Charleston's African-American Heritage

African Americans in 19th-century Charleston

By Bernard E. Powers Jr., College of Charleston

Below the surface of Charleston's modern amenities lay secrets that frequently elude all but the most informed or inquisitive visitors. During your journey to this wonderful city, we invite you to look beneath the veneer and to recreate the atmosphere of the 19th century South through an exploration of the African-American experience. During the course of the journey, you will discover many things that have been shrouded in the mists of time but are essential for a full appreciation for this important Lowcountry city and its unique character.

Eighteenth century Charleston was the wealthiest city in all of the original Thirteen Colonies. Its economy was based on the export of important cash crops such as rice, indigo, and sea island cotton. As these crops were all extremely labor intensive, none could have been successfully cultivated without reliance on African labor and Charleston became the central port through which Africans entered the colony and state. It has been estimated that of all the Africans brought to the British mainland colonies in the 18th century, (which was the height of the Atlantic slave trade) 40 percent entered through Charleston. Most did not remain here but were distributed to other colonies or states. Because of its central role in the slave trade, Charleston is one of the first locations where a new African-American identity was forged. Under the weight of slavery, Africans once identified as separate peoples, with names such as Igbo, Wolof, Yoruba and Mende, began to meld into a New World people we today call African American. But because so many Africans were present in Charleston and the countryside, Black Charlestonians' culture remained profoundly African. The retention of African cultural characteristics was also promoted by the city's unique population profile; for most of the 19th century, blacks comprised the majority of its inhabitants. The unique "Gullah" language, which is rapidly disappearing today, and the sweetgrass baskets that are still being made and sold in the city, are just two examples of how the unique African presence in this area is evident even today.

Slave life in Charleston was different from that of the countryside in a variety of ways. Although most of the enslaved worked as domestics or in other unskilled capacities, city slaves were employed in a far greater range of occupations, some of which were industrial and included skilled jobs such as carpenters and blacksmiths. Today on the Ashley River, off Lockwood Boulevard, you'll find the Old Mill Building. Before the Civil War, this building housed the West Point Rice Mill, which was considered one of the most efficient in the state and more than 160 slaves were employed here. Also, in the city, owners frequently hired their slaves out to others for wages. The hired slaves were sometimes allowed to keep a portion of their wages and even to live away from their owners. As an example of one of the few remaining urban slave quarters in America, visit the Aiken-Rhett House on Elizabeth Street.

The "living space" afforded by urban slavery was insufficient to dampen black Charlestonians' desire for complete freedom. In the summer of 1822, the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy to burn the city and assist bondsmen to escape, was discovered and quashed before it could become an open rebellion. To ensure that the city was better prepared for future upheavals, its northern boundary was fortified and eventually the South Carolina Military Academy, known today as The Citadel was established on Calhoun Street. Today, this building is the location of an Embassy Suites Hotel.

Black Charleston also included a sizeable free black population. In 1860, they numbered more than 3,000 and constituted about one-third of all free blacks in the state. Entry into this group occurred when slaves purchased their freedom or were otherwise emancipated by their owners; others migrated to Charleston and some were emancipated for meritorious service.

As an example of the latter, the slave that climbed to the top of St. Michael's Church to extinguish a fire was emancipated as a result. A large group of free blacks were the mulatto offspring of their masters and slave women. This is why free blacks in Charleston were frequently called "free persons of color;" in 1860, three quarters were mulattoes. Most free black men practiced manual skills and skilled women were frequently employed in the needlecraft trades. Members of the largely mulatto elite acquired real estate and other forms of property and some established businesses.

As a representative of this class, Richard Holloway maintained a carpentry business and owned more than 20 houses at the time of his death in 1823. The single house at 221 Calhoun was originally constructed by Holloway around 1814. In addition to businesses, members of the elite participated in voluntary societies and provided schools or tutors for their children. These opportunities were exceptional though, and the socioeconomic lives of most free blacks were not substantially different from those of the typical urban slave. The Civil War began in April 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter and some of the greatest acts of military heroism occurred in Charleston harbor during the war. For example, on May 12, 1862, Robert Smalls and other slave crew members stole the Confederate ship Planter, loaded their families on board, sailed this valuable military asset from the harbor and turned it over to the Union Navy.

For most of the war, Charleston was virtually impregnable but finally fell to Union forces in mid-February 1865. The famous Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, which was the first contingent of black troops raised in the North, was among the earliest forces to occupy Charleston. The film "Glory" was based on the experiences of these black soldiers. These soldiers were greeted by throngs of black Charlestonians who paraded in the streets and rejoiced that their day of deliverance had finally arrived. During the war, Confederates used the Planter's Race Course in the upper part of the city as a prison camp for Union prisoners; more than 200 died and were interred in a mass grave. With war's end, black Charlestonians properly reburied the remains at this site. On May 1, 1865, thousands of African Americans marched to this location and children decorated the graves with flowers in a ceremony consecrating this cemetery dedicated to the "Martyrs of the Race Course." This was one of America's earliest Memorial Day celebrations. Freedom brought extraordinary opportunities for African Americans to transform their lives. Many were unwilling to work at their old occupations or to tolerate the working conditions that existed under the old regime; these persons changed employers and occupations as a means of asserting their freedom. The black longshoremen were the most aggressive workers and in the late 1860s, organized themselves into a labor union, which used strikes to successfully improve their wages. Emancipation led most blacks to desert the white churches they attended while slaves to create their own and even to affiliate with different denominations.

The new churches allowed them to worship according to their own customs, to choose their own leaders and to manage their religious affairs. Some of the new churches that developed in this era remain as part of the contemporary city scape. For examples, visit Morris Street Baptist on Morris Street and Emanuel A.M.E. Church on Calhoun Street. These churches evolved into centers of community activity and their ministers comprised a new group of African-American leaders. With freedom, most black Charlestonians had their first opportunity to attend schools such as Avery Normal Institute, which was one of the first private schools created for black Charlestonians following the Civil War. The city's public schools were made available to black students for the first time also during this time. Those who completed the classical course sometimes attended colleges such as Howard University and Hampton Institute. The new educational and institutional developments led to a black professional class populated by black attorneys, clergymen, physicians, and teachers.

During the 12 years of Reconstruction following the Civil War, federal and state law protected black Carolinians' civil rights as citizens and the men exercised the right to vote. At the 1868 state constitutional convention held in Charleston, black men served as delegates and later in the year, they were elected to the state legislature. Reverend Francis Cardozo, a free person of color from Charleston was elected secretary of state and thus became the first African American to hold statewide office in South Carolina. Later during this period, Attorney Jonathan Jasper Wright was elected to the state supreme court. He was the first African American to hold such a high judicial office in American history. Wright was a member of Calvary Episcopal Church located on Line Street and his gravesite has a marker identifying his significance for the African-American judicial tradition. Black Charlestonians were influential at the municipal level also and for most of these years, half of the Charleston City Councilmen were African Americans.

By the late 19th century, the forces of white supremacy were restored and black Carolinians witnessed the dramatic erosion of their citizenship rights. The 1895 constitution restricted their right to vote and racial segregation in public places became more extensive than ever before.

Just as other places in the region, Charleston capitulated to the rising tide of racism and the system of race relations that characterized the South until the 1960s was crystallized. In important ways, the foundations of the communities black Carolinians established in the years immediately following the Civil War proved instrumental in their 20th century struggle for racial justice. Two examples illustrate this point. Edwin Harleston's educational preparation at Avery Normal Institute enabled him to enroll at Atlanta University in the early 20th century. There he was taught by the Harvard educated historian and sociologist William E.B. DuBois, who was also a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After returning to Charleston, in 1917 Harleston organized and became president of the first N.A.A.C.P. branch in South Carolina. Within a few years of its founding, the organization began a determined effort to end the racial restrictions that so limited black Carolinian's opportunities in the state.

In another example, Septima Clark attended and graduated from Avery Normal Institute and, like so many of its graduates, entered the field of education in the early 20th century. She soon began to play an active role with the N.A.A.C.P. and was eventually fired from her teaching job as a result. In the 1950s, she used her educational skills to begin citizenship schools to prepare blacks on the islands around Charleston to register to vote. Her work yielded such success that she came to the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who hired her to direct the citizenship school programs for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The aforementioned examples are just two, drawn from many, that show how the infrastructure of Charleston's late 19th century community had consequences far beyond that era extending even to the recent past.

We hope that you have a better grasp of this area and some of the issues of special importance to the African-American experience here. There is far more to know, so you should get started now by traveling the streets looking for sites yourself, or by first taking a tour with one of our many able tour guides who can provide their own personal insights. More than anything else, we hope you have an enjoyable stay and come again.



- The Brown Fellowship Society, a self-help group, is formed by free persons of color to help with education, burial costs, and support of widows and orphans of members. Similar societies include the Humane Brotherhood and Unity and Friendship Society.


- William J. Whipper is elected judge of the circuit court of Charleston by South Carolina General Assembly. Gov. Daniel H. Chamberlain, acting in concert with white Democrats and conservatives, refuses to sign his commission.


- On May 1st, the Charleston City Railway Company adopts a resolution guaranteeing the right of all people to ride in streetcars.


- South Carolina Constitutional Convention, the first official assembly in the West with a black majority, meets in the Charleston Clubhouse with 76 black delegates and 48 white delegates. Two-thirds of the black delegates are former slaves.