- Associated Press - Saturday, July 18, 2015

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - You may know that Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was one of Charleston’s most famous Revolutionary War-era figures.

You also may know he also served as ambassador to France, helped draft the compromise over slavery in the U.S. Constitution and once ran for president.

But do you know if he’s buried in St. Michael’s cemetery or St. Philip’s? If not, then you might not be ready to join the ranks of Charleston’s 542 officially licensed tour guides.

The city takes its history seriously, and for more than a half a century, it has required its tour guides to get a license before guiding visitors along its streets for pay. To get the license, you must pass a written test, then an oral test.

And it’s no slam dunk.

But this practice of testing and licensing tour guides is itself being tested - at least in other cities. Citing the First Amendment, lawyers have successfully convinced Philadelphia not to adopt such tests and have had Washington D.C.’s testing process thrown out. By year’s end, a federal judge could decide if the test for tour guides in Savannah, Georgia, also should go.

I was among more than two dozen hopefuls who gathered inside the Charleston Maritime Center on a sunny morning last Monday to try to pass.

Here’s what I learned.

The written portion includes 200 matching, true-false and multiple choice questions - plus a few for extra credit.

Ten of them listed well-known historical figures like Pinckney and asked which cemetery they were buried in.

Two questions touched on the city’s most recent history, specifically asking about Charleston native and Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker.

There were no essays, so the tests seemed to measure trivia as much as anything. And you either knew it or you didn’t.

For instance, some questions listed several city streets and asked that they be matched with their neighborhood or borough. Four others listed the names of the four bastions in the city’s original walls and asked their locations.

For instance, there were virtually no questions about slavery, but 10 questions tested people’s knowledge of 10 prominent Lowcountry historical figures - and whether they were buried in St. Michael’s or St. Philip’s cemeteries.

Other questions seemed almost tongue-in-cheek, such as this true-false inquiry: “The economic impact of tourism to the Charleston area is minimal.”

I finished in just under 90 minutes, comfortable with the realization I gave it my best shot. Spending another 30 minutes wouldn’t have helped a bit.

You either know about Shepherd’s Tavern, “the planters’ church,” who edited the children’s newspaper called “The Rosebud,” who designed the American Theatre or what important events occurred in April 1715, 1718 and December 1719 - or you don’t.

Outside the testing room, a few would-be guides gathered immediately after the test to talk about the experience.

Leigh Handel, who had let her previous tour guide license lapse, was not optimistic she passed. She spent extra time studying Charleston’s plants and trees, but none of that was on the test.

“The architect stuff, those killed me,” she said, referring to a series of questions where people had to match an architect with a particular building. “I should have known it.”

Charleston is one of a handful of historic cities in the United States that require their tour guides to be licensed. To get a license, a would-be guide must pass both a written test and an oral test. These aspiring guides are taking the written portion.

But she also bristled when given the option to label a building either “Adamesque” or “Federal,” two often-interchangeable terms used to describe the city’s earliest 19th century architecture. “That’s not fair!” she said.

While the test is given four times a year, there are different versions of the written test, so it doesn’t necessarily get easier.

That’s what Joseph Federico, who has a provisional tour guide license with Old South Carriage Co., learned Monday - his second attempt.

“That was harder than the first one,” he said. “You can read the (tour guide instruction) book until you’re blue in the face,” but it won’t necessarily help.

After the test, Handel said, “I’m going to be a wreck between now and 3 p.m. tomorrow,” Tuesday, when test takers could call in and learn their scores.

Her admission underscored just how challenging the test can be, because in her previous job with the Historic Charleston Foundation, Handel played a big role in helping to re-write the city’s tour guide instruction manual.

Handel passed, as did I (with an 87.5), but when it came time for those who passed the written test to gather for the oral exam two days later, we learned that about half of Monday’s test-takers didn’t make the cut.

Tony Youmans, a former tour guide who now works for the city inside the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, was one of the city’s tourism experts who would grade us on this next phase. He tried to lighten the mood, which was a bit tense. After all, some jobs hung in the balance.

“Are we excited?” he asked our group. “This is such a fun day.”

Youmans explained that the written test is mostly what weeds out the guides. If any of our surviving group of 11 didn’t give a good oral presentation, the worst that would happen is we would be invited back to try again. “The hard part is over,” he said.

Several years ago, the oral exam involved packing guides onto a bus, driving around downtown and randomly calling their names one by one to take the microphone. About five years ago, they moved this to a conference room instead, allowing guides to pick from a changing list of about 10 historic sites - one of us said it was like the game show “Jeopardy,” minus the dollar sums. Each had to pick three and talk for a few minutes.

Youmans encouraged us to talk about more than the site’s architecture or history. We could talk about plants or even folklore - as long as we make it clear that it’s not an actual fact.

Before we began, Dennis Stiles - co-owner of Old Charleston Walking Tours and one of our judges - gives a polished, four-minute long example of how it’s done, making a tough job look easy.

Tim Gaffney, 36, chose to talk about the Gaillard Auditorium, 138 Wentworth St. and the Aiken Rhett House. When he ran out of things to say about the latter, he pointed out the palmetto trees in front and their role in the pivotal 1776 battle of Sullivan’s Island and subsequent place on the state flag.

Another guide, Joe Thomas of Mount Pleasant, incorporated a myth into his talk - that homes on Rainbow Row were painted different colors to guide illiterate slaves to the right building. “That’s not true,” he said.

Some got an advantage by being able to pick from a similar list - and even picking similar sites - that already had been talked about, but it didn’t seem to matter. Everyone passed on this day.

Time will tell if the city’s tour guide test will one day become history.

Robert McNamara, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Institute for Justice, has become interested in whether such testing and licensing violates the First Amendment.

“We don’t allow the government to be in the business of deciding who is going to be allowed to speak,” he said. “In this country, we rely on people to decide who they want to listen to.”

Seven years ago, McNamara succeeded in helping convince the city of Philadelphia not to adopt such a system, and his legal challenge in Washington, D.C., won in the United States Court of Appeals. The city’s new tour guide regulations, issued earlier this month, don’t mention testing.

But McNamara did not succeed in a similar case in New Orleans. The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to clear up the conflicting appeals court rulings, but it declined to do so in February.

Meanwhile, the issue is not going away. McNamara expects a U.S. District Judge to rule on a similar lawsuit in Savannah, Georgia, by the end of this year or early 2016.

It’s unclear if a legal challenge will emerge in Charleston. “I never make threats,” McNamara said, “but I will say that there aren’t many cities that have laws like this.”

Gaffney, 36, said he supports the licensing, adding, “Our history is important. You should have some standard as far as what you need to know as a tour guide.”

Federico, another guide who took the test, agreed. “You can’t let any Joe Schmo get up there and talk,” he said. “You can’t talk unless you know what you’re talking about.”

Youmans described the test’s importance by telling us, “Y’all are going to be our ambassadors. You’re the face of Charleston out on the street.”

The guide testing seems supported by most, if not all, current guides, who may realize it limits their potential competition.

Anyone can give a tour in Charleston’s streets - as long as they’re not being paid.

Those who do try to make a living or just earn a few extra bucks need the license, however.

A city rickshaw driver learned this the hard way earlier last year, when a police sting found him giving a tour without a license and fined him $1,092.

That sting was arranged after South of Broad residents complained that workers at the city’s three rickshaw companies were giving illegal tours - where the drivers pedaled in loops while discussing the city’s history. Charleston Police Sgt. Heath King explained that rickshaws, like taxies, are for “point to point” trips rather than tours.

Complaints have fallen off since that sting.

Drew Yochum is director of sales and marketing for Adventure Sightseeing, which was handing out pamphlets to Monday’s test-takers to consider applying for a tour guide job with them.

Yochum said the testing and licensing process “is not easy by any means,” but ensures the city’s guides are qualified. And that protects the consumers “because you can have a good amount of faith that your tour guides are accurate and know what they’re talking about.”

Still, he did see a downside: “It does make the hiring pool very shallow.”

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