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Charleston’s 5 million tourists are 1% black

Posted on June 24, 2014 by in Heritage

Tourist carriageThe city’s two recent tourism management forums aired numerous concerns by residents that lax enforcement of regulations combined with swelling numbers of visitors have produced a dangerous “tipping point.” But two nights of testimony didn’t produce one comment about the racial imbalance of visitors — 98% white and only 1% black.

Unexplained at the forums was why Charleston’s tourist industry is so completely built around white visitors. Most tourists come from areas of the country with large black populations — the metro regions of Washington, DC, New York City and Chicago as well as Charlotte, Greenville, Cleveland, Raleigh, Richmond and Baltimore.

A survey of tourists by the College of Charleston’s Tourist Research Analysis Office found that history is the chief reason cited by tourists for why they chose Charleston as their destination. “Heritage tours” — principally in the horse-drawn carriage trips through the Old and Historic District — are rich in history. But most of the history is built around the homes and lives of the white aristocracy of  Charleston’s “golden age” from 1720 to 1820. Submerged in the narrative is how the golden age was maintained — through a comprehensive system of bondage in which blacks were sold, bought, “gifted” from master and mistress to son and daughter and keptTag slaves in Charleston were required to wear under rigid control. The 58-clause state Slave Act managed every moment of behavior, including the requirement that slaves wear an identification pin (image at right) when they went outside.

How slavery exempted owners from the simplest acts of physical labor, such as opening a french door to admit a breeze from the verandah, is detailed in books on local library shelves but seldom woven in the tour spiels. One such account is from the 1912 book “Charleston: The Place and the People,” by Harriott Horry (Rutledge) Ravenel, a descendant of the Pinckneys who was born in 1832 and whose surnames illustrate the intermarriage among the aristocracy. The book describes how many slaves were required by the “average Charleston household of the wealthy class,” which included a good number of households in the lower peninsula:

“[It] usually had a housekeeper, and her assistant, a mauma, and as many nursery maids as there were children in the house. Each lady had her maid….If the cook was a woman, she had a girl in training and a boy scullion to help her; and there were as many laundresses as the size of the family required. There was a butler and one or more footmen. A gentleman usually had a body servant, and the coachman had under him as many grooms and stable boys as the horses kept demanded.”

The Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street — owned by the city — tells the story of Charleston’s predominant role in the slave trade. But while the museum occupies the surviving core structure of the original slave auction market maintained by Thomas Ryan, who was a city alderman and onetime sheriff, the exhibits consist primarily of posters whose glossiness clashes with the straightforward messages about how families could be broken up when members were sold to different and distant buyers.

The museum draws only about 1% of the 5 million visitors who come to Charleston annually, and it is bypassed by many of the guided carriage tours. It is not one of the “nine amazing sites” featured on the website of the Charleston Heritage Federation, a partnership of museums and preservation groups whose mission is “educate the public concerning preservation and interpretation of historic places and museums.”

The Old Slave Mart Museum was praised by New York Times critic Edward Rothstein as a place “where narrative history is adroitly and soberly told” in a 2011 article, but one visitor to the museum, echoing some others, said this on Google:

“We were excited about our first visit to Charleston and the opportunity to learn about the history of the state. So of course one of our first stops was the Old Slave Mart Museum. After paying a $14 admission fee ( for 2 adults), we walked thru the most lack luster museum. Slavery was a very important part of Charleston history, but you would have never known from touring this museum. It took us all of 20 min to see the museum and we read, yes read everything they had. There is no tour guide to talk to you or answer questions. You just read the placards they have about slavery. Come on Charleston! Get it together! Slavery is a very important part of your history that can not be denied….own up to it and give us an honest, informative museum about it!”

‘Historic Overview’ passes over slavery

Slavery gets no mention in the 1,300-word “Historic Overview” of the press kit of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.





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