Charleston’s Rich African American History

Photo by Liz Mitchell

Gullah language and culture comes alive in Charleston

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Charleston’s rich African American history is compelling. The Gullah language and culture are ingrained in the city’s past, major contributing factors in Charleston’s diversity, and the city’s relative isolation fostered its preservation. The City Market is a hub for Charleston’s basket weavers, who continue to be renowned the world over for their distinct art form utilizing sea grasses. The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. includes a sweetgrass basket by Mary Jackson, a native Charlestonian.

Charleston’s Rich African American History

Walk up East Bay Street, nicknamed Rainbow Row, to enjoy colorful row houses. It’s the longest cluster of intact Georgian row houses in the United States. Built in 1680, these pastel buildings were the inspiration for Catfish Row in the American Opera, “Porgy and Bess.” It’s a lovely walk to the Denmark Vesey house at 56 Bull Street. Don’t look for a commemorative marker though; Vesey’s role in Southern history remains controversial to this day.

Celebrated for his artistry in the 20th century, Philip Simmons remains a master of iron ornamental work — gates, fences, balconies and window grills. His art is found everywhere in Charleston, and the Philip Simmons House and Museum preserves his history.

The Old Slave Mart Museum, restored by the city and African American Heritage Commission, is the only known extant building used as a slave auction gallery in Charleston. You’ll find it on Chalmers Street, one of Charleston’s remaining cobblestone streets.

The Jenkins Orphanage, an institute devoted to neglected Black children, was founded in 1892 by Daniel Jenkins, a former slave. The commemorative plaque at 20 Franklin Street is illuminating.

More Touring of African American History

Hop the bridge to James Island for a one-of-a-kind African American historic exploration: the McLeod Plantation. This 37-acre Gullah/Geechee heritage site, on a former slave plantation, helps visitors understand the depths of Charleston’s complex past.

Take a Gullah Tour to be immersed in Charleston’s African American and Gullah history. This 2-hour trek into Black history is amazing; it begins at the Visitor’s Center on Meeting Street.

Photo by Margaret Ford Rogers

Another must-see? The art work of Jonathan Green, perhaps the most important painter of the southern Black experience, whose studio at 87 Hassell Street is by appointment only.

Robert Smalls, a slave, worked Charleston’s waterways as a steersman on a Confederate steamboat. He knew the Charleston harbor well and managed to commandeer the boat and lead one of the most daring slave escapes in history. A plaque in Waterfront Park commemorates this courageous African American.

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