Until March 2017, I knew next to nothing about Charleston except a few historical tidbits. I understood its role in the slave trade, but it was more general information than emotional pull. While visiting relatives in the region, I had the chance to spend a few days in the nearly 350-year-old city (and traditional land of the Kiawah, Edisto Natchez-Kusso Tribe, and Etiwan Tribe of the Wassamasaw Indian Nation) and it blew my mind.
What follows are some photos and some historical information about several sites in Charleston. Why? Because I’m a history nerd, that’s why.
Bennett Rice Mill
All that remains of the Bennett Rice Mill today is its facade, but when it opened in 1845 it was a hub of activity. The mill was built by Governor Thomas Bennett, an extremely wealthy plantation owner. Although this was the smallest of the three rice mills in Charleston, its ability to pump out 200 bushels per day and proximity to the harbor made it very popular. After the Civil War, rice grown in the Lowlands lost profitability (that’s what happens when you suddenly have to pay people instead of enslaving them) and by the early 20th century the mill was done for. The building became a peanut plant then was owned by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad Co., and then the South Carolina Ports Authority. The Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston took over in 1958, but two hurricanes furthered damage.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, aka Mother Emanuel
Founded in 1816, this is the oldest AME church south of Baltimore. One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, was born into slavery but earned money to buy freedom for himself and his children (his wife’s slaveholder refused to sell her to Vesey). Later he was accused of trying to start a slave rebellion and was hanged along with 34 other men. With nearly 1600 members in the early 21st century, the congregation was deeply involved in civic engagement. Tragically, some white supremacist asshole shot and killed nine people in the church in 2015: South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers converted the basement of the Old Exchange Building into a dungeon. After the war it became one of the centers of the Charleston slave trade; untold number of enslaved Africans were auctioned off at the Custom House.
Known as “America’s First Museum,” the Charleston Museum opened its doors in 1773. It’s collection of South Carolina and Lowland Country artifacts is one of the world’s best.
John Drayton bought the land on which he would build his grand estate in 1738. He eventually owned over 100 commercial plantations spread over 76,000 acres of land; it’s believed he owned thousands of enslaved Africans. In the 1700s and 1800s they mostly cultivated rice, due to the estate’s proximity to the Ashley River. Rice work was one of the worst and hardest types of slave labor and, if the enslaved person survived childhood, they had a life expectancy of about 30 years.
When John’s son Charles took over, some enslaved people were able to develop specific artisan and craftsmanship skills like cooper, blacksmith, and carpenter. Even after the Civil War the house remained occupied, with African Americans working in the household and in landscaping, as well as working in phosphate mining and manufacturing. Today it’s open for tours, but is drastically different from most plantation tourist sites. Rather than waxing effusively on the plantation owners, the tour is centered on the lives of the enslaved Africans who kept the property functioning.
“Bennett Rice Mill Façade.” South Carolina Ports. Accessed May 20, 2019. http://www.scspa.com/our-impact/preserving-history/bennett-rice-mill-facade.
“People of Drayton Hall.” Drayton Hall. Accessed May 20, 2019. http://www.draytonhall.org/the-estate/people/.
Wade, Richard C. “The Vesey Plot: A Reconsideration.” Journal of Southern History 30, no. 2 (May 1964). JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2205070.