Telling the complicated history of Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston’s "complicated" history

Charleston, South Carolina, has a complex history, with deep ties to the Atlantic slave trade, the Civil War and the civil rights movement. "CBS This Morning: Saturday" co-host Michelle Miller reports that for years, the African-American experience fell into the shadows of the city's charm and beauty. In recent years, historic sites have re-evaluated how they tell Charleston's story as the city comes to terms with a difficult past, in hopes of painting a bigger picture for visitors.

Named the top city in the U.S. by Travel & Leisure readers for the last seven years, it is known for its cobblestone streets and elegant homes. But just 200 years ago, the city was also the capital of the slave trade in America. Nearly 40 percent of all enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. came through the city's port.

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Historians and tour guides in Charleston, S.C. are bringing the city's complex story, including its deep ties to the slave trade, to life.  CBS News

It's a harsh reality that many in Charleston used to gloss over. Now, tour guides like John Laverne, of Bulldog Tours, make it the most important point to visitors. 

"Charleston's history? Certainly complicated," he said. "I think it's crucial that we tell the entire story, because a lot of people, what they know about Charleston is what they've seen on TV.

"You've gotta take it deeper, to discuss every horrific part of the entire institution of slavery," he said. 

"It's very important to be frank and honest and forthright about the brutality of the system of slavery," said Bernard Powers, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston at the College of Charleston

"There is no getting around it; this was an aspect of daily life," Powers said. 

And that's exactly what historians at Charleston's Nathaniel Russell House are trying to do.

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Nathaniel Russell House in Charleston SC CBS News

"Every house that was built before 1865 in Charleston was built on the backs of enslaved men, women and children," said Sarah Northup, the director of museums for the Historic Charleston Foundation. "It's so important that visitors to these sites understand that enslaved people were people. They had agency. They had skills. They had hopes and dreams and relationships and families."

And while some say Charleston is making progress, others believe the work is just beginning.

Otha Meadows, president and CEO of the Charleston Trident Urban League, said, "The disparities that exist between African-Americans and whites in this community, they are still very glaring."

Meadows said those inequalities could turn black voters in Charleston away from the polls in 2020.

"How many folk in the African-American community actually go out and exercise their right to vote," Meadows said. "I think a lot of African-Americans don't feel that elected officials are making policy and decisions in their best interest. They are disenfranchised."

The city of Charleston has been working to bridge the gap. In 2018 the city council formally passed a resolution to apologize for its role in slavery, by a vote of 7 to 5. It was a win some celebrated as a sign of how far Charleston has come.

For others, like councilman William Dudley Gregorie, the close margin represented how far Charleston still has to go. 

"We as a modern-day council at a minimum should recognize the errors of the ways of our predecessors and attempt to make things whole while we can," Gregorie said. 

That work continues at the site where so many enslaved Africans entered the U.S. Construction is underway on the International African-American Museum, which will be dedicated to telling the stories of Africans and their descendants in South Carolina. It's expected to open late next year.