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July 31, 2018, United States

A walk through Southern history

Catherine Hostiani learns about the dark days of slavery in the American South during a visit to Charleston

Catherine Hostiani

GLORIA’S soulful voice travelled the long corridor of Avenue of the Oaks in Charleston’s Boone Hall Plantation, caressing fuzzy Spanish moss in the trees and causing vibrations in the still mid-summer air.

The rendition of Amazing Grace by the petite lady in her 70s transfixed us. Earlier, she had told a poignant story of her ancestors’ life as slaves.

Award-winning movies such as Gone With The Wind and 12 Years A Slave drew me to visit this plantation in this South Carolina city where the American Civil War started.

An embattled history

On April 12, 1861, the Confederate Army of the seven Southern states, advocating the right to expand slavery, fired on Fort Sumter in the harbour. It marked the beginning of the four-year war, which ended with the Confederate Army surrendering.

The first African slaves in the United States were brought to Virginia in 1619. The slave population grew gradually and accelerated 200 years later with the invention of cotton gin, a machine that sped up the separation of cotton fibres from their seeds. Charleston became one of the largest slave-trading cities in the US in the 1800s.

The 337-year-old, 300ha Boone Hall Plantation flourished due to cotton and indigo production in its early days, built on the backs of slaves. Today, the plantation produces crops such as berries, peaches and tomatoes.

Shadow of slavery

After passing a kilometre of 270-year old giant oaks along Avenue of the Oaks, a two-storey white mansion in a colonial revival style built in 1936 beckoned us with its imposing doric columns.

During a tour, I learnt about the history of the plantation and viewed some of the rooms. East of the mansion is The 

Cotton Dock, a wooden building overlooking a marsh that has hosted many romantic weddings.

It was hard for me to imagine Boone Hall Plantation was once a purveyor for slavery. But right outside the mansion’s gate, nine original slave cabins served as a stark reminder of the past. Displays provided a rich narrative about the history of slavery in the country and the slaves’ way of life.

Life must not have been easy under the watchful eyes of the masters. Bottles and pottery were found under the floorboard of the cabins, where the slaves hid food and drinks.

Architectural highlights

Hungry to discover more stories about the South, I joined a walking tour of the historic district, where you can find government and residential buildings in various architectural styles from the early 1700s.

The colonial houses typically have full-length columned porches facing south-west to catch the sea wind. Some still have bolts protruding from the walls as a protection against earthquakes. Many porch ceilings are painted in a soft blue colour, locally known as haint blue, which the Southerners believe would ward off evil spirits.

The most well-known houses in Charleston are collectively referred to as the Rainbow Row. These fine examples of a Georgian townhouse in South Broad Street are painted in various pastel shades.

Facing the harbour are mansions built in the Renaissance, Art Deco and other styles.

Architecture enthusiasts will enjoy checking out several well-preserved house museums, such as the neoclassical Nathaniel Russel House. A National Historic Landmark completed in 1808 by a wealthy merchant, its unique feature is an elegant “flying” spiral staircase, unsupported by bolts. The master bedroom and a few more bedchambers were situated upstairs, so the inhabitants could escape from the pungent smell from the streets as sanitation was poor in 1800s.

At King Street, there are buildings numbered ½, typically with narrower doors. These buildings, many of which are now boutiques, were once home to slaves. The ½ referred to the annex of the main house, where slaves usually resided.

And so I was reminded of the city’s history in every corner of Charleston, and left with much admiration for its passion to preserve its past.

GUIDELINES

■ Take a horse-drawn carriage tour in downtown. Entertaining guides will share stories while ferrying you around 30 blocks.

■ Charlestown, a coastal city, is famous for its seafood dishes. I headed to Low Country Bistro that is popular with locals and tourists (49 S Market Street) to try the Charleston favourite she-crab soup, a creamy dish made with blue crab meat. Another must-have in Charleston is deep-fried cornbread, known as hush puppies, a side dish perfect with seafood.

■ Shop for souvenirs at the open-air Charleston City Market. The art of weaving Sweetgrass baskets has a history of more than 300 years. Each basket takes a week to complete by hand.

■ For more sophisticated shopping, head to King Street. The Preservation Society of Charleston is a classy gift shop selling items ranging from gentlemanly bowties made of peacock feather to cummerbunds made with 300 guinea feathers. Also, Savannah Bee Company offers various honey products from raw honeycomb to beeswax hand cream.

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