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Where did America begin? (Accept, dear Canadians and other friends, the substitutionary shorthand of ‘America’ for the USA. Saves words and energy. Thanks.) The most familiar candidate is Plymouth Rock, with the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving, town-hall meetings, and all the rest. Chronologically the proper answer is Jamestown, even if it turned out to be an epidemiological disaster. It resembled nothing so much as a gold rush with tons of single young men hoping to get rich quick, and what’s more American than that? You can also make a case for New Amsterdam/York, where money quickly learned to talk in half a dozen different tongues, forecasting the nation’s ethnic diversity. But having just spent a week in the Low Country of Georgia and South Carolina, I’d nominate Charleston for serious consideration. At least far more serious consideration than it’s usually been given.
Certainly there are few if any more beautiful urban sites in the whole country. Blocks of homes almost two hundred years old—and plenty, more than that—in one of five or six historic styles, all in perfect repair, many with elegant gardens visible through their wrought-iron fences. Notable churches just as old, their graveyards honoring the remains of Founders, eminent merchants and scientists. Public buildings of elegant design, redolent with history. You can spend a day sauntering block after city block of these, feasting your eyes and imagination. Quick excursions from city center will take you to any of five well-preserved plantations and two epochal military fortresses, Moultrie and Sumter. If it rains, museums and home tours are well worth your while.
Yet the city was not officially founded until 1670, nor really settled until a decade later. So why might America be said to have started here? Because the historic architecture is as clear a testimony to the rule and power and might and glory of the 1% as this nation has to offer. In that sense Charleston is the foreshadowing of where we are, what we have come to. You can’t get as elegant as this without a very wealthy elite, and you can’t get this wealthy an elite without a huge exploited labor force. In this case, enslaved Africans and their descendants. They were the lower 50%, a severe version of the shattered working class—white and black—of current America that has been steadily losing income and hope over the last thirty years. At the time of the American Revolution, South Carolina was the only one of the first thirteen states with a black majority. That majority built Charleston, literally and figuratively, and so the city itself is their memorial. But you have to know that ahead of time and always keep it in mind, because the intentional markers to their work are not many.
I was (pleasantly) surprised by how regularly the oral commentary on tours and at official sites gave tribute to the “slave contribution.” The words typically came out cordial and matter of fact, not grudging or quickly covered over. But not getting to the depth and breadth of the importance of the issue, either. Quite simply, Charleston is the African-American Ellis Island. Some 40% of all enslaved Africans brought into what would become the United States came through this harbor. The best official list records some 825 vessels in this traffic arriving between 1711 and 1808, when the foreign trade ended. Of those, 375 came after independence was secured, and in a mad rush to beat the Constitutionally-prescribed shut-off of 1808, no fewer than 145 slave vessels docked in 1807 alone. Over the century of this trade, some 175,000 souls were shipped out of Africa on these vessels. About 147,000 of them survived the Middle Passage to be off-loaded on the wharf owned by the notable Patriot general, Christopher Gadsden.
The long-term mayor of Charleston, Joe Riley, has been pushing a plan to build a large International African American Museum at the old Gadsden Wharf site, close by the dock for the Ft. Sumter ferry and the substantial South Carolina Aquarium. The latter lacked nothing for funding; the IAAM is being held up by the South Carolina legislature, “financially hard-pressed” as it is, as at best a “wish-list item” for the annual budget. The real wish might be that the legislators unanimously appropriate the requested funds as a fitting tribute to their late fellow senator, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who, along with eight of his parishioners, was gunned down by a white supremacist at Mother Emanuel AME Church last summer, less than a mile from the proposed museum site. More broadly, one might wish that the entire nation come to terms with this trade and its reverberations. From the 150,000 Africans who came ashore in Charleston have descended a good half of Africa America, and from their labors and those of their descendants the nation has derived incalculable economic value, not to mention riches in religion and culture. This is the submerged part of the iceberg whose glittering peak nestles beautifully at the tip of Charleston harbor.
No such beauty without great pain and sacrifice. No American history without this beauty and pain wrapped tightly around each other. And no understanding of our present, in black and white, rich and poor, without delving deep into the story of Charleston and of the people—the 1% and the many—who made it.
Thanks, Jim! Or should I say, Amen?
Thanks so for this great homily. Forceful and sober.
I just discovered this goldmine of writing. I have a lot of catching up to do!