During our week spent in The South we visited two very different American cities. First up was clean, pristine and ridiculously lovely Charleston, home to one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the United States. Three days later we found ourselves in the narrow, noisy streets of New Orleans, one of the poorest metropolitan regions in the country. Both cities were characteristically Southern, yet I’d say that they’d be just about as different as two major southern cities could be.
Wealthy, beautiful, and not just a little bit snobby, Charleston was once Queen Bee of the South – and to many, it still is. We spent one afternoon in Charleston wandering around the Battery neighbourhood, admiring the pastel-hued mansions competing with every other house on the street to be the biggest, the grandest and the most beautiful.
We followed the raised footpath along the waterfront, elevating us to a better view of the three or four storey homes while enjoying the sea breeze. Most of the Battery mansions have sweeping verandahs on the front of the house, which is a rarity in the city. If you walk around most other residential streets in Charleston, not fortunate enough to be right on the water, you’ll see that the houses are narrow at the front and have long verandahs running down the “side” of the house to catch the breeze. This is the true “front” of the house, and in most cases the front door facing the street is fake.
Today the two outward-facing streets of the Battery, East Battery and South Battery, are still the most desirable addresses in South Carolina. Some of the mansions have been passed down through generations, but “out of towners” have snapped up property along the Battery as part-time homes, no doubt to the disappointment of locals. Charleston is notoriously proud and protective of Charlestonian lineage, so it must be a bit of an insult to their pride that some of the best addresses are no longer locally owned.
As you walk down the street, you get the impression that each house is trying to out-do the last. Towering columns spanning several stories create grandiose verandahs, Italianate mansions rub shoulders with Victorian showstoppers and one home including a glass conservatory poking out of the roof, providing a birds-eye view of all the neighbours and out to sea.
My favourite is a bright pink mansion, the Palmer Home, that I’ve nicknamed the Barbie Dream House. I was delighted to hear that it is now a B&B, owned by a third generation Palmer, Frances Palmer. Rooms start at $185 per night, with most around $270, which is reasonable considering the address. Most accommodation in Charleston is relatively expensive, so The Palmer Home might not be a huge stretch! It also wins brownie points for being a locally owned business.
A bit of Charleston history
Charleston was once the wealthiest city in the South. The city was at the height of its prosperity in the 18th century in what is called the Antebellum period, which was between the Revolutionary War ( bye bye British) and the Civil War. During this time, Charlestonians made their fortunes in the trans-Atlantic trade, as the port city was the biggest trade hub in the South. Sadly, part of this trade was the slave trade, with some figures estimating that 50% of slaves brought to America passed through Charleston. Many African Americans, including Michelle Obama, can trace their ancestor’s arrival in America through the Charleston slave trade.
Like most of the South, Charleston’s wealth was built on backbreaking slave labour, particularly on cotton and rice plantations. It isn’t surprising then that this wealthy city built on slavery was where the Civil War officially began.
From the calm East Battery waterfront, you can look out across the bay to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. South Carolina was one of the seven states that seceded and formed the Confederacy, although it was never recognised as an independent nation. As Abraham Lincoln fought to abolish slavery across the United States, the Confederate States struggled to maintain their independence and to remain slave states.
Many wealthy Charlestonian families, including the owner of Magnolia Plantation, which we visited, invested their money in the Confederate cause and lost everything when the Confederates lost the war. Some would call this karma.
The Confederacy & Charleston
Confederate pride is a controversial issue to this day, and it is one that as an Australian, I will never be able to understand fully. Still, I’m always interested in the historical and modern issues of the places I visit.
I didn’t see any Confederate flags flying in Charleston, but I wonder if I would have if I’d visited before the terrible mass shooting at during an evening mass at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It left nine dead, and the entire community shellshocked. The shooting was a hate crime and brought the debate about the ethics of flying the Confederate flag to the forefront of the media once again.
In a 2015 poll, 75% of black Southerners saw the flag as a symbol of racism, and 75% of white Southerners saw it as a symbol of pride. It has always been a controversial issue, particularly in the southern states. From my experience in Charleston, I did not detect the tension, which is perhaps overblown by the media. I was only in town for a couple of days and so my experience is limited, but my impression of Charleston was that it is a peaceful, tolerant city that has come a long way from what it once was. It was hard to believe that such a terrible hate crime could occur in such an outwardly peaceful place, and the locals seemed devastated and just as shocked when the topic came up.
I think it’s worth keeping the city’s history in mind while touring Charleston’s wealthy legacies, but also recognising that present-day Charleston is not the city that it once was. It has the largest historic district in the United States, but just because everything looks the same as it did over a hundred years ago does not mean that the hearts and minds of the people of Charleston have remained unchanged. I was overwhelmed by how warm, friendly and genuine people were in Charleston, and found myself chatting to many more locals in three days than I did in two months in New York.
This post took a turn for the serious, but I could not write about the beauty of the Battery and of Charleston, in general, without addressing the city’s history. I try to read up a little on the places I travel to, but history’s relevance varies from city to city. Charleston is renowned for its rich history, so I wanted to explore that in relation to my experience before I got carried away with posts about the historic district, the fantastic food or the beautiful nature.
Charleston has a fascinating, tumultuous history. It is easy (and enjoyable) to take this beautiful town at face value, but there is much more to Charleston than meets the eye. I loved hearing the city’s stories, and in a just a few days I know I only just scratched the surface.
Have you been to Charleston, or, would you like to? Where have you travelled to that has a fascinating history?