To know – is to begin to understand.
The inspiration behind the establishment of Black History Month some 50 years ago, and its precursor Negro History Week in 1926, was to celebrate the achievements of African Americans and to recognize their important role in shaping U.S. history. The timing — in February — is intentional. It coincides with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two key figures in the African American story.
In 1976, during the U.S. Bicentennial celebration, then President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month for the first time as a federal commemoration, urging Americans “to seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Today, as the race conversation takes center stage in our nation, the meaning behind Black History Month has taken on added significance.
“It really is an opportunity to dispel myths about African Americans and also about our shared legacy in this country,” said Dr. Bernard Powers, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and professor emeritus in the History Department at the College of Charleston. “... It is not a separate subject. It is a part of American history — and it shows the way in which the Black experience has also shaped other experiences in our country. And unfortunately, many people really do not have an understanding of that, because they simply haven’t been taught that, and certain things have been misrepresented that we still struggle to correct today.”
The Daniel Island Historical Society is hoping island residents and other visitors will take time during Black History Month to reflect on the important history here by visiting the island’s three African American burial grounds — Grove Cemetery and Simmons Cemetery on the island’s south side, and Alston Cemetery in Daniel Island Park.
“These cemeteries tell so much of the story of Daniel Island,” said DIHS co-founder Mike Dahlman, co-author of the book “Daniel Island.” “Folks buried here were born on Daniel Island, lived here and now are laid to rest here. A walk through any of the talks of those who served as Blacks in the Civil War and World War I. Four of the standing markers belong to those who were born into slavery. Visitors will also see many sunken graves, most likely marking those who lived as slaves working the plantations on Daniel Island. These sacred burial grounds are a part of our legacy, our history that can only be appreciated by a slow solemn walk through them.”
To learn more about these sites, and other African American history on Daniel Island, visit the DIHS website at dihistoricalsociety.com/island-history/daniel-island-african-american-history/.
To truly capture the big picture history of the region, one must venture off Daniel Island to downtown Charleston and surrounding areas — where many African American landmarks are “hidden in plain sight,” Powers noted.
“As you move about Charleston, there are so many sites of African American history that are unrecognized, that are not marked,” he said. “People walk past them every day and they have no idea of what they are.”
One example is the current Embassy Suites Hotel, the original Citadel campus, on Marion Square. On the south side of the building is a very small plaque featuring a timeline for the history of the site. The plaque includes mention of Denmark Vesey — who is credited with plotting a slave rebellion in 1822. Vesey was later hanged for his actions, days before the insurrection was set to take place.
“You’d never know that the building itself has a very important connection with African American history,” Powers said. “…They began to fortify that area after the discovery of the Vesey conspiracy. And it created the Citadel, so that White men could have military training — so that in the case of another effort at rebellion they would be militarily prepared.”
Powers also noted that there is an exhibit about Vesey on the first floor of Charleston City Hall, where some of the accused rebellion participants were confined. A statue of Vesey erected in Hampton Park in 2014 was recently removed from the site for repairs.
There are several churches downtown that also made Powers’ list of places to visit during Black History Month. Mother Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street is connected to Vesey, as he was a member there and used the site to stage his rebellion. It was also the site of a Martin Luther King speech in 1962, and an example of an independent Black church created during the period of slavery.
“When you think about it, it was a revolutionary act for Black people to create their own church not connected to any White church,” added Powers. “... And then to affiliate it with a Black abolitionist church, right in downtown Charleston during the height of slavery.”
Additionally, Calvary Episcopal Church, which was created for Episcopal slaves in the late 1840s, still exists on Line Street today. Also on Calhoun Street are two Methodist churches with interesting histories — Bethel United Methodist Church and Old Bethel United Methodist Church.
“Bethel is the White church and Old Bethel is the Black church,” noted Powers. “And they are located directly across the street from each other. Old Bethel was the original White church and it was given to the members of the Black congregation and after the Civil War it became a completely separate congregation from Bethel Methodist.”
Powers also made note of another site — the old Bennett Rice Mill façade on State Ports Authority property off East Bay Street on Charleston Harbor.
“It’s been there since the 1840s,” said Powers. “Slave labor was used to build that place and it’s an example of industrial slavery. People think slavery and then they think of cotton and rice, and rightly so, but enslaved people were also used in industry, too.”
Other spots recommended by Powers include the Avery Institute building on Bull Street, which is part of the Avery Research Center affiliated with the College of Charleston. The site served as one of the area’s earliest schools for Black Charlestonians in the 1800s. There is also the Septima Clark House on Wentworth Street, where African American civil rights leader and educator Septima Clark was born in 1898; the Old Slave Mart on Chalmers Street; and the Aiken-Rhett House on Elizabeth Street, where visitors can explore the home’s former slave quarters, one of the few that still exist today. He also suggested visiting the early 19th century architecture of skilled carpenter and craftsman Richard Holloway at 221 Calhoun St., 96 Smith St., and 72 Pitt St.
“The Holloway family was a very well-known family of free Blacks before the Civil War,” added Powers. “And a number of the men were carpenters.”
Additionally, Drayton Hall, Middleton Place, Magnolia Gardens and other local plantations are also poignant places of reflection during Black History Month (as well as other times of the year), as most offer exhibits and/or tours about the slave experience.
“(The plantations along Highway 61) were settled by migrants from Barbados or otherwise had a connection to Barbados,” noted Powers. “Many of South Carolina’s early settlers were from Barbados, and when they came, they brought enslaved people.”
When the new, much anticipated International African American Museum opens later this year on Gadsden’s Wharf, it will give both local residents and visitors from all over the world an opportunity to learn more about Charleston’s pivotal role in shaping not only African American history, but U.S. history as a whole.
“When you think about the new museum, when you look out through the eastern block of windows ... you are looking out onto a route by which enslaved people were brought to peninsular Charleston,” added Powers, who is a member of the museum's board of directors.
“But also, when you look out, you're looking towards something else, too ... Fort Sumter, where the Civil War begins. And so here are two iconic and organically related experiences that explain a lot about American history, that you can see right out in Charleston harbor ... the history that unfolded here shaped dramatically other aspects of the larger country's history — and that's the story we will be telling at the International African American Museum.”
For more information on local African American history, and places of interest, visit africanamericancharleston.com/.
Places to visit
• Grove Cemetery: Behind CreditOne Stadium on the walking trail, ancestors of the late Master Blacksmith Philip Simmons are buried here.
• Simmons Cemetery: Off the walking trail between the Barfield Park boardwalk and The Waterfront development. Named for Maurice Simmons, who owned the land where the cemetery is located prior to the Civil War.
• Alston Cemetery: Daniel Island Park, Ralston Creek Street.
Downtown and surrounding areas
• A statue honoring Denmark Vesey, who was executed for planning a slave rebellion in the 1822, has been taken down in Hampton Park for repairs, but you can visit a plaque mentioning Vesey on the side of the Embassy Suites Hotel (pictured at left), the Citadel’s original campus.
• Old Bennett Rice Mill façade: Union Pier Terminal of the State Ports Authority off East Bay Street in downtown Charleston. Industrial slave labor built the original structure.
• There are several African American churches in downtown Charleston with significant ties to Black history in the region, including Mother Emanuel AME at 110 Calhoun Street, an independent Black church and the site of Denmark Vesey’s slave rebellion planning; Calvary Episcopal Church on Line Street, created for Episcopal slaves in the late 1840s; Bethel ME and Old Bethel ME on Calhoun Street; and Morris Street Baptist Church on Bull Street.
• Avery Research Center (part of the College of Charleston): Formerly the Avery Institute, one of the earliest schools for Black children in Charleston.
• Burke High School: 244 President St. First high school for Black students in Charleston, established just before World War I.
• Septima Clark home: Located at 105 Wentworth St. Birthplace of Septima Clark (1898-1987), an educator and civil rights leader.
• Gadsden’s Wharf: Site of soon-to-be completed new International African American Museum, overlooking Charleston Harbor. African-born slaves that were part of the transatlantic slave trade entered peninsular Charleston at this location.
• Old Slave Mart: 6 Chalmers St. Constructed in 1859, this site once housed an antebellum slave auction gallery.
• Aiken-Rhett House: 48 Elizabeth St. One of few remaining former slave quarters that still exists for visitors to see today.
• Ashley River Plantations: Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, and Drayton Hall are all located on Highway 61 and feature exhibits on plantation life, including slavery exhibits and tours. There are also a number of other plantation sites to visit in other areas of the region, including McLeod Plantation on James Island and Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant.
• Philip Simmons House & Museum: 30 ½ Blake St. Simmons, an artisan and master blacksmith, was born on Daniel Island in 1912. This site served as his home and blacksmith shop for close to 50 years, before his death in 2009.
• Chuma Gallery: 188 Meeting St. Features a number of Gullah artists, including the acclaimed Jonathan Green.
The list above is not a complete list of all the area Black History Month sites to visit. For additional places of interest, visit africanamericancharleston.com/ and charlestoncvb.com/blog/african-american-sites-to-visit-in-charleston.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Happenings & Special Programs
Below is a list of some of the Black History Month events taking place locally.
“Reconstruction Era Presentation”
Feb. 5, 3 p.m.
Mount Pleasant Town Council Chambers
100 Ann Edwards Lane
“Lest We Forget: A Story of the African American Experience Through Story and Song”
Feb. 5 & 12, 11 a.m. & 1 p.m.
4300 Ashley River Road
Several other BHM programs are being offered at Middleton Place this month. Visit middletonplace.org/news-and-events/event/february-programs-and-events/.
“Power and Powerlessness in the Plantation System”
Speaker: Shannon Eaves, assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston
Feb. 10, 5 p.m. (Webinar/virtual)
“Gullah Spirituals Concert”
The Plantation Singers
Feb. 12, 7 p.m.
2304 Hwy 17 N, Mount Pleasant
“Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved”
Feb. 18, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
“History of Education for African Americans in Mount Pleasant”
Feb. 19, 3 p.m.
Mount Pleasant Town Council Chambers
100 Ann Edwards Lane
“Early Furniture: A Closer Look at Enslaved Craftsmanship”
Feb. 24, 12:15 p.m. to 1 p.m.
The Heyward-Washington House
87 Church St.
Some of the above programs are offered free of charge, and others have a fee. Visit website links for additional information.