Black History Month in Charleston
Charleston was the landing point in the U.S. for many enslaved Africans. In fact, more than half of African Americans in the country today can trace their roots through Charleston. February is Black History Month in Charleston and we recommend visiting the following sites (in order) and imagining what it would have been like to land in Charleston in the 18th century.
Many of these enslaved people had just spent months on an overly crowded ship, were malnourished and endured horrendous torture. This journey takes you through slave life in Charleston in the 18th century. We also suggest sites that commemorate and celebrate the Civil Rights Movement, jazz and black history.
For many enslaved people, Sulivan’s Island was the first entry point into the city of Charleston. Fort Moultrie, a fortification built in 1776, is now a museum with exhibits to help visitors understand what this journey would have been like.
The exhibit, Hidden Passages, gives a thorough glimpse into life in Charleston for enslaved people. It also offers an even more heartbreaking story — you’ll learn about a real young girl from Sierra Leone who arrived here in 1750.
Old Slave Mart Museum
After the enslaved landed on Sullivan’s Island, their next inevitable stop would eventually be the Old Slave Mart. This market in Downtown was where they were given time to rest and regain their health — only to be sold to the highest bidder.
Many of Charleston’s enslaved were sold off to families in other parts of the South and other areas of Charleston and South Carolina (such as plantations). Though, many ended up staying right in the city as well.
Charleston’s plantations are inextricably linked to the enslaved African Americans. Thousands of enslaved people were sent here to work the fields and in the plantation homes.
Paying a visit to these plantations is a must if you’re interested in black history in Charleston. But take these establishments with a grain of salt. Many have been criticized for not painting an accurate picture of slavery.
Middleton Place has taken a more proactive approach to explain the two sides of plantation life. While many visitors see the idyllic green lawns and gorgeous plantation homes, the tour guides are tasked with explaining the story of the enslaved people who lived and died here.
Many of the enslaved didn’t need to travel far after being sold at the Slave Mart. In fact, many stayed right in the city.
One of the many jobs an enslaved person in the city could be tasked with was making bricks. These bricks are seen throughout the city’s buildings — as well as in the streets. Just one street is Philadelphia Alley, where you can even see the brick makers’ fingerprints in the stones.
Want a more in-depth look at Charleston’s Alleyways and Hidden Passages? Take a tour with us!
Slavery was legal in the U.S. until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln (though freedom wasn’t formally granted to all enslaved African Americans until June 19, 1865.
The Mother Emanuel AME Church, an all-black church in the Holy City, holds a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation each year. Though the celebration takes place in January, the church is still well worth a visit at any time of year — especially during Black History Month.
The church was also a major hub during the Civil Rights Movement in Charleston.
It was also important for churches like the AME to exist because churches were segregated in the South from the 1700s through the end of Jim Crow. This means African Americans were treated like second-class congregants in white churches and often couldn’t receive the same services.
All African American churches gave the freedom of all to worship equally within the church’s walls.
Jazz Music in Charleston
Jazz music began forming in Charleston in the late 1800s (though it existed much earlier in the form of black spirituals, blues and Gullah music).
This all African-American style of music developed throughout the South and was popularized throughout the U.S. and across the world after the turn of the century.
If you want to pay homage to jazz, we recommend heading to the Charleston Jazz Academy for a show. The school also hosts the Charleston Jazz Festival each year in January.
We also recommend stopping by the outside of the NAACP building in Charleston, as it was another hub of the Civil Rights Movement. This organization, as early as the 1940s, fought for equal pay for African-American teachers. It also took great strides in abolishing segregation in the South and instating voters’ rights for African Americans.
International African American Museum
The International African American Museum isn’t slated to open until 2021, but its conception is so important, we thought we’d include it in this list.
The museum will paint a picture of African American life in Charleston (and the South) from the days of slavery to modern-day times. In addition to teaching visitors about the atrocities many African Americans faced, it will also celebrate history’s triumphs.
Bench by the Road
For the end of your self-guided Charleston black history tour, we recommend heading back to Sullivan’s Island and Fort Moultrie. Yes, you could just visit the bench during your first visit to Sullivan’s Island — but where would be the poetic beauty in that?
The Bench by the Road is one of 10 of its kind placed around the U.S. by writer and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison.
It commemorates the enslaved African Americans whose lives were interrupted when they were kidnapped in Africa and brought to Charleston. It’s a memorial to honor those people whose lives ended too quickly.
It’s also a great place to sit and contemplate the ways in which slavery has impacted — and still impacts — this country.
Charleston Black History Month Events
Black History Month events vary from year to year throughout Charleston, but there’s always something going on during the month of February in the city. Organizations that have hosted events in previous years include:
Other institutions such as the Charleston Museum and the Gibbes Museum of Art also usually offer special programs and exhibits for Black History Month. We recommend checking their websites for the most up-to-date information.