In the spring of 1862, cloaked in the predawn darkness of Charleston Harbor, 23-year-old Robert Smalls stood aboard the C.S.S. Planter, a Confederate transfer and gunboat, and plotted his escape.
In his day, Smalls was a rarity, a black enslaved harbor pilot. He was also clever: That morning, with his three commanding white officers carousing ashore, Smalls began executing his plan. With eight fellow slave crewmen in tow, Smalls, wearing a captain’s uniform, cranked up the vessel’s engines, and in the moonlit waters, headed toward the promise of freedom.
Guiding the ship past Confederate forts and issuing checkpoint signals, Smalls steamed up the Cooper River, stopping at a wharf to pick up his wife, child and his crew’s families. In dawn’s light, the Planter, flying a white sheet as a surrender flag, made it to his cherished destination: a Union Navy fleet whose officers eyed him, dumbfounded, as Smalls saluted them. “I am delivering this war material including these cannons and I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use,” he said. Freedom, for Smalls and his crew, had arrived.
On a recent sunny afternoon, more than a century and a half later, Michael B. Moore was standing on Gadsden’s Wharf reflecting on his great-great-grandfather’s remarkable journey — and other triumphs and tragedies born on that spot.
Mr. Moore walked inland a couple hundred yards, where incoming slaves, after being quarantined off the coast at Sullivan’s Island, were warehoused — sometimes for months at a time. In what’s been called facetiously “the Ellis Island for African Americans,” thousands of slaves waiting to be auctioned off as domestics and laborers throughout the South died in those warehouses.
In a few months, construction crews will break ground to build the museum on the wharf. “Right there,” Mr. Moore said, pointing directly ahead, “in what’s now a parking lot, is where 700 black people froze to death. I can only wonder what we’ll find when we start digging up this place.”
Charleston, almost paradoxically, is an easy place for tourists to love. Visitors delight in the city’s cobblestone streets, its Gothic-style churches, Greek Revival storefronts, its array of trendy restaurants and hotels. As Travel & Leisure magazine, which earlier this year ranked Charleston first of its 15 world’s best cities, gushed: “Charleston is much more than the sum of its picture-ready cobblestone streets, clopping horse carriages and classical architecture. Much of the port city’s allure lies in constant reinvention and little surprises (like free-range guinea hens clucking up and down Legare Street, sous-chefs flying by on skateboards heading into work, or Citadel cadets honking their bagpipes on sidewalks in summertime).”
Yet for all its appeal, Charleston also evokes a brutal chapter of American life, a city built on and sustained by slave labor for nearly two centuries. Beneath the stately facade of this prosperous city is a savage narrative of Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan violence, right through the civil rights movement.
One doesn’t have to reach that far back to understand what makes Charleston a haunting place to explore (an estimated 40 to 60 percent of African-Americans can trace their roots here). Only in 2015 did the Confederate flag come down from the state capitol in Columbia, prompted by a young neo-Nazi, Dylann S. Roof, who brandished a handgun and massacred nine people during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the nation’s oldest black churches and hallowed ground of the civil rights movement. That one of the casualties, Cynthia Hurd, was the sister of a close colleague only hardened my sense that the so-called Holy City, nicknamed as such after its abundance of churches, was holding fast to its legacy of racial hatred.
Even as this article went to press, Charleston was bracing itself for two racially loaded trials; on Broad Street, at the United States District Court, 22-year-old Mr. Roof faces 33 federal charges — including hate crimes and religious rights violations — in the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. A block away, at the Charleston County Judicial Center, the former North Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager faces charges in the murder of 50-year-old Walter L. Scott, an unarmed black man gunned down as he fled a traffic stop.
And yet, amid a national climate of rising racial tension, the compulsion to engage this history was for me visceral, akin to the urge to revisit a crime scene. I can only suspect that a similar urge to peel back the layers of pain and survival of blacks in America, at least partly, is driving some of the rise in attendance at the nation’s black history sites, including the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, where advance timed tickets are reportedly no longer available through March 2017. I hoped that, on some level, engaging the painful history of human atrocity and heroism in Charleston might illuminate the racial chasms dividing Americans.