles II granted territory in the Carolinas for colonization to eight Lords Proprietors in 1663 and in 1670 the first permanent colony in South Carolina was founded at Bulls Island by planters arriving from Barbados, bringing with them slaves skilled in the tasks needed to work on the rice and indigo plantations they established. Forty years later the black population exceeded that of whites, a fact that would have a huge impact on the culture and history of the region.
Because of the “alarming” number of blacks, laws governing the enslaved population were enacted beginning in 1669. A 1686 statute deemed slaves freehold property, meaning they were tied to the estate upon which they labored and could not be sold or relocated. Ten years later laws were changed reflecting their new status as chattel. By the start of the 18th-century laws limited the number of slaves in the colony. They failed and by 1861 there were more than 400,000 blacks in the colony. It is estimated that approximately 40 percent of all Africans brought to this country entered through Charleston’s port making this ground zero for an African American heritage tour.
Charles Towne, the colonial capital of the area from Virginia to Florida, moved to its permanent location in 1690 and twenty-two years later the colony would be divided into North and South Carolina. Charleston is the nation’s oldest city south of Virginia, it has been in the forefront of America’s history from its birth and to walk its streets is to peel back the layers of the past and interact with history on a very personal level.
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site, 1500 Old Towne Road, is an excellent place to begin a heritage tour of Charleston. The park opened in 1970 at the place on the Ashley River where the first English settlers landed. Visitors orient themselves in a 12-room museum and then proceed to explore an heirloom crop garden, a zoo with animals that would have been here when the settlers arrived, and the Adventure, a replica of a 17th-century sailing vessel. Period-clad guides and re-enactors lend authenticity to the site. www.charlestowne.org
Inns and homes throughout the colonies claimed to have been a place where Washington slept but Charleston’s Heyward-Washington House was indeed Washington’s home for three weeks in 1791. The Georgian residence was built in 1772 and was the home of Thomas Heyward, Jr. and Sr. In 1794 Jr. sold the home to Judge Grimké whose daughters Sarah and Angelina were famous abolitionists. A tour of the site includes exquisite Charleston made furniture, including the Holmes Bookcase, outbuildings including a fully equipped 1740 kitchen and an heirloom garden.
The house is in the most historic area of the city and the area around it was used as the setting for Dubose Heyward’s “Porgy and Bess.” Cabbage Row, renamed Catfish Row in the musical, is located from 89-91 Church St. It achieved National Historic Landmark (NHL) status in 1978. 87 Church St.
Gabriel Manigault designed the Joseph Manigault House 1803 for his brother. This Federal-style, 3three-story suburban villa is a townhouse with two-story porches and a sweeping cantilevered central staircase. More than 70 South Carolina of the plaster is original as is 90 South Carolina of the woodwork. The French Huguenot family owned rice plantations and an excess of 200 slaves. 350 Meeting St.
If you have time to visit only one house-museum your best choice is the Aiken-Rhett House deemed the best example of an unaltered townhouse complex in the area. Originally constructed in 1818 it was enlarged in the 1830s and 1850s. The site interprets the urban planter lifestyle in 1858. The family of the first owner, rice planter and governor of South Carolina, William Aiken, Jr. owned the residence until 1975. Aiken held more than 700 slaves on his plantation and a staff of 12 worked in the townhouse. The lives of the enslaved are interpreted through the areas in which they worked and lived. 48 Elizabeth St.
The Citadel, the Military College of SC, was created by an act of the State Legislature on December 20, 1842. It was located inside a state arsenal designed by Frederick Wesner in the Romanesque-style and constructed in 1829.
Summerall Chapel, the jewel in the school’s crown, was built in the 1930s in a cruciform design. The nonsectarian chapel is renowned for its handcrafted lighting fixtures, pine beams and stained-glass windows that relate the corps history and that of the life of Christ. In the central, religious window, the only non-Biblical figure is Nathan Hale.
Citadel cadets fired on a Union ship entering the harbor less than one month after secession and prior to the surrender of Fort Sumter. When the Union troops regained the city in 1865 they confiscated the Citadel for use as a federal garrison. The college complex was given to the state in 1882 and once again functioned as a military college. 171 Moultrie St.
African American history is an intrinsic part of all of the sites and history on any Charleston tour but there are several places that deserve special notice. The most significant is the Denmark Vesey House at 56 Bull St. It was here in 1821 that he met with others and plotted what would be the largest black insurrection in the US.
Telemaque was born in the Virgin Islands in 1767 and was later enslaved to sea captain Joseph Vesey who took him along for two-years on slaving voyages. He was literate and fluent in at least three languages. By 1790 the captain divested himself of his slave ships and lived permanently, with eight slaves including Denmark, in Charleston at 27¼ Bay St. In 1800 Denmark purchased his freedom allegedly using lottery winnings and savings from him carpentry work. He purchased the home on Bull St., now a National Historic Landmark.
His July 2, 1822 rebellion was a failure because “loyal” slaves betrayed him. He and 36 co-conspirators were executed. He was among the first to be hanged on July 2nd at approximately 6 AM where currently the I-26 overpass joins Meeting St. Ground in Charleston’s Hampton Park has been selected for the placement of a monument, sculpted by Ed Dwight, to memorialize Denmark Vesey.
Blacks were required to be off the streets by sunset each evening or face stiff consequences. The time was marked by drumbeats from the Guardhouse, 83 Broad St. Blacks caught abroad without a pass from their master were incarcerated in the Work House for the night. During the night they were lashed and chained. It was also where recalcitrant slaves were sent to be beaten and/or to walk the treadmill. The exterior green was a place for slave executions. The original 1730s Work House was an old sugar warehouse located at 15 Magazine St.
Emanuel AME Church is the second oldest in the world and the oldest in the South. The church was investigated and burned after the Vesey conspiracy. In the 1830s black churches were banned and the congregation worshipped covertly until 1865. 110 Calhoun St. www.emanuelchurch.org
The 1891 Jenkins Orphanage, 20 Franklin St., was established by Rev. Daniel Jenkins as the first colored orphanage in the area. It was supported in part by the touring orphanage band. Follow the link and you can see and hear their Nov. 22, 1928 performance. www.sciway.net/sc-photos/charleston-county/jenkins-institute-for-children.html
Shots were fired at the slave constructed Fort Sumter National Monument leading to the Civil War and the siege of Charleston, one of the longest in modern warfare. It lasted from April 12, 1861 until Feb 17, 1865, 587-days, and more than 7-million pounds of ammunition were expended. The fort is situated in Charleston harbor and boat tours depart from Concord and Calhoun Streets. There is an interpretive center on site that provides a general overview. www.fortsumtertours.com
Before visiting a few sites outside of Charleston every visitor must stop at the Old City Market. Charles Pinckney donated the land on the condition that it should forever remain a public market. It was constructed in 1788 using slave laborers, one of which was Denmark Vesey. Today it is lined with stalls selling SC products and souvenirs. Market & Meeting Sts.
Hopsewee Plantation, circa 1740, is one of the country’s oldest plantation houses that is open to the public. It was the home of Thomas Lynch, Sr. and Jr., both signers of the Declaration of Independence. This Colonial-style plantation house is constructed of black cypress with heart pine floors and hand carved moldings. Two original slave cabins, lived in until the 1940s, are on the property. Tours are available, sweet grass basket-making classes can be scheduled by appointment and Hopsewee’s River Oak Cottage Tea Room is one of the top three statewide. 494 Hopsewee Road. Georgetown, SC www.hopsewee.com
North Augusta’s 7.5-acre Living History Park is a perfect place to pull the entire Charleston experience together. The complex consists of 15 sites including a sensory garden, Willow Springs Meeting House, barn, tavern, slave cabin and pillory. The park is dedicated to promoting understanding of and preserving and presenting regional history and a full series of re-enactments are ongoing that allow visitors to experience the life of Native Americans, the enslaved, backwoodsmen, sutlers, settlers and military men. 299 W. Spring Grove Ave. www.colonialtimes.us
We have only skimmed Charleston’s surface. Why not plan a tour to explore the city in depth? www.discoversouthcarolina.com and www.charlestoncvb.com
I wish you smooth and comprehensive travels!