Looking the Thing in the Face: Slavery and the Public Landscape in Charleston, South Carolina

Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM
Room 310 (Hynes Convention Center)
Ethan J. Kytle , California State University at Fresno, Fresno, CA
When Swedish writer Fredrika Bremer visited Charleston in 1850 she found herself repeatedly drawn into conversations about slavery.  An opponent of the institution, she was particularly disturbed by locals’ unwillingness to discuss slavery frankly. The same could be said of the public landscape in Charleston today.  A century and a half after Bremer visited the city, millions of tourists flock to “America’s Most Historic City” annually. Yet the monuments and memorials they find there, which commemorate significant individuals and events, almost entirely ignore the institution of slavery, despite its centrality to the history of Charleston. But in the summer of 2008 things started to change.  A bench dedicated to the victims of slavery was erected in a corner of Sullivan’s Island, the tony beach across Charleston harbor from the city proper, to much fanfare. Installed by the Toni Morrison Society and the National Park Service, it is tucked away on a serene location in the back of the Fort Moultrie National Monument.  Facing the swampy marshland that surrounds the Intracoastal Waterway, the bench affords a place for quiet contemplation of the horrors of slavery and the slave trade.  The ease with which the city’s population welcomed the “Bench by the Road” contrasts sharply with the opposition to a proposal to erect a statue to Denmark Vesey, the would-be leader of a slave uprising in Charleston in 1822. This paper uses these two episodes as a window into the long-standing debates in Charleston about how slavery—and the city’s race relations more generally—should be remembered. Focusing on commemorative efforts that date back to the end of the Civil War, it examines the ways in which history and racial politics have collided in, and shaped, Charleston’s public landscape since the late 1800s.
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