Next stop for me after Quito was Charleston, in South Carolina, home of North America’s most prestigious conference for academic librarians. You often hear that places are ‘steeped in history’ – a cliché that must apply to at least 80% of UK towns and cities – but I’ve seldom visited anywhere as overtly gripped by the past as Charleston is. Named for Charles II (it was originally called ‘Charles Town’ until contracted to its present form after the American War of Independence), it has a colourful past, reminders of which include a cross-vaulted underground prison for smugglers
and numerous old colonial and pre- and immediate post-Civil War buildings. In the classical style and painted white, often with pillars or cupolas, they seem to epitomise old-world grace and the elegance of a more leisurely age.
When I was there, many of the houses were decorated for Hallowe’en, some in very imaginative ways:
my favourite was the giant witch’s hat set atop a cupola.
Charleston stands for a great many things that are hard to swallow. That gracious leisure – for the few – cost thousands their freedom. South Carolina was one of the first states to secede from the Union because it supported slavery. It still has a considerable black population, many of whom, if not part of an underclass, are clearly not rich; there’s a stark contrast between them and the owners of the sparkling white yachts and cabin cruisers that loll in the harbour
or go for little spins offshore.
As a British visitor, this blatant juxtaposition of wealth and modest means made me uneasy; yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to be beguiled by Charleston, where the sun shines warmly in November and the inhabitants treat strangers with impeccable courtesy and charm.
I asked a lady watering the plants in her garden the way back to my hotel and with alacrity she got out her car and drove me there; the staff in the hotel were unfailingly polite and solicitous, especially during my first forty-eight hours as their guest, after I’d turned up plagued with a Latin-American stomach bug.
Nowhere was the tension between old-fashioned courtesy and dyed-in-the-wool conservatism more apparent than during my visit to the Confederate Museum, which is situated right in the heart of Charleston, at one end of the historic covered market.
It’s run by a group that calls itself ‘The United Daughters of the Confederacy’. When I entered, two of these rather ancient ‘daughters’ were sitting at a table near the main door, collecting the modest entrance fee and looking as if they might indeed have stepped out of the 1840s (the building that houses the Museum was constructed, as the leaflet shows, in 1841). The ladies were gently polite and directed me to some of the things they (correctly) thought might interest me most, including children’s clothes made of old Confederate flags and letters home written by achingly young Confederate soldiers. They had one male companion, an elderly man whose sole task it was to tell visitors the story of the large cannon that occupied the centre of the room. Apparently, it was the first cannon ever to be used in America, and – of especial interest to me – manufactured from the particularly robust iron ore quarried at Low Moor, near Bradford. I told the old man that I lived in Yorkshire, not twenty miles from Low Moor; he said, to his knowledge, he’d had only one other visitor from Yorkshire and that I was very welcome. I told him I was a writer and begged for permission to photograph the cannon for my blog. Immediately, his attitude changed. He frowned and stabbed his finger at a large notice erected on an easel next to the cannon. “No photographs in here, Ma’am.”
I’ve mentioned the market, which is one of Charleston’s many crown jewels and the place that Americans always recommend to sightseers if they ask. It’s a fascinating place: a craft market with a few farmers’ market-style stalls thrown in. The stallholders sell many beautiful things, so I was spoilt for choice: eventually I settled on a South Carolina Beadwork necklace for my friend, a Charleston collapsible fruit bowl for my husband and a topsy-turvy rag doll for my granddaughter.
There’s some disagreement about the origin and purpose of these dolls – I was told that they were made for black children who were forbidden to own a white doll and one of these could be quickly turned upside down if an overseer came by, but perhaps the alternative view of their play purpose is more compelling, that African-American women were preparing their own children for the life they themselves experienced, as carers of white children during the day and their own children at night. I’m sure that other theories exist, but during this Black History Month I’ll take the opportunity to say that, for me, the doll is a fine emblem of an ideal of racial equality and mutual respect that sadly isn’t much evident in the world today.
Top of the tree among the stallholders are the black families (usually but not always headed up by a woman) who make the traditional sweetgrass baskets.
These are intricate and very beautiful – they’re expensive but take a long time to make – and crafted from a design that originated in Africa. The method for making them crossed the Atlantic with those captured for slavery. Apparently only about fifty people understand the technique today – it’s been passed down from mother to daughter over the decades and centuries. Another kind of Charleston elegance – and an enduring heritage.