A Charleston Tour: Past, Present
One week ago, I visited Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time.
Chucktown, as it's called by some locals, is famous in the insular food-media world. A small, charming city with a legendary capacity to feed locals and tourists very, very well. Brandon and I drank and ate, oh yes we did. So much so, I had moments during the trip when I swore I would never eat in a restaurant again. More on that marathon soon.
What backhanded me about Charleston and its environs was the way that history clings, enveloping the area like the weighty August air did. Sure, every place has history. But in so many American cities I've lived in or visited, the zip of the present has a way of obfuscating the trails of time. Past and present commingle in Charleston like no other American city that I've been to. I knew I was visiting in late August of 2014, but I felt history behind me, like a noncorporeal guide leading with its hand on my left shoulder.
We headed to Middleton Place soon after we landed, on the recommendation of Hanna Raskin, food writer and critic for the Post & Courier. I'm no history buff, but I needed to see a Charleston plantation firsthand. Middleton Place is located about half an hour northeast of Charleston proper. An easy drive through a road canopied by trees. What kind? Couldn't tell you. No arborist I.
The 64-acres ground were spectacular. It is the location of the country's oldest landscaped gardens, according to the property's brochures. The grandeur was epic.
All the time I kept thinking that these were grounds on which slaves lived and toiled. Charleston was the point of entry for most of the African slave trade in the United States. An incontrovertible part of Charleston—and the country's—legacy. One that Middleton Place does not gloss over. The brochures use the world "slave," and Middleton offers a tour that delves into what live was like for slaves on the property. Acknowledgment of past inhumanities is an admirable approach. I'll take overt over passive omission any day. Too often, in the north, that's how too many people wrestle with race: Don't talk about it, and it'll all be fine. Right?
Later in the trip, Brandon and I headed to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island. (We had an epic meal at The Obstinate Daughter nearby. I'll get into that in another post.) Typically, I'd avoid a historic military site like a plague of mosquitos in August. Fort Moultrie, though, was an eye-opening detour.
Through a (hilariously dated) movie, I learned that the fort had gone through three iterations and was a stronghold for multiple wars, from the Revolutionary War through World War I. Centuries of American struggle anchored at one coastal location. It put three hundred years of history into acute relief, like a Rosetta Stone crash course but in American history.
As at Middleton Place, Fort Moultrie grappled with its slave-trade past, with an area of the museum designated entirely to the history of the Charleston slave trade. An enclosed box housed a slave's neck collar and leg shackles. Seeing those artifacts in person was like a punch to the throat. Thinking about the inhumanity is painful, but abstractly. A collar and shackles right in front of you? Visceral.
One curiosity: The story of Fort Moultrie and the harbor is told chronologically through a series of exhibits in the museum. But the exhibit devoted to the slave trade is relegated to a corner room, apart from the timeline used in the rest of the space. Why hasn't the slave-trade exhibit been incorporated into the historical sequence of the American tale in the main room?
We took to the water on our final day in Charleston. There's nothing quite like seeing a port city from the water. So much of the commerce and life of port cities came from the sea. It's my favorite way to get an understanding of how a coastal city thrums.
We saw Fort Moultrie from the water. We saw Fort Sumter, another crucial military hub. History was in sight, visible all around. The day was beautiful. A solid breeze filled our schooner's sails and softened the sun's harshness.
Water is the great equalizer. The Atlantic was there before America was born. It saw a country created. It watched as that country fumbled with its democratic experiment. The water remains, even we American individuals and our flawed nation struggle to become our best selves. Past, present and future: immutable and omnipresent.