Holy City – Really?

When we spent several weeks in Charleston, South Carolina a few years ago trying to escape the cold winter weather, I was amazed at all the churches with their tall steeples. We took a tour of the city on a boat and from the harbor you could see the beautiful steeples reaching to the sky. The city is called by some the “Holy City” because of all the churches. I was told there were over 400 churches and a variety of religions.

I was particularly interested in the French Huguenot Church because doing genealogy research I discovered one line of my ancestors were Huguenots driven out of France by King Louis XIV in 1685. The church is beautiful.

Another church we enjoyed was the Circular Congregational Church. They claim to be one of the oldest continuously churches in the South. We roamed through their cemetery with monuments dating from 1695. The street the church is located on is called Meeting Street and the street is given that name because it was here their first meeting house was built in 1681. In 1804 they built a circular hall replacing earlier buildings. When the building burned in 1861 they used bricks from the old building and constructed the present sanctuary in 1892.

Beating the congregation at the Circular Congrregational Church, St. Michael’s Church lays claim to being the oldest church in Charleston. On this site a small wooden church was built in what was then Charles Town in 1680. Called St. Phillip’s, as the town grew – and the congregation grew, a new building was built and given the name St. Michael’s. They began conducting services in 1761 and, except for a small addition in 1883, the church is basically the same today.

We spent over half a day exploring the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Holy Congregation House of God). The synagogue is a National Historic Landmark. It is the country’s second oldest synagogue and the oldest in continuous use.

They shared a lot of their history – both of Charleston and of the Jewish religion. They allowed us to see the place where they housed the Torah. For my husband and I, both history nuts of American history and of Biblical times, it was a wonderful experience.

One of the churches we wanted to visit was closed. This building is a beautiful Gothic-Revival structure and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in 1791 and included both free blacks and slaves. The ministers were often jailed for violations of laws that prohibited slaves and free black to meet without white supervision. After the unsuccessful slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey, the community burned the church to the ground in 1822 because Vesey had been one of the church’s founders. Vesey and 34 others were executed.

After rebuilding the church, the congregation met there until 1834 when the state legislature outlawed all-black churches. Again, blacks could not meet in church unless there were white supervision. They simply met in secret until after the Civil War ended and then they formally reorganized.

I could go on and on about the churches we visited. But as we thought about their claim to be the “Holy City” we wondered how they could really consider their history to back up that claim.

Just a few blocks from some of these beautiful churches is the Old Slave Mart Museum. Established in 1948 it is the first museum on the history of slavery in the United States. The museum is located in a portion of the city’s last major slave market.

In 1808 when the United States banned international slave trading, the domestic slave trade became big business. Charleston became one of the major buying and selling markets. It is estimated that 40% or more of the slaves imported to American came through the Charleston port. You can check out more on that story on my post.

In Charleston slaves were sold in open markets until 1856 when the city passed an ordinance prohibiting public sales.  I guess the sight of blacks in irons and chains exhibited like animals for sale became too much for the people of the “Holy City.” In response a number of sale rooms or markets opened up in downtown Charlestown. One of the main ones was Ryan’s Auction Mart and the current museum is housed in part of that market.

The day we visited the museum the woman working there told us she was a descendant of one of the slaves sold there. Standing there in that dark place and trying to imagine the horrors of being sold like an animal and possibly being separated from parents or children, my mind wondered how people who built such beautiful churches to worship God on Sunday could deal in this terrible business on Monday through Saturday.

Being “holy” people they insisted that the slave markets be closed on Sunday so they could all go to church to worship God.

I left Charleston with mixed feelings. It is a beautiful city with the ocean and the old historical churches and houses. There are so many beautiful parks. There is so much history there. But I could not help but remember the history I saw there that I was never told about in history classes in school.

  • The slave market
  • Denmark Vesey statue
  • The original reason for building the Citadel
  • The first Memorial Day celebration where freed blacks honored the Union soldiers
  • The Gullah culture
  • Cabbage Row
  • Philip Simons Foundation

“Holy City.” Yes there are a lot of church steeples reaching to the sky. But after seeing all that I saw, I would never call it that.

12 thoughts on “Holy City – Really?

    • I was always unhappy about our history on slavery but my visit to Charleston really opened my eyes. Not only to the evils of slavery but how we still have so much prejudice (or at least ignorance). There was a statute of Calhoun in the main square downtown. For the first few weeks I walked by it every day. I really thought nothing about it. I knew the history of the man and certainly was not an admirer but still just viewed it as part of our history. Then we took a tour by a black man who showed many of the historical sites of black history that is not often part of the tourist guides. He told us how he hated walking by that statute every day and how his fellow blacks regarded it. I suddenly thought “how would the Jewish people feel about a statute of Hitler in their main town?” And I remembered how we applauded when the people of Iraq brought down the statute of Saddam Hussein. Talking to him and others like him I realized though I would say I had no prejudice, I truly had no real understanding. We ate in a lot of restaurants while in town. For the first time I began to look more closely. At the expensive uptown restaurants our waiters were all white. When we went to McDonald’s or Subway they were all black. I began to question why. I could go on and on at what I saw when I took my blinders off. I just try now to help my fellow whites see that we need to understand our history so that we can better understand our fellow Americans who look different than we do.

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      • I could not have said it better. I have lost a few friends who refused to understand why this means so much to me. Our girls were literally called racial slurs in a public parking lot. They were so frightened, because it was unexpected. But thankfully people in the parking lot stood in the gap for them. But this is something they will always remember

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