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.


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