My wife Annette wanted to go to Charleston for her birthday. Since I knew where the party was being held, I enjoyed some of the cake. You can ask Annette how many candles, if you want. Charleston is a little like Savannah or New Orleans, only more New World American than Old World European. The old stuff is what people want to see. They could stay home and visit suburban shopping malls. Maybe the most famous thing about Charleston is Fort Sumter, out in the harbor, guarding against threats from without. South Carolina secessionists fired the first shots of the Civil War against United States military forces at Fort Sumter. You can buy boat tickets for Fort Sumter at the U.S. Park Service at the end of Calhoun Street, named for South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, vice-presidential running mate of Stephen A. Douglas against Abraham Lincoln, ending decades of flawed compromises to preserve both the Union and slavery. The Visitor Education Center recaps the history nicely, including quotes from those who lived it. “The Union cannot survive half-slave and half-free”—used by both sides. An enigmatic editorial from a Southern newspaper of the time: “There is no freedom without slavery.” The ferry ride to Fort Sumter takes 30 minutes. One hour after landing, the return trip departs. We were back on the air-conditioned boat in half that time.
Charleston Plantation Slave Cabins
Back on the land that I lub, we took the Gullah Tour of Charleston. Operated by Alphonso Brown, licensed tour guide, this is where to go for some personality and point of view. After a charming orientation to the Gullah language, the creole patois spoken by coastal South Carolina and Georgia islanders from the time of slavery, Mr. Brown described historical Charleston’s early African Americans, both slave and free, craftsmen, artisans, and intellectuals, and stopped at their businesses and homes, including those of Richard Edward Dereef, himself an owner of 16 slaves, “which was a lot for even a rich white slave owner,” and who was “exempt from paying the freedman’s tax because he claimed Native American descent.”
Master blacksmith Philip Simmons, whose 77 years of ironwork still adorns homes, churches, and gardens throughout Charleston, is a focus of Mr. Brown’s Gullah Tour, with long, lingering stops at the Charleston Visitors Center gate, the Harp of David gate at 65 Alexander St., and The Heart Gate at Saint John’s Church, 93 Anson St. The Gullah Tour visits the Simmons workshop and home, listed on America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Band director in Simmons ironworks shop
Mr. Brown, a former band director and teacher in the Charleston schools, points out “Catfish Row,” made famous by George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, but known to natives of Charleston as “Cabbage Row.” Also in the category of It ain’t necessiarily so is Porgy himself, “depicted in the opera as a fun-loving, easy-going cripple….who got around in his goat-drawn cart” and based on a Charleston character named Sammy Smalls. According to Mr. Brown, “In real life, Smalls is said to have lived a cruel and murderous life, in which beatings of his common-law wives and girlfriends were part of his daily activities.” Bess, you is my woman now, indeed.
Alphonso Brown’s book A GULLAH GUIDE TO CHARLESTON is available at the Charleston Visitor’s Center and on line.