- - Sunday, June 28, 2015

I visited South Carolina’s Statehouse on June 4, the last day of the regular legislative session. Clementa Pinckney, South Carolina’s youngest-ever elected state legislator and a pastor regarded as a moral compass for the state government, was on the Senate floor.

A few days later, I strolled past Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (EmanuelAMEChurch.org), where Mr. Pinckney preached and was brutally slain with eight other blacks on June 17.

While sailing toward Fort Sumter, “Mother Emanuel“‘s imposing AME church tower forms part of the “City of Spires”’ skyline of steeples.

Founded in 1670, Charleston is, to be sure, historic — but often it’s a grim history. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a founder of Charleston’s original AME house of worship, was hanged for planning a slave insurrection and the church burned. On Dec. 20, 1860, the Palmetto State became the first to secede from the Union. Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

A tour of contemporary Charleston reveals why the Civil War began in this city still suffused with antebellum splendor. To get the lay of the land, take a horse-drawn ride offered by Old South Carriage Co. (OldSouthCarriageTours.com). Adorned in a gray rebel cap and red sash, witty, knowledgeable guide Stevie regaled tourists with “Holy City” info as Blondie, a Belgian draft horse, pulled us around town. Another excellent means of obtaining a sense of place is aboard Schooner Pride (Schoonerpride.com), a three-masted, gaff-rigged sailboat making leisurely sunset cruises across Charleston Harbor.

Charleston is a superb (if humid) town ideal for walking. Entering the Old Slave Mart Museum (OldSlaveMart.org), one takes a time machine back to hell, in the shape of an indoor auction complex and showroom where slave traders profiteered. According to wall texts: “Enslaved blacks were property investments for their owners” who “were not seen as people, but as property,” while their unpaid labor “fueled Charleston’s power and prestige.” A chart chronicles “the price of a human being.” This unique landmark contains bleak artifacts, including shackles and whips, plus ex-slaves’ recorded voices.

The recently opened McLeod Plantation (McLeodPlantation.org), a short drive from downtown Charleston on James Island, presents slaves’ perspectives. Here, 74 enslaved blacks worked on 1,700 acres, growing coveted, high-caliber Sea Island cotton. The “Row of Oaks” led to what was the front door, although four Tara-like Doric columns were added to the rear when the main house was renovated in the Southern Colonial Revival style in 1925.

In stark contrast, six of 26 original cabins still stand, field hands’ simple homes. Our well-trained guide Amanda noted, “The slaves believed this was their part of the plantation.” She pointed out, “Slave revolts were quickly, violently put down. The enslaved found subtler means of resistance: feigning sickness, sabotaging cotton gins.”

Amanda added that plantation owner William Wallace McLeod “was willing to lay his life down to defend slavery, because he knew how it benefited him,” and joined the Charleston Light Dragoons. After Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, 38 ex-slave families each received 40 acres at the plantation, although they eventually became “sharecroppers and tenant farmers who still felt like slaves and didn’t feel the promise of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were realized.”

With its ornate decor and winding, free-standing, self-supporting staircase, 50 original pine steps and mahogany banisters, the well-preserved, 1808-built, Grand Federal-style Nathaniel Russell House (HistoricCharleston.org/russell) located on the main thoroughfare of Meeting Street is “Exhibit A” of Charleston’s antebellum opulence, showing how fortunes were amassed through human bondage. Russell made his fortune on cotton, rice, silver and slaves to become one of Charleston’s most powerful merchants — with a fleet stretching from Europe to Asia to Africa.

Rest and relaxation

A town this beautiful offers superb accommodations, including the deluxe, centrally located Belmond Charleston Place (Belmond.com/charleston-place). This grand hotel offers spacious, well-appointed rooms, a swimming pool, a whirlpool bath, a spa (where a relaxing massage restored me after daylong promenades), impeccable service, and its private-access, upper-level Club, marble bar, plus an exquisite picture window cityscape. The Belmond also features an arcade of high-end shops such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

French Quarter Inn (FQICharleston.com) is a luxury boutique hotel with a central staircase winding toward a circular skylight, champagne check-ins, evening cheese/wine receptions, continental breakfasts, free bicycles and large rooms with city views.

Adjoining the Inn is The Spectator (TheSpectatorHotel.com), which will take Southern hospitality to new heights when it opens this summer as Charleston’s only butler service hotel. Both properties are near the 1804-opened Charleston City Market (TheCharlestonCityMarket.com), which sprawls for blocks, selling Gullah handmade handicrafts such as sweet grass basketry, as well as trendy souvenirs.One can get to Fort Sumter (NPS.gov/fosu/index.htm), the Civil War’s Pearl Harbor, by walking east from Mother Emanuel church down Calhoun Street, named after South Carolina’s pro-slavery politician who became U.S. vice president and is entombed in St. Philip’s churchyard. At Liberty Square is a National Park Service-operated facility with exhibits, where faux steamboats carry passengers across Charleston Harbor to the fabled fortress where that unpleasantness between the states began.

Most of the hourlong tour consists of a self-guided tour, although National Park Service guides are on hand to answer questions.

Gen. Robert E. Lee may have surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant 150 years ago this year, but as recent events in Charleston suggest, the Civil War’s underlying causes persist — and some are still fighting it.

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