Charleston: The mixed pedigree of a Southern belle

Charleston is the oldest and most elegant city in South Carolina. Founded by English colonists, the city and its people are survivors, famous for their fortitude and courtesy.

Charleston-1855After Charles II of England was restored to the throne in 1660, he granted the chartered Province of Carolina to eight of his loyal friends, known as the Lords Proprietors. The first expedition founded Charles Towne in 1670. The community was established on the west bank of the Ashley River, a few miles outside the present city centre, by several shiploads of settlers, who were seeking a place were religious dissidents could worship as they pleased.

In 1680 that early settlement moved east onto the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. There it was more easily defended and had access to a fine natural harbour which in the 18th century led to it becoming the main dropping off point for Africans captured and transported to the English colonies for sale as slaves.

Charleston(1)Charles Towne also attracted a mix of ethnic and religious groups. French Huguenots and other Protestants from Europe migrated to the growing city, although practising Roman Catholics were not allowed to settle in South Carolina until after the American Revolution. Later, Sephardic Jews came to the city in such numbers that by the beginning of the 19th century it was home to the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in North America.

Charleston’s prosperity rested on the plantation-dominated economies of tobacco and then cotton. The invention of the cotton gin revolutionized production and cotton quickly became South Carolina’s major export commodity. Of course, cotton plantations relied heavily on slaves, who were also the primary work force within the city, working as domestics, artisans, and labourers.

By 1820 black people were in a majority in Charleston in a population of just 23,000. When a slave revolt erupted in 1822, landowners and manufacturers feared a re-enactment of the violence that took place against whites during the Haitian Revolution. The revolt was brutally suppressed. Forty years later, by the end of the American Civil War, the prosperity of the previous century had been lost and newly freed slaves faced poverty and increasing discrimination. It would take another half-century for the city to recover economically and even longer to begin to restore the dignity of its oppressed people.

Pink-houseThe oldest building in Charleston is the Pink House at 17 Chalmers Street. Built of Bermuda stone in the French Quarter, two local historians say the construction dates from 1712, but another has proposed 1745. The house’s tile gambrel or “barn-style” roof certainly dates back to the 18th century. The building was once the studio of painter, printmaker, author, illustrator and historian Alice R. Huger Smith (1876-1958) and later became a law office.

Interestingly, the Charleston dance does not originate in Charleston. It was made popular by a 1923 tune called “The Charleston” written by black composer/pianist James P. Johnson for the Broadway show Runnin’ Wild and became one of the hits of the decade. The dance’s characteristic beat, which Johnson said he first heard from Charleston dockworkers, incorporates the clave rhythm (two wooden dowels struck together) often heard in Afro-Cuban and sub-Saharan African music.

Yet the name Charleston is still synonymous with the dance, with Southern grace, and a magnolia plantation founded in 1676 that is now the oldest public garden in the USA.


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