For those searching for touchstones during Black History Month, look no further than South Carolina.
On the grounds of Fort Moultrie sits a special bench intended as a monument. Installed by the Toni Morrison Society, the bench faces the waterway that brought thousands of slaves from Africa to Charleston. It’s a quiet, unassuming spot – perfect for reflection on black history in South Carolina.
“The bench is welcoming, open,” Toni Morrison said when the bench was dedicated. “You can be illiterate and sit on the bench, you can be a wanderer or you can be on a search.”
This is a great place to start a month-long exploration and celebration of Black History Month in the state where traditions brought from Africa live on today and are elevated into modern life. Fort Moultrie, a Revolutionary War-era fort on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, gives an excellent overview of the significance of this place. Almost half of all enslaved Africans came to the U.S. through Sullivan’s Island. The fort’s African Passages exhibit also tells the poignant story of 10-year-old Priscilla, a girl brought to the new world from Sierra Leone in the 1750s. Her descendants retraced her journey and wrote about it in “Priscilla’s Homecoming,” a story of healing and inspiration.
The South Carolina Lowcountry is filled with communities that were established after slavery, populated by people known as Gullah and Geechee. These regions offer a fascinating look at how life is evolving for African Americans who live in areas steeped in tradition.
South Carolina is a major part of the federally recognized Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and is prominently featured in its new website. The corridor stretches along the coast from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, with South Carolina representing most of the area. Driving tours are available, and a must-see stop is the Penn Center on St. Helena Island near Beaufort.
Our nation’s first school for freed slaves, the Penn Center now serves as a cultural and educational center for the community. The museum there has a collection of stunning photographs, and the campus is steeped in a distinctive history that combines West African and Lowcountry lives through generations. One of the real gems is the center’s interactive programs. Visitors can learn how to weave sweetgrass baskets, make and cast nets and speak in the distinctive Gullah dialect, along with the significance of patchwork quilts, spirituals and Gullah storytelling.
Other places to discover along the South Carolina coast include well-preserved plantation homes and slave quarters. Some particularly good spots are Drayton Hall, Boone Hall (slave quarters pictured on the right), Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and Hampton Plantation – all in the Charleston area. Ideal sites more in the heartland of South Carolina include Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site (slave quarters pictured below) near Aiken and Historic Brattonsville near Rock Hill. All of these sites treat slavery and African American history with truth and respect, and they provide a strong backdrop for understanding that time in our nation’s history.
Many other sites in the heartland honor African American heroes and artists, trailblazers and leaders. This year, South Carolina native Mary McLeod Bethune becomes the first African American to have a license plate created in her honor. The Civil Rights leader grew up in Mayesville near Sumter, and the new plate will be unveiled at a state house event at 10 a.m. on February 12. Proceeds from the sale of the license plate will help fund projects to honor Bethune, including a proposed new visitor center and gift shop off Interstate 95, one of the busiest highways in the state.
Visit the Dizzy Gillespie Home Site Park in Cheraw, where the fence contains the notes to Gillespie’s famous “Salt Peanuts.” The innovative trumpeter with the bulging cheeks grew up here, and visitors can tour sites that helped shape this modern jazz master. There’s also the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Memorial on Main Street in Lake City, which gives tribute to one of America’s first black astronauts. McNair, the second African-American to fly in space, died in the 1986 Challenger explosion.
Further upstate near Greenwood is the Mays House Museum, which celebrates the life of Dr. Benjamin Mays. Known as the “father of the Civil Rights movement,” Mays, the son of enslaved parents, was a respected educator, president of Morehouse College and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The grounds have been lovingly restored to a working homestead circa 1900.
The capital of Columbia is one of six cities in the U.S. celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement this year. A monument on the grounds of the state house (pictured) there was installed in 2001 to commemorate the contributions African Americans have made to South Carolina in academics, the arts, leadership, medicine and other disciplines.
Throughout the year, festivals and events honor the culture and contributions celebrated during Black History Month. Some of those include the Gullah Festival held in May in Beaufort, Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival, held in June in Mount Pleasant and the Moja Arts Festival in Charleston each fall.
Also this year, noted Gullah artist Jonathan Green is lending his extensive collection to Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art for an exhibition celebrating the diverse cultural influences that have shaped American art. This exhibit runs through April 21 and includes African American, Caribbean, Latin American and American artists.
South Carolina is the place to explore during Black History Month and beyond. Add the state to your itinerary for spring and take a moment for reflection, whether you’re sitting on Toni Morrison’s bench or your own.
Photo Credits: Bench courtesy of Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie National Monument; other photos courtesy of South Carolina Tourism.
Thanks to the South Carolina Tourism Department and Dawn Dawson for providing information for this story.