"So, Are You in the Market for a Slave?": Slavery and the Tourism Industry in Charleston, South Carolina

Friday, January 7, 2011: 10:30 AM
Room 310 (Hynes Convention Center)
Blain Roberts , California State University at Fresno, Fresno, CA
Tourism is a multi-million dollar industry in Charleston, South Carolina, yet it is a highly segregated industry, offering distinct racial narratives that rarely, if ever, overlap. From its beginnings in the 1920s, race and slavery informed the organization and content of the city’s tourism industry, even if early boosters—who were members of the city’s white elite—were unwilling or unable to see it.  Their version of Charleston’s history, scrubbed free of any unpleasant reminders of slavery, lives on in the carriage rides and walking tours that emphasize “moonlight and magnolia” fantasies.  Tourists today continue to be guided to the lavish homes of the planter elite and reminded of romantic stories of Old South grandeur. Almost all evidence of a black, enslaved Charleston is erased.  The African American history tour companies that have sprung up in recent years take direct aim at this whitewashed and inaccurate narrative, showcasing a past peopled by slaves and free blacks and characterized by oppression, resistance, and even armed revolt.  They take pains to point out the demographic significance of African Americans to Charleston—for a good portion of its history Charleston had a black majority—as well as the few monuments to African American history that can be found in the city.   To be sure, black Charleston tour companies provide an essential historical corrective.  Too often, however, they also succumb to the sorts of myths and distortions that have long plagued the city’s traditional white historical tourism industry. This paper, then, seeks to overcome this historical segregation by exploring the way that slavery is remembered in Charleston by both the white and black historical tourism industries.  Just as important, it will examine the reasons why these public memories remain separate and what is lost—to Charlestonians, to tourists, and to the larger historical narrative— as a result.
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