From the UK Telegraph Travel section, by Nigel Richardson, on 27 August 2008: "American south: A black and white story: Behind the elegant facades of Savannah and Charleston lies the ugliness of slavery. Nigel Richardson hears a neglected view of history."
It was raining so hard in Savannah, Georgia, that the patrolmen of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Department wore plastic covers on their wide-brimmed hats. Noisy cones of white water geysered from sawn-off drainpipes, turning trousers into litmus paper, and the horse-drawn carriages remained stabled all day.
With its 18th-century squares and disconcerting air of England — an England twice filtered, through time and climate, into a tropical Georgiana — Savannah is one of the finest American cities to walk round. Finest cities anywhere to see on foot, come to that. But not today. Today was for indoors.
Off Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, we stumbled into the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, shook down our raincoats and requested the restrooms (all that rain). But the WCs weren’t marked “Men” and “Women”. The signs on the doors said “White only” and “Coloured only”, which left us, two white-faced Europeans, red-faced and dumbfounded. This was the intended effect.
The history of black America — for white people at least — has always run on parallel, all-but-invisible tracks to the history promulgated in guidebooks and mainstream museums. Sure, we've heard of Dr King. But when white people come to beautiful Savannah and its Grace Kelly-like sister, Charleston, across the state line in South Carolina, they look for, and are fed, the history of white people.
These are embodied in the architecture, older and better preserved than that of most British cities. Savannah and Charleston are two of the oldest settlements in the United States, founded in 1733 and 1670 respectively. The adventurers who made fortunes here — in many cases on the back of slavery — built big and bold, borrowing from Europe and sticking knobs on: sweeping steps, deep porches, wrought-iron scrollwork and pillars like the Parthenon. There are knot gardens — the one at the Davenport House in Savannah was designed by Penelope Hobhouse — and magnolias, and climate completes the heady effect by draping swooning arms of Spanish moss from branch and balcony.
We loved walking in Savannah and Charleston, spotting, through tropical tangle, the ghostly cousins of a Chelsea mews or a Brighton seafront terrace, reading heritage plaques on reconditioned façades and visitors’ books in hallways that smelled of floor polish. (In the Eighties, at the Green-Meldrin House in Savannah, Mrs Thatcher had signed herself, with uncharacteristic wit, “A representative of the former colonial power”.)
It’s just that in a part of America with a significant black population, and in a year when the American people may just elect their first African-American as president, it felt timely to discover some neglected narratives and points of view. In the institutionally racist days of the Deep South, for example, when every aspect of life was segregated, from shops to drinking fountains, Savannah had “one of the most significant and effective civil rights movements in the US,” according to the curator in the civil rights museum, Heru Iman.
“It was the youth here in the Sixties who integrated Savannah — sitting in at the lunch counters, demonstrating, kneeling outside white churches praying to be let in,” he told us. Activists fanned out from the basement of the First African Baptist Church in Montgomery Street carrying out “wade-ins” at whites-only beaches and boycotting racist stores. The civil rights museum features a re-creation of the lunch counter at Levy’s department store — a particular target for protesters — in which a white waitress advises a black customer, “We don’t serve your kind here”.
The nerve centre of these protests, the First African Baptist Church, claims to have the oldest black congregation in North America, dating from 1775. The present church was completed in 1859 (having been built at night because during the day the men had to work in the cotton plantations).
Our “conductor” on a tour was a shy and proud young man called Johnnie McDonald. “Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King [Dr King’s widow] have all preached in that pulpit,” he said. In the balcony he pointed out scratch marks on the ends of some pews that were built by slaves in the late 1700s. For many years these marks were a puzzle, but it is now thought they may be cursive Hebrew. “The slaves who came from [West] Africa knew that language,” said Johnnie.
In the basement of the church he indicated a series of holes in the wooden floor and explained that they were part of the “underground railroad”, the network of routes by which runaway slaves were spirited to freedom. “These are air holes, so they could breathe,” he said. “There’s only four feet of crawling space. You’d crawl from here and exit by the Savannah River [a quarter of a mile away].”
There are 36 sets of these holes and they are configured in the same pattern, a combination of cross and diamond which Johnnie described as a “Congo cosmogram” — another link with the West African ancestry of Savannah’s slaves.
That ancestry has survived to a surprising extent in the marshy maze of islands and causeways known as the Lowcountry, which separates Savannah from Charleston, 100 miles up the coast. Here many descendants of West African slaves and plantation labourers continue to speak Gullah, which is a mixture of English and West African words (the word Gullah is also used to mean the culture of the people who speak it).
On St Helena Island, in the heart of the Lowcountry, is the Penn Centre Historic District, a campus of former school buildings where freed slaves once studied and which Martin Luther King used as a retreat in the Sixties. Nearby we ate lunch in a plain shack called Gullah Grub, which serves authentic Lowcountry food — catfish, crab, shrimp — using old African-influenced recipes.
Shrimp gumbo — knocked back with ”swampwater”, homemade lemonade served in jam jars — hit the spot and we were soon back on Highway 17 and barrelling into the antique Manhattan that is the Charleston historic district, squeezed between the Cooper and Ashley Rivers. The rain had passed, leaving bright sunshine on stucco facades and weatherboard porches. The suits of wedding revellers — there were many — left mothball whiffs on the humid air.
It is beautiful and affluent even now, but in the 1700s Charleston was the richest city in the United States. It was also the country’s biggest slave port and the city’s wealthy white merchants used their slaves to ape the imagined lifestyles of English aristocrats.
One of the architectural highlights of Charleston is the Aiken-Rhett House, a vast antebellum confection of pillared porches that was once the home of William Aiken, a rice planter. The house has scarcely changed since 1858, which means that the slave quarters, a handful of cubicle rooms situated above kitchen and stables, are intact.
The family owned 800 slaves, of whom between 10 and 20 worked and lived in the house (these included one Dorcas Richardson, her husband and five children). In the vast living rooms of the house, there were ciphers of bygone ways of thinking and behaving: a set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels in the library; a harp standing in the middle of the old ballroom, whose red fabric wallpaper had faded to the colour of dried blood.
These southern ways were not to last. “Blacks knew that once the [civil] war started, they were on their way to freedom,” said Al Miller into the microphone of his minibus. Al, smartly turned out in checked linen trousers and white shirt, runs Sites and Insights Tours around the Charleston area, acquainting black visitors with the often invisible history of their people. As the only whites on his minibus tour, we were swept up in this different perspective.
First, he drove us south-west, off the peninsula, to James Island. “During slavery there were over 20 plantations here,” he said. We passed the Macleod Plantation where the wooden, white-painted slave quarters, standing on brick stilts, have been preserved. Here slaves grew sea-island cotton, indigo, okra and sweet potatoes and lived on grits, shrimp and gravy.
“It was the black people’s dish, the poor people’s dish,” said Al. “You ever paid an arm and a leg for it?” The rest of the bus shook their heads and laughed in agreement.
In the early 1930s George Gershwin spent time on James Island, absorbing a history and atmosphere that inspired him to write Porgy and Bess. His folk opera, including Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So, was based on the novel Porgy by the Charleston writer, DuBose Heyward. Driving past the old plantations — avenues of live oak trees mark where the driveways were — Al got the bus rocking and clapping by enacting the Porgy and Bess story in a kind of baritone rap: “Here comes Bess/ a slut in a red dress/ She was selling holy dust which was like cocaine/ She kept it in her girdle, she kept her money in her bosom/ She was not well liked...”
We got off the bus at James Island Presbyterian Church, where there are two cemeteries — one for black folk, one for white — separated by shrubbery. “It’s like day and night,” said Al. In the black section is the grave of Samuel Smalls, “the goat man”, upon whom DuBose Heyward based the character of Porgy. In honour of Gershwin’s Jewishness, visitors had placed stones on the top of Smalls’s headstone.
“A lot of Gullah cheechee [people] are superstitious when it comes to cemeteries,” said Al. “If you point your finger at a tombstone, it will rot off. Don’t bring cemetery dirt into your car on your shoes. Where did these things come from? Africa.”
James Island Presbyterian Church
Back on the historic peninsula, we cruised the golden streets. But Al screened out the antebellum and Greek revival mansions, the city’s architectural setpieces, pointing out instead the alleys, lanes and courts once lived in by poor blacks. We passed 78 Church St, where Heyward was living when he wrote Porgy, and Catfish Row, which features in the novel and opera and would now fit seamlessly into a discreet corner of Knightsbridge. “Once this was a rundown slum area,” said Al. “Catfish Row was a black tenement. Especially when Porgy was written. Not any more.”
As he drove, Al told us things that white people would rather not think about. “The average black man sold for between 800 and 1,200 dollars, which was a lot of money,” he said. “Women were made to have 10 or 15 children. They were made to have sex blindfold by the slave owners and had multiple partners.”
Jenkins Orphan Band
One of our last ports of call was in Franklin Street where we paused outside the site of the Jenkins Orphanage. Here, in the 1920s, the resident band drew on Gullah rhythms and dance steps to invent the tune and dance craze that became known as The Charleston. A plaque marks the site of the orphanage but doesn’t mention The Charleston, let alone make Al Miller’s point that “they started it here. The white folk just stole it from us.” (source: UK Telegraph)