When I was in my mid-twenties, I first visited and then lived for three years in Charleston, South Carolina. There was much I loved about the city; always a history buff, it was wonderful to live in a place where so much of U.S. history was tangible in just walk down the street. Battery Park, carriage rides, ancient graveyards, the city market, and Fort Sumter; gigantic ancient live oaks, Magnolia and Middleton plantations, Drayton and Boone Hall, flower-sellers in the streets, hearing the lilting, deep tones of the “gullah” still spoken by the descendants of enslaved people… For one who loves history, it was a glorious place to dwell.
But the darker history of Charleston, from the indentured servitude of its earliest settlers to the hell that was slavery, was (at least in those decades ago that I lived there) rarely on display, especially to tourists. In the 1980s, racism was still casually accepted and rife throughout the city. The large insurance company for which I briefly worked had to be forced by the head office in New York to hire its first African American agent.
History, as is often said, is written by the winners. But the truth is still out there, if one is open-minded and willing to search, to look. And the truth of Charleston’s history came home to me in one swift and sickening moment when I was still just a visitor to the lovely city.
My soon-to-be mother-in-law and I had gone on a tour of one of the larger plantations—possibly Middleton or Magnolia, I think, although I don’t now recall precisely which one. Entranced, we moved from room to room in the mansion. I recall comparing in my own mind the luxury of modern, expensive homes to this gem from a previous century: admiring the beautiful, hand-crafted furniture and ceramics, the jewel-toned carpets on polished wooden floors; marveling over the cloudy, bubble-filled antique glazing of the windows; cringing over the lack of sanitation and the primitive facilities for preparing meals. Our tour guide was a wealth of detailed information, and I was enjoying every minute of sightseeing until the moment when she took us through a door out into the nearby grounds of the mansion. There, with a casual wave of her hand, she indicated the adjoining cabins—the homes, she explained, of the house “servants”.
Side by side with the main house, just a few steps away so that (one assumes) the occupants could quickly to enter the mansion each morning, stood a row of rough, log-walled, earth-floored shacks.
Coming from the relative luxury of the plantation house, the dichotomy was shattering. I felt physically ill as, separating from the tour group, I walked to the door of one of the slave cabins and looked inside to the gloomy darkness.
Never had the ugly reality of American slavery been brought home to me more forcefully then it was in that moment, standing in the dark doorway of a slave cabin on the plantation grounds. I reminded myself that in the unspoken caste system of slavery, the house slaves considered themselves a cut above the lowly field workers. But this—this was their reality. A decrepit shack, smaller even than the log cabins of the first American settlers. Four walls, a shake roof, a stone fireplace, an earthen floor. This was the home of the highest caste of slaves.
Each day, they walked from that degrading housing to the carpets and china and silver and glass of their owners’ mansion, to serve according to the whims of those lucky enough to be born Caucasian. Each day.
I’ve experienced many other sudden revelations of truth in my time on this earth—possibly, probably, just as vital, just as powerful, as that eye-opening moment of revelation of the unbearable ugliness of slavery.
But (perhaps because of my youth on that long-ago day in Charleston), few of those revelations stand out as powerfully, or as painfully unforgettable, in my memory, as the experience of standing in the slave cabin outside the door of the plantation manor.