“Yea Chaa’stun Stories een Gullah”

Charleston Magazine, April/May 1993
By Amy Adams

“Yea Chaa’stun Stories een Gullah”

“Yenna who roll ya eye ’bout Chaa’stun?” Charismatic and down-to-earth tour guide Alphonso Brown, his smiling brown face topped with a hat made of sweetgrass, speaks with a Gullah accent as colorful and rich as the stories he tells. “At first people want to hear my whole tour in Gullah, but after a block or two, I have to translate,” he says with a laugh.

Brown grew up about 13 miles south of Charleston in rural Rantowels, a community where Gullah has been passed down since the time of slavery. “It’s a private language that developed from West African languages and English. It is spoken, not written, among family and friends,” Brown explains on his private tours. “I grew up with Gullah. As a child, English was my most difficult subject in school.”

When Brown became licensed 10 years ago, he saw a city rich in black history but poor in knowledgeable guides. “I started out giving bus tours, but I found when people asked about Charleston’s black history, that I didn’t know about.”

So Brown, band director at Rivers Middle school and the father of three boys, began his quest for information. “It’s like searching for gold – once you find a vein, there’s a wealth to be had.” Brown tapped into the minds of old, black Charlestonians such as Sarah Dowling, 82, whose husband was a superintendent of the Jenkins Orphanage for black children.

Brown is currently writing a book about his findings. His collection, A guide to Gullah Charleston, gives brief historic summaries accompanied by a phonetic translation into Gullah.

Brown doesn’t give his Gullah tour without a visit to 30 ½ Blake street. There, in a shed blackened by time and toil, artisan and blacksmith Philip Simmons, known worldwide for his ornamental iron gates, continues to weld and mold his masterpieces. The 81 year-old Simmons still welcomes Brown and his visitors. As the two shake hands and break into Gullah, you become witness to Charleston’s living History.

“Oh, yes, I love every moment,” says Brown. “Our history is alive and well.”

The Muslim Journal

The Muslim Journal Vol. 18, No. 30 May 14, 1993
By Sabir Kasib Muhammad

The historic city of Charleston, S.C. speaks volumes to the seeker of knowledge about the “coming-to-America” of Africans made into slaves and their sojourn once here in America.

Whether it is in its distinctive architecture, its beautiful rivers, its delightful people or the relics of a time passed, African Americans who visit this beautiful city can’t help but feel a closeness within their souls to their early ancestors who arrived here from Africa as slaves.

Alphonso brown, owner of Gullah Tours in Charleston, gave a splendid tour of this historic city complete with anecdotes from a past that he carries proudly in his Gullah ancestry.

“Gullah is a creolized form of English revealing survivals from many of the African languages spoken by the slaves who were brought to South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century,” said Mr. Brown as he broke into an animated spiel of the broken English dialect. It is still spoken today among the Gullahs of Charleston and its surrounding islands.

During a two-hour tour of downtown Charleston, Mr. Brown gave us a thorough history of Charleston replete with the many contributions of slaves and former slaves to its history, culture and economy. He also pointed out the various sites of African American influence within the city.

Throughout the tour Mr. Brown would point with pride to one piece of work after another crafted by 80-year-old Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons. The distinctive flair with which Mr. Simmons works embellished Charleston could only reflect a dynamic person.

As we headed down Broad Street in the heart of downtown Charleston with Mr. Brown reciting the historical legacy of each individual street, building and artifacts, we came upon the building that was built in 1798 that served as one of the Freedman’s Bank, a national bank for blacks. These banks were created to aid blacks in their reconstruction efforts following the Civil War and are particularly associated with the promise of “40 acres and a mule.”

On East Bay Street we came upon the huge Old Exchange and customhouse built between 1767-71 that was used for the selling of slaves. As we drove down Chalmers Street, Mr. Brown pointed out the Old Slave Mart Museum where following the prohibition of selling slaves at the Custom House, slaves were sold here and many other sites along the streets. This mart was known as Ryan’s Mart and was established in 1852 with a black portion, which contained rooms in the auction block hidden from public view.

“Here in Charleston, we blacks refer to Sullivan’s Island as our Ellis Island,” said Mr. Brown. “We have no ties to Ellis Island in New York. I remember reading an article in a magazine about the lack of patriotism as far as blacks were concerned when they were refurbishing the Statue of Liberty. Well, I like the Statue of Liberty and I think it’s nice,” said Mr. Brown, “but I have no ties with it. It’s not my Ellis Island. There (as he pointed across the Ashley River) is our Ellis Island – Sullivan’s Island where between 40-80% of slaves were brought into this country.

Though the all-encompassing tour last two hours, Mr. Brown was such a great host and imparted such great knowledge about the great contributions of the African American people that it felt as though it was only a few minutes.

Southern Living, February, 1995

“Yenna wan’ cass ya eye ’bout Chaa’stun?” This invitation (Translation: Do you want to see [cast your eyes about] Charleston?) flows from Alphonso Brown’s tongue in the liquid dialect of South Carolina’s Gullahs.

Answer yes and you’ll be rewarded with an unusual perspective on this lovely city. Alphonso is one of just a few licensed, independent guides who focus on the contributions of African Americans to Charleston’s culture and history.

Stops on his two-hour tour include sites where enslaved Africans, arriving in this country in past centuries, were auctioned to plantation owners; clever hiding places, such as a staircase punched with breathing holes, where escapees hid along emancipation’s Underground Railroad; and the original Catfish Row neighborhood where the novel Porgy and the opera Porgy and Bess are set.

A middle school band director who leads tours as a sideline, Alphonso was born to the remnant culture known as Gullah. Its spoken language survives in pockets of the state’s Lowcountry, especially in isolated island communities.

“People often start out wanting to hear my whole tour in Gullah, to get a flavor for the culture,” he says. “After a few minutes, they usually ask me to go back to English. Gullah has a wonderful, singsong quality. Many of the words are essentially English but blended with West African expressions brought over on slave ships. It’s been passed down, unwritten, for generations. If you’re not brought up around it, it’s hard to understand.”

At the wheel of his gray Ford Clubwagon, Alphonso weaves through Charleston’s narrow streets, talking. He points to servants quarters behind sharply spiked walls at preserved mansions. He passes the site of a reconstruction-era bank where many freedmen signed up for “40 acres and a mule.” He notes porch ceilings painted “haint blue” by blacks convinced the color warded off evil spirits. He pauses respectfully, though with a hint of anger, at an old cemetery established in 1794 by prominent freedmen, but now paved over for a parking lot.

Alphonso tells of a butler who created she-crab soup, and spots African American craftsmanship in brick walls and iron gates. He sings examples of spirituals and field chants passed down through the ages. He begins and ends the tour at an art gallery for African American painting, sculpture, and traditional clothing.

The highlight of the tour is a visit to the backyard workshop of renowned blacksmith Philip Simmons. The octogenarian has been bending metal artistically for more than six decades, and his ornately scrolled handiwork is seen in garden gates and porch railings all over Charleston.

Near tour’s end, Alphonso dips into Gullah dialect again, for effect. “Nah uh gwi onrabble ma mout’ bout des tings, ” he says. (Translation: now I’m going to talk [ramble on with my mouth] about a few more things.) And so he does, telling of the ole maa’kut (Old City Market), cobble rock skreets (cobblestone streets), and sweetgrass baskit weeba (basket weavers).

You leave Alphonso feeling as if you’ve made friend with someone from a foreign culture. But as foreign as it sounds, Gullah is really a homegrown culture inextricably mingled into historic Chaa’stun.

The Grand Dames of the South

by Randi Johnson

In the 1800’s Charleston was one of the riches cities in the colonies. Tobacco, rice, indigo and of course, “King Cotton” were the crops in which the enslaved African toiled.

There’s a deliberateness to the pace, thought and speech in this city where the Civil War still is referred to as “the war of northern aggression” and enslaved Africans referred to as “servants.” Carriage tours slow down when passing the restored mansion of John C. Calhoun, that great defender of slavery and state’s rights. The tour guide talks about the 22-room mansion with its huge columns until you almost expect old Calhoun to walk out and shoo the gawking tourists away. It is a sanitized, romanticized view of the southern life.

“Black people around here call him Johns C. Kill-hoon,” says Alphonso Brown as he maneuvers the mini-bus through the city streets. The owner of Gullah Tours, Brown presents an African-American view of South Carolina history. The statue of Calhoun was so regularly defaced that it was put up on a pedestal to keep it out of reach of blacks who had their own opinion of the senator who called slavery “a positive good.”

“Dem Cyaapentas, boat mekka, brick maysar, cook, iyon wukkuh, net mekkuh, baset weebuh, en pleny mo,’ is wu’k dat de Black people bin doin ya fuh shree hunnad odd yea.’ ” (The carpenters boat makers, brick masons, cooks, iron workers, net makers, basket weavers, and plenty more is the work that the Black people have been doing here for three hundred odd years,) said Brown. A retired teacher, Brown teaches a few words of the lilting patios called Gullah until the entire tour group is howling with laughter. Because of the geographic locations, the people along the isolated sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia have been able to maintain more African customs and culture than any other place in America. He points to Sullivan Island, sitting out in Charleston harbor. Arguably called, the “Ellis Island” for the blacks, it’s estimated that as many as forty percent of Africans Americans entered the United States here. Newly arriving Africans were kept in quarantine at “pestilence houses” on Sullivan Island. Brown keeps the tour lively and interactive. He explains that The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, is an excellent source for genealogy research or information about the South Carolina low country. He points toward Cabbage Row, colorful rowhouses that became the model for “Catfish Row” in the musical Porgy and Bess. The bus rolls past the old Slave Mart, planned location for an African-American history museum and stops for a few minutes to meet Phillip Simmons, the octogenarian blacksmith whose work hangs in the Smithsonian. Simmons’ prized wrought-iron designs adorn many of the gates, balconies and fences in Charleston. It’s only on brown’s tour that you’ll hear of the Massachusetts 54th regiment on which the movie Glory was based or learn where Denmark Vessey was captured.

The history of African Americans is deeply immersed in the black wrought iron of the city’s gates. It’s in the cobblestone streets. It’s in the outlying plantations, and the marshes of sweetgrass. It’s intermingled in the melodic syllables of the Gullah language. It’s a story bursting to be told.

Pack up dem bags ‘n high tail unnuh self down yuh. Ask Alphonso Brown to translate when you see him.

 

Charles Kuralt’s – “America”

“‘John C. KILL-hoon,’ that’s what we call old John.”I was in the company of Alphonso Brown, band director at Rivers Middle School, black historian and speaker of Gullah, the rich black patois of the Carolina Low Country.

“White people remember history here, ” Alphonso said. “Well, we remember it, too. He was KILL-hoon back then, and he’ll be KILL-hoon a hundred years from now.” Alphonso told me that as a statue, Calhoun used to be at ground level, but he was so regularly vandalized by black Charlestonians that the Daughters of the Confederacy had to put him up in the sky out of reach. Alphonso chuckled to think about it.

From Alphonso Brown, you get a little different perspective on Charleston history. Down at the Battery, gesturing toward Sullivan’s Island in the harbor, he said, “That was our Ellis Island. Slaves from Africa spent two weeks in quarantine in the Sullivan’s Island pesthouse. Then they were brought into the customs house and sold.

Alphonso on the Reconstruction years: “The freed slaves were promised forty acres and a mule. Some got twenty acres, and a mule. Some got twenty acres and no mule. Some got a mule and no acres. Most got nothing. Life was hard for everybody.”

Alphonso on the sweetgrass basket sellers in their bonnets and long dresses: “They dress poor but they live rich. Those women make a lot of money. One of them has a husband who comes to collect her at the end of the day in a big Mercedes-Benz.”

Alphonso on Low Country speech: “The linguist say Gullah is a dying language. Ain’t nothing dyin’ about Gullah. Just last night, I heard a woman say, ‘Dat food cookin’ smells’ good mak’ my jaw leak.’ ” He said this so fast and musically that he had to repeat it a couple times before I could understand it. He laughed, “You ain’t necessarily supposed to understand it, “he said. Alphonso on black craftsmen: “Nearly everything you see around here was built by blacks – the houses, the walls, the streets and sidewalks – and not just by slaves, either. In 1850, there were thousands of free black artisans and business people in Charleston.”

Or, as he put it in a guide he wrote to Gullah Charleston: “Dem cyaapentas, boat mekkah, cook, iyon wukkah, net mekkah, en pleny mo’, is wu’k dat de Black people bin doin’ ya fuh shree hunnad odd yea’…Roll unuh eye ’bout! Yenna ain’t kno’ who mek dese place ya? De Black han’, dat who!”

At least one celebrated blacksmith is still around, Philip Simmons. “If you see a beautiful iron gate with meticulous curves, “Alphonso Brown said, “it was made by one of the master blacksmiths of two hundred years ago – or it was made by Philip Simmons.” We went to see some Philip Simmons gates – a valentine gate he made for his church, St. John’s for that is where he says his heart is; an egret gate at 2 St. Michael’s Alley; a snake gate at 329 East Bay, once the house of Christopher Gadsden, who designed the Revolutionary War serpent flag with the legend “Don’t Tread On Me.”

Then we went to see Philip Simmons. He is a kindly man of eighty-two whose forge is in a ramshackle tin building behind his house on Blake Street. It doesn’t look like the workshop of a National Treasure, but that’s what Mr. Simmons is, officially certified by the Smithsonian Institution.

I asked him how he got started.

“When I was thirteen, “he said, “I used to stand in the door of the blacksmith shop and see the red-hot fire and see the sparks flying, and I liked that. The blacksmith let me help out, hold the horse while he was putting the shoe on, turn the hand forge, clean up the shop. After a while, he learned me names of everything. If he said, “boy, hand me that three-inch swage,’ I had to know what he wanted. I learned that way.

“There were blacksmiths all over Charleston. I had many competitors. I was shoeing horses and fixing wagons, but people kept coming to tell me this company was going to trucks, that company was going to trucks, ho more horses, no more wagons, blacksmiths going out of business, see? I had to start studying what I was going to do.” He turned to gates and fences and window guards.

“I’ve made more than two hundred gates and other ornamental iron works since then. Made gates for the Smithsonian in Washington and South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, and this Charleston Visitor Center down here. The doctor says don’t do any heavy work, but I may make some more gates yet. You know who my competitor is now?”

He gave me a soft smile.

“Father time,” he said.

There is an old saying among blacksmiths that the two ways a blacksmith can go to hell are by hammering cold iron and not charging enough. It appeared to me from his modest living conditions that Mr. Simmons hadn’t charged enough

“Well, I put my children through school, “he said. “I gave money to my church. I have everything I want. And I am rich in friends.”

After we said goodbye to Mr. Simmons and headed back downtown, Alphonso Brown said, “Some of these homeowners leave Charleston sometimes. I have noticed one thing. When they leave, they take their Philip Simmons gates with them.

A Path Through Gullah Country

Author(s): Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff Date: December 1, 2002 Page: M1
Section: Travel

Alphonso Brown is sitting in the driver’s seat of his tour bus and telling one of his famous folktales as visitors settle in their seats. Then, without warning, unfamiliar words pour out of his mouth, lilting into a rapid melodic blend of Old English and West African words and dialects. Brown, 57, a native Charlestonian and former band teacher, eyes the baffled tourists and lets out a mischievous laugh. And so begins an experience unlike most historic tours. For two full hours, Brown rolls along in his white minivan through the narrow, old streets of Charleston, telling the story of the Lowcountry from his unique point of view.

“See, Sullivans Island,” Brown says, pointing ahead of him. “African-Americans say, `That’s our Ellis Island.'”

Brown is Gullah, a direct descendant of the African slaves who lived by the Sea Islands and along other parts of the coastal South where the rich Gullah culture thrives amid traditions older than the nation itself.

While many former slaves moved across the country, many remained on the coast of South Carolina, where the lack of bridges kept them isolated for decades. That isolation preserved a unique cultural link to Africa and the distinctive dialect with which Brown peppers his tours, using such phrases as “U duh one uh we people yah?” (Are you one of us?) This unwritten language, heard in the marketplaces of downtown Charleston and along the barrier islands, has always been hard for an outsider to understand. It was born out of necessity in the slave ships and ripened through the years into a Caribbean-sounding dialect with African words, syntax, and sentence structure.

But the language isn’t the only thing that ties Gullahs to the western coast of Africa. Tourists, if they put their minds to it, can also see the links in the twist of the wrists of the women and men sewing sweetgrass baskets along the roadside; under a live oak tree in McClellanville, a nearby fishing village, where Charles Williams sits knitting the shrimp nets just like his forefathers did generations before; and in churches on St. Helena Island, two hours away, where parishioners engage in a spiritual dance called “shouting.”

The culture exists along a geographical area the size of Maryland, stretching from coastal South Carolina, through Wilmington, N.C., and parts of Georgia to Jackson, Fla., and 30 miles inland, but the history began around Charleston. As many as 80 percent of all African slaves brought to America, selected for their rice- and indigo-growing skills and transported during the horrific Middle Passage, came through Sullivans Island.

Until recently, though, Gullahs (sometimes called “Geechee” elsewhere in the South) hid their unique culture, speaking the dialect in private or not at all. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who hails from the Gullah culture of Georgia, has said he was ashamed of the way he used to speak, and indeed, Gullah was mistakenly cast as bad English grammar.

So important is the Gullah culture in Charleston that it can be seen in every aspect of the city, from the shrimp and grits served at the best restaurants to the ornate gates and distinctive architecture seen all over the Lowcountry. But while Charleston is rich in history and the city has made tourism a vital part of its economy, it still doesn’t offer much in the way of an organized showcase for this culture, which is believed to have retained more African traditions than that of any other black community in the nation.

That may all change when the National Park Service completes a study aimed at preserving the Gullah culture, which is under threat from rapid coastal development. Study investigators have traveled across the Gullah communities in the South seeking out such sites as cemeteries, Praise Houses (tiny religious rooms used during slavery as meetinghouses), and “telling trees,” the specific live oak trees, dripping in Spanish moss, under which African-Americans would gather.

Tours like Brown’s are popping up, museum guides who lead visitors through mansions and plantations are including the Gullah story in their lectures, and Beaufort holds a Gullah festival every May. Although the Gullah people are often wary of strangers, many are now embracing their culture. Outside interest is growing rapidly, too: Lorenzo Dow Turner’s “Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect” was reprinted this year, decades after first publication. And after the Smithsonian expressed interest in the art form, the basket makers have found themselves and their work highly sought after.

Still, exploring the Gullah culture is not as simple as walking the Freedom Trail in Boston. Tourists have to know where to look, taking a day trip to Pawleys and St. Helena islands and visiting the large plantation homes. But the best place to start is in Charleston with one of the tours owned and operated by Brown and his wife, LaQuines. The tour will not only give a taste of the Gullah dialect, it can help tourists map out what they want to come back to see in more depth. Besides, the man is a great storyteller.

“Have you seen the movie `Glory,’ ” Brown asked when I took the tour recently, pointing toward Fort Sumter where the black Massachusetts troop immortalized by the movie fought a respectable battle.

He waved past former slave homes sprinkled around Charleston, pointed out the slave headstones present in the parking lot of the Old Bethel Methodist Church, and slowed down near cobblestone streets at the old slave mart on Chalmers Street where slaves were inspected and then auctioned. The city was never segregated, so slaves and whites lived next to each other, he explained. In the churches, slaves sat in the balcony, free blacks in pews toward the back, and the whites in the front.

Another guide might roll past the elegant Miles Brewton House and explain that Brewton was a commercial sea captain, that the house is of a Georgian s tyle, and point out the spikes around the roof. Brown was more blunt: “Miles Brewton was big in the slave trade industry. You can tell by all the slaves’ quarters at the side of the house. Notice spikes on the roof. They were placed there after Denmark Vesey’s insurrection.”

Vesey, he explained, was a freed black man and chief organizer of a rebellion that was prevented when two house slaves in Charleston warned their master about it. Vesey was hanged along with 34 other conspirators. “After that, all the whites were fearful for their lives, and that is why they placed spikes all over the place as a deterrent,” said Brown.

He slowed his tour bus at 89-91 Church St. to show the tourists “Catfish Row,” a three-story tenement and the setting for George Gershwin’s 1935 opera, “Porgy and Bess.”

The real Porgy was named Samuel Smalls, a disabled beggar and a Gullah who traveled around town in a cart pulled by a goat. Brown said Smalls was mean as a snake and died of a mysterious illness in 1924. It is widely believed, he said, that Smalls was “fixed,” or “rooted.” In other words, someone put a voodoo curse on him.

That starts Brown discussing the practice of roots, brought to Charleston by the early Africans and still practiced among white and black Charlestonians alike.

“We were taught when you meet one of those people be respectful,” he said. “Say good morning, good evening, and goodbye!” He later explained, in his lilting accent, why he doesn’t talk much about the local witch doctors. “I sure don’t want to put myself in jeopardy,” he said. “You just don’t tread certain territories. Those people are kind of devilish. A witch doctor ain’t nothing but an herbalist gone bad.”

Throughout the tour, Brown pointed out elaborate black iron gates and fences surrounding the most stately homes in Charleston. The gates were designed and made by Philip Simmons, who was born in 1912 on the barrier island and moved to Charleston in 1920. Simmons also created window grilles, stair rails, balconies and room dividers. Near the end of the tour, Brown surprises the tourists and stops at a modest home where Simmons still lives and works. World famous for his designs and celebrated by the Smithsonian, Simmons obliged his guests, posing for photographs and chatting with children. He still designs some gates these days, but most of the work is done by his nephew, Carlton.

Our tour ended there, but Brown can keep it going for those who call ahead, escorting them to McCleod’s Plantation on James Island, where he has exclusive permission to tour the grounds of the plantation home, which is in the process of opening to the public.

Anyone interested in Gullah culture should drive north along Highway 17 and visit the basket makers. One of them might be Vera Manigault, whose family on her father’s side has been making baskets for generations. The meticulously woven baskets cost as little as $30 and as much as $2,500. The materials used are sweet grass, pine needles, bull rush (marsh grass), and palm.

“It’s an art form in my father’s family,” Manigault told me when I visited. “I learned it at 5, but my mama said I was 4 1/2. Everybody in my neighborhood did it. Children pick it up fast.”

On St. Helena Island, two hours from Charleston, the Penn Center is a state treasure. Once the first school for former slaves, the center is now a 50-acre national historic landmark district where tourists can walk along the galleries in the York W. Bailey Museum and pour through historical documents, artifacts, and photographs or take a basket-weaving lesson.

Other must-visit sites are the rice museum in Georgetown, and a wonderful shop on Pawleys Island. At Gullah O’oman (woman), owner Vermelle “Bunny” Rodrigues (a former Boston schoolteacher) will continue where Brown left off, telling Gullah history in her native tongue and showcasing the quilts that depict her people’s journey.

The Gullah people have come a long way, she told me when I visited. Even when she was a student in the 1970s at the historically black South Carolina State University, she and other Gullah women would have to gather in private in order to speak their language without criticism.

“There was a time we were made to feel bad about ourselves,” she said. “There was a tendency to look down on the people along the coast. But now everybody wants a piece of us.”

The Brown Fellowship Society

No Where To Lay My Body Down. The early history of Charleston’s black citizens is filled with mystery, intrigue, and many unanswered questions. For example, what does a black cemetery on upper Meeting Street and the parking lot of the former Bishop England High School (now College of Charleston) have in common and what important role did they play in Charleston’s black history?

To answer these questions, a good place to start is at the old slave mart on Chalmers Street and the many other slave marts that dotted the streets of Charleston, especially the water front area. It was at these sites where many Africans were held captive and sold into slavery. But the story is actually about the descendants of those slaves and their white slave masters. Through the bloodline of their Caucasian fathers, affectionately referred to as “friends,” many of these offspring were able to escape some of the horrors of slavery. While the mulattos (a first-generation offspring of a Negro and a white), octoroons (a person of one-eighth Negro ancestry), and quadroons, (a person of quarter Negro ancestry) were often granted their freedom, they were still considered sub-human. These new classes of African Americans were accounted among their own people as privileged.

Our story takes us to St. Phillips Episcopal Church where many of free blacks, whites, and slaves, worshiped together. Of course, the slaves often sat in the balcony or some other obscure place. The free blacks were given the privilege of maintaining their own pews. While they enjoyed this special treatment, they were at the same time denied many other rights and privileges of the white members. One of the denied privileges was the right to be buried in St. Phillip’s cemeteries. The Rector of St. Phillips, Thomas Frost, persuaded these free “brown” (light complexion) men to organize themselves, buy some property for a burial ground, and have a meeting house to transact their business. This unity would aid them in their political, social, economic, religious, and educational endeavors.

In 1790, James Mitchell and four other mulattos organized the Brown Fellowship Society, the “Brown” referring to their almost white complexion. It is the oldest of the Negro friendly societies in the state. The society prohibited the discussion of religious or political matters. They were cautious of “ruffling the feathers” of the white society. The Brown Fellowship Society was opened to free blacks of color, very light color, and maybe those who were a few shades darker but with naturally straight hair or “blowing in the wind hair.” Unlike other benevolent societies started by free Negroes, the Brown Fellowship did not help the slave community. Some of them were slave owners. Many of the free black organizations that were later started, purchased slaves and manumitted them.

The first order of business for the Brown Fellowship was to purchase property for a meeting house and a burial ground. The chosen site for the meeting house was on Liberty Street. The site chosen for the burial ground was located between Boundary (now Calhoun), Pitt, Coming, and Bull streets, now the parking lot behind the former Bishop England High School. It was in this area, when in 1794 the cemetery was consecrated by the rector of St. Phillips, Thomas Frost.

The society provided for more than the burial of members. It cared of members’ widows, provided a prima school for their children, and supported members’ business endeavors. Another important function of the society was the lobbying of their white “friends” in power to maintain their privilege status. The society never would have gotten involved in anything like the Denmark Vesey’s insurrection. As a matter of fact, it was William Penceel, a member of the society, who persuaded Peter Prioleau (later changed to Desverney) to inform his master of the impending slave revolt planned by Vesey.

The Brown Fellowship Society’s admission policy (which was tied to the white bloodline of former masters) denied membership to many blacks in Charleston. In 1843, Thomas Smalls, a free black man, applied for membership in the society and was turned down because of the darkness of his skin and possibly because his hair was not straight enough. Smalls, a member of the Circular Congregational Church, organized his own society calling it The Society for Free Blacks of Dark Complexion viagrasansordonnancefr.com and later renamed the Brotherly Society. In a spiteful move, this group purchased property adjacent to the Brown Fellowship Graveyard that extended from the middle of the parking lot (separated by a fence) to Coming Street and opened their graveyard and named it, MacPhelah. To be a member of this society and to be buried in the graveyard members had to be of pure African descent. Thomas Smalls also opened another cemetery for the black members of the Circular Congregational Church and named it, Ephrath. Most of the Ephrath cemetery is still intact with the exception of larger headstones which have been pushed over and lined up as a walkway into the garden that is now on the property. Most of the deceased buried in Ephrath were black members of the Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street. The Plymouth Congregational Church (now on Spring Street) gradually separated in a friendly manner from the Circular Church around 1867. They worshipped at 41 Pitt Street and used the old Ephrath graveyard until around 1950 when it was abandoned.

The Brown Fellowship Society tried to change its image of exclusiveness by opening their doors to others, including women after the Civil War. In 1892 it changed its name to Century Fellowship Society. In 1943, an ordinance was passed prohibiting private organizations from maintaining graveyards in the city. In 1945, two elderly descendants of the Century Fellowship (formerly The Brown Fellowship) sold the graveyard property to the Catholic Diocese. There were many blacks living at the site of the old Bishop England High School who were TOLD that they would be relocated to make way for the new school. A former resident of that area said that the depression of having to leave their homes was so great for some that they died from grief before they could relocate. No doubt, the descendants of the Brown Fellowship were probably TOLD that they must sell the graveyard. In 1957, Bishop England expanded and needed some parking space. The old graveyard was a prime spot. Blacks who lived in the area knew that in the haste for expansion, the bodies were never removed and only three large obelisk stones and several other larger stones were moved and placed in one of the black graveyards on upper Meeting Street. For years the desecration of the gravesite was written off as a local “fib.” Only two graves were removed from the Bishop England site by a descendant of the Society.

For many years officials of the Catholic Church claimed that all the stones and remains were removed but blacks who lived around the Bishop England area knew differently, and the local “fib” was validated when four gravesites were discovered along with the headstones on January 15, 2001 when the property was being cleared to make way for a new college library. The smaller flat stones and the remains of the Brown Fellowship Society members were paved over. Under the asphalt are the remains of many prominent black Charlestonians. Pieces of tombstones were stacked up behind the out building of the College of Charleston’s Blacklock House until around 1998 when they disappeared. Ironically, one stone listed the deceased as a Catholic. Inside the former out building, a larger stone was pieced together. This property abuts the former Bishop England parking lot. The names of the society members and the minutes of their meetings can be found at Avery Institute of the College of Charleston.

In 1990, the descendants of the Century Society ( Brown Fellowship) reorganized themselves, went searching for the stones and found 3 obelisk pieces. They bought a strip of property adjacent to the other black graveyards on upper Meeting Street. These stones were beautifully erected in memory of their descendants whose remains lay quietly under the asphalt behind the former Bishop England High School.

The recent discovery of the grave sites will be handled with respect, according to the Catholic Church and the College of Charleston, and will all be removed to a new location. Because many of the buried were founders and original members of St. Phillips, the new location should be in St. Phillip’s graveyard. It was rather unfair to refuse these paying blacks members the privilege of being buried in their graveyard, especially when they had a graveyard for non-paying white non-members.

By the God that these people served, the Catholic Church and St. Phillips have been granted a chance more than two centuries later to validate God-given, human dignity.

The Last to Leave (McLeod’s Plantation)

In the year 1671, the Council of Province ordered a town to be established on James Island. McLeod’s Plantation (not called McLeod’s at that time) became a part of James Island around 1696. The property was first owned by Morris Morgan in 1696 and had about 617 acres. There was no formal building on the property except for a few slave quarters. Duel residency existed, and most plantation owners had homes elsewhere, usually in the city. From the Colonial period well into the 20th century, most of James Island consisted of blacks. Around 1720, St Andrews Parish records reported around 215 white taxpayers and nearly 2500 slaves. The slaves were left to oversee and cultivate the property. Dual residency allowed the slaves to practice and perpetuate many African traditions, cultures, and languages. For example, sweeping the yard to keep the snakes away is still a common practice in some of the rural areas of the low country. The Gullah language survived and can still be heard today among friends and families, young and old. Charleston and Beaufort form the nucleus of the Gullah speaking area. The practice of root medicine is still used by many blacks and whites. It is a practice that was brought with the slaves from Africa. Benin, West Africa is still known today for its practice of root medicine and witchcraft. Root medicine was used for good and bad, but evil and greed made it more bad that good. Except for a few white doctors who would secretly help slaves before and after freedom, there were many blacks who knew the art of root medicine. These blacks who used their knowledge for good were not feared and would be considered as “herbalist” today.

The main activity on the Island was the raising of beef, which gave this plantation a different financial advantage when everyone else was struggling with cotton. Cotton and rice were planted here but not on the large scale as other plantations. McLeod’s Plantation was mainly known for beef. The slaves from the Gambia River region were expert horseman and cattle herders. They were America’s first cowboys. Indigo was also a major crop at the plantation, but the process of changing the indigo plant into the blue dye made the slaves sick and many died of cancer. The rivers were the major modes of transportation, and these Africans were highly prized for their skills as boatsmen. The job as a boatsman gave a measure of independence to a slave.

Not much is known about McLeod’s Plantation during the early colonial period. Morris Morgan is listed as the first owner of the property in 1696. Six hundred and seventeen acres of land became a Royal Grant to Captain David Davis in 1703, and in 1706 Davis sold the land to William Wilkins. In 1741, Wilkins sold the property to Samuel Perronneau. It is believed that Perroneau was the only one to have cultivated the property. None of the previous owners, including Perronneau, ever lived on the property, but they did have slaves living there. In 1770, two hundred and fifty acres was either sold or given to Edward Lightwood II, Perronneau’s son-in-law. It was Lightwood who built the first main house and outbuildings. The house was approached from the South by an oak alley that extended northward to Wappo Creek.

Lightwood was a “broker” in slave trading and owned 53 slaves. Lightwood’s daughter married William McKinzie Parker I in 1796. When Parker’s mother-in-law died, he purchased the estate. Parker was involved in the slave trade industry and owned several vessels. Like Perronneau and Lightwood, Parker also worked the plantation. In 1851, the plantation was sold to William Wallace McLeod. By this time, the property had increased to 914 acres of land and 779 acres of marsh. McLeod built the present house around 1854-56. Exactly what happened to the Lightwood house is unknown. Speculations are that it was either destroyed or pulled down. Around 1860, McLeod owned approximately 74 slaves and 23 slave cabins that were located around the plantation. The five remaining 20′ by 12′ wooden slave cabins, the diary, and the kitchen building are believed to date from the Lightwood/Parker period (1770-1850). The old slave bell, used to call in the slaves from the field, still hangs from the giant oak tree near the “big” house.

William Wallace McLeod served in the Civil War and moved his family to Greenwood, South Carolina. He left Steven Forrest, a slave, in charge of the plantation. McLeod died in the war in 1864. Shortly after, Mrs. McLeod dies leaving a boy, still in his teens, and two young girls as owner of the plantation. During the war the house fell to the Federals. The house was used as a Federal Office Headquarters and a hospital for the Black units of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiment. After the war, the house was the Headquarters for the Freedmen’s Bureau. Freed slaves from all over the island pitched pineburough shelters and camped on the plantation in order to be within easy reach of their free rations and “their forty acres and a mule.” Unlike other parts of the South, tenancy was preferred to share cropping. It gave the black farmers freedom from white exploitation and the hope of accumulating money to purchase their own land. This plan proved to be very successful for blacks, well into the years after slavery.

Young, McLeod Jr. Arrived back at his father’s home in 1879, after congress failed to pass Sherman’s “Field Order #15” (Mule & forty Acres of Land Concept). It was said that McLeod Jr. was forced to apply for an escort of Union Soldiers to lead him through the crowd of insolent Negroes who thronged around the house.

After greedy carpetbaggers dismantled the Freedmen’s Office, black families continued to maintain quarters in each room of the house. They took possessions, and used the house as they chose, with no regard for owners or property. McLeod cialis vs viagra vs levitra later was able to establish ownership and dispose of the blacks. In 1895, Dr. Bert J. Wilder, who had been a surgeon for the Union Army, visited Charleston and told McLeod that the drawing room of the house served as his operating room for the blacks soldiers of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments. Those who died were buried in the slave graveyard. (A site behind the fire station near the James Island Bridge).

Willis Ellis McLeod, who was born in 1885, became owner of the property in 1918 and lived there until his death in 1990 at the age of 105. The McLeods continued to sell and rent properties to blacks long after the war. The slave quarters which dates back to the Lightwood/Parker period and are some of the oldest original wooden slaves quarter in the south. Blacks continued to occupy these slave quarters until around 1990 (not a misprint). Of all the plantations in the South, the blacks at McLeod were the “last to leave.”

The plantation is owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation. The Foundation is planning to open the plantation to the public in the near future. Until then, Gullah Tours is one of the few tour companies authorized by the foundation to show the plantation.

It Ain’t Necessarily So