Sunday, March 11, 2018

Under the Blue Super Blood Moon

There are already daffodils blooming...and other tales from Charleston.

At the Old Slave Mart Museum, a passionate well-researched woman on the staff enriched our knowledge of slave life in the low country and questioned us about how Richmond is handling its slave history (answer: poorly) before we made our way through the museum itself.

Heavy on disturbing narrative and light on artifacts, it was just the kind of museum a history nerd can sink her teeth into. Hearing former slave memories as told to WPA oral historians was especially moving.

As has been the case on this trip, our next plans got derailed, so we punted and set off to see a grand city house nearby. 

Making our way through the historical Aiken-Rhett House allowed us to see how slaves on urban plantations (a term new to both of us) lived and worked. The enormous house, complete with outbuildings like brick privies, stables and a carriage house (reached via a backyard path between two rows of magnolia trees) were striking for the glimpses they afforded of the actual rooms where slaves lived.

House servants' rooms not only had fireplaces, but doors that locked from inside. That small dignity surprised both of us.

For me, the house's main attraction was a piazza that spanned on entire side, the mother of all balconies, wide and high as it was. It was gratifying to hear that at big parties at the house, people had moved room to room via the piazza.

Heck, I'd have slept out there on occasion, too.

For a black history tour of Charleston, we boarded a van with Franklin Delano Williams, a tour guide as opinionated as he was knowledgeable. He was especially impassioned about the word "Gullah," insisting that it was a reference to slaves being from Angola and thus, a derogatory term.

After listening to him pontificate for hours, I'll never use "Gullah" again.

Semantics aside, his tour was fascinating for all the unmarked black landmarks he showed us, from wooden frame Senegalese-style shotgun houses to the tarp-covered birthplace of civil rights activist Septima Clark, with stories of the days when Charleston was a walled city, complete with moat.

What had been billed as a 2-hour tour wound up being more like 2 3/4 because of FDW's verbose nature, drawling way of speaking and propensity to pull over to share his firmly-held opinions about the lack of signage giving black history its due.

In other words, as a tour guide, he was practically perfect and seeing the city through his eyes was like seeing Charleston for the first time. As we drove around former black neighborhoods, I saw Meat Share, where I'd eaten a few years back and Stella's, the Charleston outpost of the venerable Richmond Greek eatery.

Gentrification was everywhere around us, but Franklin made sure we knew what the 'hood had originally been like: full of slaves living off premises, former slaves and freemen, most of them skilled artisans.

But by the time we got back, we were past hungry and bordering on unpleasantly starving, having missed lunch for the sake of knowledge. As luck would have it, Sean Brock's Mexican restaurant Minero wasn't too far away, so we settled onto bar stools just as normal people were eyeing happy hour.

Short of mainlining it, we couldn't have inhaled the stellar guacamole (delivered with a paper bag of warm housemade chips) any faster than we did, which restored our blood sugar, tiding us over until lunch arrived. For me, that meant fried cauliflower tacos, shrimp tacos, buttery Carolina gold rice (our morning had taught us that rice was the #1 slave crop in South Carolina, followed by cotton and indigo), broccoli salad and refried beans that could give lessons to most Mexican joints about what refried beans should be.

Only once we'd Hoovered lunch did I have the wherewithall to dive into my Sangria - a far cry from typical, made as it was with Barbera d'Asti, Aperol and citrus - and allow the hustle and bustle of our non-stop day to ease on down the road to our final historical destination of the day.

Approaching the Nathaniel Russell House through the back garden revealed anemones and daffodils blooming, a wondrous site compared to what's happening in Richmond gardens at the moment. 

Inside the wealthy merchant's extravagant home, our guide explained that there was no such thing as privacy in 19th century life. Although the Russell family numbered only four, they owned 18 (gasp-worthy, right?) slaves who shared the house and its outbuildings with them.

The magnificent flying staircase with no supports (all cantilevered) was meant to be the piece de resistance of the house, but for Mac and I, it was the Mrs. who was most memorable. Everything about Sarah Russell was extraordinary: that she didn't get married until she was 36; that she was wealthier even than her husband; that she insisted on a pre-nup agreement and that she had her husband sign an agreement that if they ever split, she got the two kids, the latter remarkable because at the time, women had no parental rights if marriages ended. 

Helluva woman.

As the last tourists out, we closed down the Nathaniel Russell House, impressed with its meticulous Neo-classical restoration (wall paint made and applied in the 19th century way) but hardly wowed by its wealth for wealth's sake showiness.

But then, when we got up this morning, we hadn't known how Charleston's 19th century wealth
had eclipsed that of New York, Philly and Boston combined. This was one rich town if you were white.

Which Mac and I are decidedly not (rich, that is), so we headed back to our slowly gentrifying neighborhood, where our apartment - the Skipjack - is across the street from a former auto body shop called A Cut Above, although presently it's abandoned and overgrown.

Oh, to know what that location housed originally. Like Franklin said, if only there were a plaque, people could start learning the history they were never taught.

We're trying...when we're not eating. Both are a full-time occupation down here.

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