Unlike so many of England’s colonies in America that were based on freedom from religious persecution, Carolina was strictly a commercial venture from the beginning. The tenure of the Lords Proprietors—the eight English aristocrats who literally owned the colony—began in 1670 when the Carolina finished its journey to Albemarle Creek on the west bank of the Ashley River.
Those first colonists would set up a small fortification called Charles Towne, named for Charles II, the first monarch of the Restoration. In a year they’d be joined by colonists from the prosperous but overcrowded British colony of Barbados, who brought a unique Caribbean sensibility that exists in Charleston to this day.
Finding the first Charles Towne unhealthy, not very fertile, and vulnerable to attack from Native Americans and Spanish, they moved to the peninsula and down to “Oyster Point,” what Charlestonians now call White Point Gardens. Just above Oyster Point they set up a walled town, bounded by modern-day Water Street to the south (then a marshy creek, as the name indicates), Meeting Street to the west, Cumberland Street to the north, and the Cooper River on the east.
Growing prosperous as a trading center for deerskin from the great American interior, Charles Towne came into its own after two nearly concurrent events in the early 1700s: the decisive victory of a combined force of Carolinians and Native American allies against the fierce Yemasee tribe, and the final eradication of the pirate threat in the deaths of Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet. Flushed with a new spirit of independence, Charles Towne threw off the control of the anemic, disengaged Lords Proprietors, tore down the old defensive walls, and was reborn as an outward-looking, expansive, and increasingly cosmopolitan city that came to be called Charleston.
With safety from hostile incursion came the time of the great rice and indigo plantations. Springing up all along the Ashley River soon after the introduction of the crops, they turned the labor and expertise of imported Africans into enormous profit for their owners. However, the planters preferred the pleasures and sea breezes of Charleston, and gradually summer homes became year-round residences.
It was during this Colonial era that the indelible marks of Charlestonian character were stamped: a hedonistic aristocracy combining a love of carousing with a love of the arts; a code of chivalry meant both to reflect a genteel spirit and reinforce the social order; and, ominously, an ever-increasing reliance on slave labor.
As the storm clouds of civil war gathered in the early 1800s, the majority of Charleston’s population was of African descent, and the city was the main importation point for the transatlantic slave trade. The worst fears of white Charlestonians seemed confirmed during the alleged plot by slave leader Denmark Vesey in the early 1820s to start a rebellion. The Lowcountry’s reliance on slave labor put it front and center in the coming national confrontation over abolition, which came to a head literally and figuratively in the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861.
By war’s end, not only did the city lay in ruins—mostly from a disastrous fire in 1861, as well as from a 545-day Union siege—so did its way of life. Pillaged by northern troops and freed slaves, the great plantations along the Ashley became the sites of the first strip mining in America, as poverty-stricken owners scraped away the layer of phosphate under the topsoil to sell—perhaps with a certain poetic justice—as fertilizer.
The Holy City didn’t really wake up until the great “Charleston Renaissance” of the 1920s and ’30s, when the city rediscovered art, literature, and music in the form of jazz and the world-famous Charleston dance.
This also was the time that the world rediscovered Charleston. In the 1920s, George Gershwin read local author DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy and decided to write a score around the story. Along with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, the three men’s collaboration became the first American opera, Porgy and Bess, which debuted in New York in 1935. It was also during this time that a new appreciation for Charleston’s history sprang up, as the local Preservation Society spearheaded the nation’s first historic preservation ordinance.
World War II brought the same economic boom that came to much of the South then, most notably with an expansion of the Navy Yard and the addition of an Air Force base. By the 1950s, the automobile suburb and a thirst for “progress” claimed so many historic buildings that the inevitable backlash came with the formation of the Historic Charleston Foundation, which continues to lead the fight to keep intact the Holy City’s architectural legacy.
Civil rights came to Charleston in earnest with a landmark suit to integrate the Charleston Municipal Golf Course in 1960. The biggest battle, however, would be the 100-day strike in 1969 against the Medical University of South Carolina, then, as now, a large employer of African Americans.
Charleston’s next great renaissance—still ongoing today—came with the redevelopment of downtown and the fostering of the tourism industry under the 30-year-plus tenure of Mayor Joe Riley, during which so much of the current, visitor-friendly infrastructure became part of daily life here. Today, Charleston is completing the transition away from a military and manufacturing base and attracting professionals and artists to town.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition