Historical downtown area of Charleston, South Carolina, USA at twilight.
CNN  — 

Charleston, South Carolina, regularly is mentioned as one of the top cities in the world to visit, for many reasons: the natural, Lowcountry beauty and Spanish moss; its charm, sophistication and candy-colored houses angled toward the breeze; beaches and bottomless bowls of freshly trawled shrimp and stone-ground grits.

Also to be considered when you travel here: Visits to grand homes and sprawling farms, their pre-Civil War glory preserved down to the wallpaper, furniture, chandeliers. One envisions, perhaps, the dashing Rhett Butler and carriage rides, slow evenings on the veranda, elegant dinners.

Perhaps. If you’re White.

Despite the city’s beauty, this image is not a complete version of history.

Behind those stately homes either in the downtown or on those farms – plantations – often are smaller ones made of stone or wood, utilitarian, without verandas, elegant furniture, sweeping staircases or laughing men in fancy suits.

These are slave quarters.

The interior of the slave quarters at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston.

Charleston, as did the rest of the South, grew and thrived because of the unpaid labors of African men and women who had been kidnapped, beaten, raped and enslaved. The plantations that produced rice and cotton and sugar, or processed indigo, all prospered at extreme human cost. The in-town homes and their white owners were tended to and cared for by enslaved men and women.

The Holy City is undeniably popular. The town’s thriving tourist industry brought in $8 billion in 2018, and has grown by about $26 million yearly for the past five years.

In the United States, and particularly in the states that made up the Confederacy, it often is impossible to disentangle the beauty of the surroundings from the history. But that history is a painful one for those who are Black and who are often the descendants of enslaved women and men.

Can Charleston’s tourism and true history co-exist with the recent attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and the current global awakening?

Charleston's charm belies the extreme human cost of its history of slavery.

Racism runs parallel to a romantic ideal

When my husband and I lived in Charleston, we marveled at sunsets over the Battery, examined side streets and tested as many out-of-the way restaurants as possible. We did not lose weight or become bored while living there.

However, we were sometimes stunned at the genuine invitations to visit plantations for oyster roasts, weddings or festivals. We listened as downtown tour guides glossed over details related to anyone enslaved: where they might have emptied slop jars, where they would have been sold (not the center of town, as the buying and selling of humans was not allowed inside the city).

Several times, I was stopped and cheerfully asked about the slave market, usually right in front of the Daughters of the Confederacy building.

I wondered whether anybody saw the irony in asking a Black woman to visit a plantation at all, let alone for a party. I began to wonder whether anybody thought deeply about the words they used, or the places where we stood.

The plantation visits did not happen. I refused. We challenged tour guides’ information. The City Market was not where slaves were sold, and the actual space, called a barracoon, gives us chills.

Charleston's City Market is now a marketplace for local goods and souvenirs. Racist trinkets have been sold here.

Now, I am a tourist, and a tourist of color, and a stroll through this beautiful city – which I loved, still love – isn’t always simply a stroll through my former home. Each step can sometimes take me and other people of color deeply into old injustices and current-day racism and insensitivities that run parallel to the romantic ideal that other visitors may see.

A visit to the City Market, when we first moved to town in the 1990s, could as easily turn up a piece of unique jewelry as it could a set of blackface salt-and-pepper shakers. A step inside a shop for a T-shirt could lead to a discussion with a clerk who is standing beside a display of Confederate memorabilia.

I once worked in a downtown shop, and the owner, while explaining the parameters of the job, escorted me to the far corner of a back room: The Confederate corner, crammed with paintings of battle scenes, soldiers, the Stars and Bars. She sheepishly explained that she did not like selling Confederate merchandise, but said that one painting sold would pay bills and payroll for two months. She did not expect me to promote these items.

A turn onto Calhoun Street can take a person past Emanuel AME Church, where nine members – all of whom were Black – were murdered in 2015 by a white supremacist who had a love for the Confederate flag.

Across the street from the church, which is lovingly known as Mother Emanuel, is Marion Park. Until recently, this where a statue of Vice President John C. Calhoun, a slaveowner and staunch supporter of antebellum plantation slavery, stood.

The Civil War that started here indeed was about states’ rights – the states’ rights to continue using slave labor for the gains of White people. Cadets from The Citadel in Charleston fired the first shots in that war. The Confederate flag still flies on the campus, despite the efforts of current-day alumni to remove it.

People visit a makeshift shrine in July 2015 to the victims of the June 17, 2015, shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.

‘Not everything is pretty here’

Doug Warner, vice president of Media & Innovation Development at Explore Charleston, acknowledges the deeper truth of his aesthetically lovely city. But he says the hard work of confronting racism had already begun for Charleston – before 2020, Covid-19, protests and a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement – and especially for the tourism industry.

There simply was no way to continue the status quo of life after the murders at Mother Emanuel. Racism had to be fully acknowledged and addressed, from the inside, in much the same way as it has been across the country in 2020, and that reckoning had to come from the space that promotes exploration of the city.

“Not everything is pretty here,” Warner says. “We as a community had a head start primarily because of the tragedy at Mother Emanuel. That event shook our community to our very soul. And because of the family members, and their grace and ability to forgive, this made everybody stop and think ‘we can do better with Charleston and the egregious past.’ “

“This has to be a place to lead the country forward.”

Until recently, a monument to former US vice president and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun towered over Charleston's Marion Square.

He allows that there is much to be done. The PR and tourism industry saw a need, after the murders, to do its own internal, intercity, interindustry work. It had to turn the magnifying glass on itself.

As a starting point, what was the industry doing to eradicate racial stereotypes and to elevate not only diversity in hospitality, but to be certain the truth of Charleston’s residents was evident and visible in every space possible? Was the industry continuing a stereotypical norm or was it progressing?

It wasn’t enough to have Black and White people on a hotel staff; most of the time, the staff at the front of the house was White, performing in professional spaces, while the Black staff worked at more menial jobs. Black employees were cooks rather than head chefs. Housekeepers rather than marketing staff.

The antebellum period is over and unacceptable, and the industry had to be sure it reflected that truth.

The Calhoun statue was removed from Marion Square on June 24, 2020.

Heart for Hospitality

To that end, the tourism industry in Charleston developed Heart for Hospitality, an outreach and business effort that encourages hospitality businesses to develop and promote more equitable opportunities for employees across the board.

People who have worked in hospitality from the back of the house – traditionally service jobs held by people of color – have moved to more visibly and professionally prominent positions, which Warner says is a start.

The program encourages goal setting for employees, and it trains owners to create opportunities that allow for equitable advancement within a business, particularly to reflect the racial makeup of the city.

It is only right, Warner says, to begin to correct generations of wrongs. If not for contributions of enslaved Africans and their descendants, Charleston’s beauty and success would not have been.

“Our Southern food came from Africa. Rice culture, from Africa. You can’t separate our art, our architecture, our culinary scene, without telling that story. And you cannot do that without representation and honesty.”

The Old Slave Mart once housed an antebellum slave auction gallery. It is now a museum dedicated to the memories and stories of those who passed through the gates.

‘Racism is the global pandemic’

Tourism must meet fact in other spaces, however, and that goes deeper than removing flags and statues. When talking with Black people who hold the city in their hearts, and whose livelihoods also come from tourism, the conversation finds a different path.

Artist Jonathan Green, whose colorful paintings reflect the Gullah culture so perfectly that you can hear the music of the language, agrees with Warner’s ideas. The story of Charleston cannot be told without fully giving proper attention to gains reaped by hijacking a continent. He takes it a few steps further.

“Charleston is the Ellis Island for Black people,” he says. “Charleston was the wealthiest city in the country for 100 years, based on West African ingenuity. And racism is not reliant on or dependent on one place or one city.

“But almost everywhere I go, two things happen: There is not an example of Black people’s full contributions to a place, and the other is there is no understanding or real appreciation of African culture in the city.

“Charleston is the epicenter of change, of how we’re going to counteract and deal with this global issue. Racism is the global pandemic.”

Charleston-based artist Jonathan Green says Charleston can lead the way in correcting "national and international understanding."

Green, who is now based in Charleston, says education is key.

“When I see children walking and taking tours, I talk to them. I show them what the textbooks will not tell them.

“I feel there needs to be a revamping of the education system. All of it. The history and culture needs to be more indicative of the history and population, and you must talk about history from the perspective of the people at different points in time.

“We can’t do it in Charleston alone,” Green says. “It has to be a national and international understanding and correction. But Charleston can certainly lead the way.”

People walk past the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in 2015.

Two churches join forces

Alphonso Brown, who has owned and operated Gullah Geechee Tours since 1985, also encourages education, for children and adults. He attends Mount Zion AME Church, which is predominately Black and around the corner from Grace Episcopal Church, which is predominately White.

The two churches have a book club that is reading “How To Be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi, and Brown is encouraged at the hard discussions that the members have. People want to know truth, he says.

That is how he conducts his tours, which he says show an interesting trend: most participants on his tours are White, which suggests to him a growth in awareness.

“In the city, we have the option of formulating our own tour, story and dialogue. Seventy to eighty percent of my company’s business is White,” he says. This suggests to him a growing realization that there are untold stories, and that these stories have helped shape today’s events.

Demonstrators gather outside of Emanuel AME Church on the fifth anniversary of the Charleston Massacre on June 17, 2020.

As with Green, Brown is forward thinking in ways that don’t necessarily involve statues. He chuckled when I mentioned the juxtaposition of the Calhoun statue to Mother Emanuel when I attended the Charleston Food + Wine Festival in 2019.

“You noticed that, eh? Most folks don’t.”

He wants a stronger, complete education for children, and he wants to address racism through economics: fair lending practices for homes and businesses, more knowledge among landowners about the value of property, more awareness of gentrification (a term he does not like).

He remembers when there was no segregation of housing, and when Black families lived in former slave houses in downtown but had to move because the houses became big business, and taxes became unaffordable.

And he wants Black people to learn more. “You can’t fight well when you don’t know,” he says.

He and Green agree: reckoning with the past is one thing. Carving a truthful, equitable future is another.

‘It’s important to say the words. Black Lives Matter’

Warner becomes thoughtful when talking about the impact of Black Lives Matter.

“We [in tourism] are only supposed to talk about fun stuff, right? One day, a reporter asked if we had made a statement about Black Lives Matter. It dawned on me that saying the words mattered. We are an organization that puts ideas into action. Sometimes it’s important to say the words. Black Lives Matter. Charleston would not exist otherwise.”

He speaks about the International African American Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2022. It feels like a bookend, to him, of a space between the horrific shooting in 2015 and the start of a place that is committed to telling the full story of Charleston and its African American heritage.

“It’s for all Charlestonians,” he says. “The museum is a stake in the sand. It’s not an end to anything. It’s a declaration.”

There have been other declarations.

The Charleston Food + Wine festival, which in 2019 generated more than $18 million in revenues over five days and has been held in Marion Square beneath the Calhoun statue, in early June made a public call for the statue’s removal, particularly in light of continued racial violence, protests and worldwide attention on the United States.

Organizers of the Charleston Food + Wine Festival called for the removal this year of the Calhoun statue.

City officials agreed. Shortly following this, the festival declared its commitment to becoming an “actively antiracist organization, one that is a true reflection of the culinary and hospitality community of Charleston.”

Part of that commitment includes expanding the diversity of community voices on the board, which currently has one African American woman, to 20%. It also includes an examination of venues, and a continued effort of past years to broaden the talent that takes part in the festival.

Sites that might have once glossed over the pain of the past have made progress. Still, the efforts could run side-by-side with what could be triggering, or at the very least, painful and saddening, to people of color.

“We have a lifetime of work to do,” Warner says.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens offers a popular "From Slavery to Freedom" tour. The property also hosts weddings and events.

Uneven progress

Drayton Hall, one of the oldest surviving plantations in the South, actively encourages visitors to pay respects at the African-American cemetery on site.

Magnolia Plantation’s “From Slavery to Freedom” tour is more popular than the tour of the plantation house. The tour began as The Magnolia Cabin Project, an effort to preserve the houses of the enslaved, and has consistently recognized and addressed the hardships and cruelty that challenged African-American families from antebellum times through the Civil Rights era of the 20th century.

Magnolia still serves as a wedding venue. Though it did promote wedding services on social media last year, Drayton Hall has not hosted a wedding in nearly 10 years, according to Carter Hudgins, its president and CEO. This is despite backlash that has led sites such as Pinterest and The Knot to stop promoting wedding content that romanticizes former slave plantations.

Progress and history can co-exist as enemies or as friends.

The debate around the Confederate flag and statues remains, although Warner says that walking into a store and running into a Confederate flag display is less likely to happen in 2020 than 20 years ago, or even 10 – and particularly since the murders at Mother Emanuel.

But the unwillingness to turn blind eyes and deaf ears has taken root.

“With our history,” Warner says, “anything less is unacceptable.”

Dartinia Hull is based in North Carolina and lived in Charleston in the 1990s. Her writing can be found in The Bitter Southerner, Noteworthy: The Blog Journal, MUTHA Magazine and Age of Awareness.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Drayton Hall’s more recent history with hosting weddings. The story also incorrectly stated the number of minorities on the board of the Charleston Food + Wine Festival. It has one.