Charleston’s African American history is advertised in at least three places in the downtown Visitors Center, yet none of the two dozen people milling about there on a recent afternoon was black.
Outside in the bus shed, long time tour guide Alphonso Brown, a former schoolteacher who is black, was loading up visitors for a morning tour of Catfish Row, Denmark Vesey’s house and other notable black historical sites. All of his passengers were white.
“Traveling and vacation has never been a part of black life,” said Brown, who operates Gullah Tours. “When they do travel, they’re visiting friends and family members. Most of the time when they do that, they don’t take tours.”
That’s been changing with efforts to draw more black visitors to South Carolina. How it’s going to play out is not yet clear, but some are starting to eye a piece of the action.
When the tourism industry started in the 1960s, it was aimed at white travelers, Brown said.
“I’ve seen Charleston embrace black history more,” he said. “The people who made an effort not to embrace it are dead and gone. We have new people in Charleston now.”
A big factor in the changing conversation locally has been plans for the International African American Museum. It’s scheduled to open in the fall of 2019 near the Charleston Maritime Center, on the site where about 100,000 slaves from Africa stepped onto shore.
Michael Moore, a former executive with Coca Cola and Kraft and president of the museum, said he’s confident the money will be raised to open the $75 million museum on time to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves. He was born in the Northeast and lived in Atlanta but has roots in Charleston.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good jobs, but this is a calling,” he said recently as he stood on the spot where the museum will be built. “Charleston hasn’t necessarily nurtured African American tourism so much in the past. This museum will touch on history that is difficult, but I think the focus is also to talk about achievement, perseverance, overcoming obstacles to make tremendous contributions to this country.”
Tourism officials statewide are taking an interest in drawing more black visitors to the state.
On the margins
Simon Hudson, director of the University of South Carolina’s Center for Economic Excellence in Tourism and Economic Development, is writing up a $60,000 study called “Increasing African-American Tourism in South Carolina.” Half the money came from his center and the rest from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
He came on board during the debate over the Confederate flag at the Statehouse. A boycott organized by the NAACP was in effect, urging groups not to come to South Carolina until the flag came down.
“One of the first things I said was that Confederate flag must be costing us a fortune,” Hudson said.
The flag came down last summer, not because of the boycott but because of the fallout after the massacre of nine black people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Hudson said he had no estimate on the economic benefit since the flag came down. The NAACP lifted its boycott, but a large number of African Americans still say they fear racial discrimination in South Carolina, outside of visits to family and friends, he said.
It’s not true that blacks don’t spend money on travel, and they’re generally more attuned to social media than other groups, Hudson added. African American visitors bring the state an annual economic impact of $2.37 billion. Increasing that by just 5 percent would bring in another $115 million, he said.
“The state’s black population has been marginalized, and has been little involved in the tourism industry,” he said.
Hudson interviewed black visitors and potential visitors from around the nation to find out what they were looking for when they travel. Among his findings:
• Black visitors have little interest in visiting plantations.
• A major reason African Americans visit South Carolina is to visit family and attend family reunions.
• Half of them fear racial discrimination and tend to stick with family and friends.
• There was a strong interest in African American cuisine.
• They want to find out about their roots and history, if the story is told properly.
• A majority said they were very interested in African American history and culture but knew very little about the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor.
Hudson counted 522 African American attractions and sites around the state. He found that most of them outside the major cities are poorly maintained and little advertised.
Hudson presented his study at a recent African American Tourism conference at the College of Charleston. Kwadjo Campbell, a former Charleston city councilman who is a consultant for economic development on the East Side, has organized the event for the past five years. He’s working with a California firm to develop a mobile app for African American sites.
“These sites have a strong rich history for African Americans that we are proud of,” Campbell said. “All the history wasn’t a narrative of pain and torture. There’s also the flip side of that, the narrative of survival, resistance, family and strong bonds. That’s the narrative African Americans all over the country want to hear about.”
The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has a web page for African American tours. Helen Hill, the local tourism agency’s executive director, says industry officials have been working on ways to be more inclusive when telling the story of black history in Charleston.
“They’re telling the story in a richer way,” she said. “The deeper story for Charleston hasn’t always been told, but we need to learn from the past, especially the parts that are ugly.”
Who’s telling the stories?
Drawing more black visitors to Charleston depends a lot on how the stories are told, according to Joe Darby, first vice president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP and presiding elder of the local district of the African American Episcopal Church.
“We would have to have change in the tourism mindset,” he said. “Right now there are a lot of folks who come here – not African Americans – who basically like the idea of a Confederate Disneyland. I think the city would need to do some things differently. I think if they did that and marketed it properly, then it could be done. There needs to be a commitment to tell the whole story, and the whole story is not pretty. The museum could be a catalyst if it’s done right.”
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, is concerned about who would benefit from an increase in black tourism. She cited former black businesses that have become extinct as Charleston became a tourist destination and property values rose.
“I’m more concerned about the economic well-being of the folks who are living here now,” she said. “The tourists come in, but who’s making the money off the black tourists? How much money is that going to be for the average person here in Charleston? We’ve got to do more to make sure the people who actually live here enjoy a better life.”
Jannie Harriot of Hartsville, vice chair of the S.C. African American Heritage Commission, a creation of the General Assembly, said she wants African Americans to be the ones telling the stories.
“People all over the world are coming to learn about our history, and we want to be the ones to tell it,” she said. “We don’t want white people telling it.”
She has been working with the state tourism department to create a mobile app for black historic sites around the state.
Promoting the Gullah Geechee Corridor brings its own set of challenges. It’s a largely rural strip of African American culture along the Atlantic coast from Florida to North Carolina.
Little has been done so far to promote the corridor to visitors since Congress created it in 2006. The website has a link to a map but nothing to tell people what’s there. There’s a link to a 2012 management plan that’s aimed at policy makers more than tourists.
Herman Blake, a former college professor of black history and humanities scholar in residence at the Medical University of South Carolina, became the first executive director in January 2015. He said the challenge is figuring what they want to promote.
“One of the things we are trying to do, and we’re just in the early phases, is develop strategies whereby we can share the culture but protect the culture,” he said. “It’s not easy. Many of these communities are very, very private. We’re still in the early part of planning our programs.”
Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service, has been working with tourists for more than 30 years and was on the commission that formed the corridor. He formerly worked at Fort Sumter National Monument and now is working on a Park Service study to tell the story of Reconstruction.
“I think today, as opposed to when I started 36 years ago in 1980, there is a more concerted effort to be inclusive, open, objective and to deal with the reality of what the word plantation constructs in the minds of African Americans,” Allen said.
“The challenge here is people are still judging these places in the previous paradigm,” he added. “They may not be aware of what they are now. Those of us who work in the field of history have to find creative ways to link people to the tragic past but provide in the midst of this linkage an opportunity for healing, for restoration, for awareness, for understanding and for pride.”