Many places in South Carolina tell the story of the struggles and accomplishments of African Americans in the state. The International African American Museum in Charleston offers an array of exhibitions that delve deep into the rich history and cultural contributions of African Americans.
Located on the historic site of Gadsden's Wharf, where thousands of enslaved Africans arrived in the United States, the museum showcases the resilience, struggles, achievements and triumphs of African Americans, highlighting their pivotal roles in shaping American history and society. Through immersive displays, interactive installations and thought-provoking artifacts, visitors gain a deeper understanding of the African American experience and the ongoing pursuit of equality and justice.
Embark on a journey through South Carolina's history as you explore these 10 significant historic sites, each offering a glimpse into the extraordinary contributions and struggles of African Americans in shaping the state's history.
1. Middelton Place, Charleston
Home to the nation's oldest landscaped gardens, this National Historic Landmark tells the story of the enslaved people who lived on the plantation through Eliza's House, a relic of the freedmen housing built after the Civil War. The house is named for Eliza Leach, who lived in the house until she died in 1986 at age 94. Take the "Beyond the Fields" tour, offered several times daily, which focuses on the history of African-Americans on the plantation and throughout the South.
2. Fort Moultrie and the Bench by the Road, Sullivan's Island
Visit the African Passages exhibit at Fort Moultrie, which tells the story of Charleston's role in the international slave trade. Almost half of all enslaved Africans who were sent to America came through Sullivan's Island. Sit on the Bench by the Road, which actually faces the waterway that brought thousands of slaves to Charleston. The bench, among others across the country, was placed by the Toni Morrison Society to commemorate important places for African-Americans.
3. Emanuel AME Church, Charleston
Place a sweetgrass rose along the front of "Mother Emanuel," which has become a shrine to the nine worshippers who were killed during a Bible study in 2015. The church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, also was the site of an important 1962 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose words inspired the city's African-American community to peacefully boycott segregated facilities, protest low wages and the lack of employment opportunities. One of the congregation's founders was Denmark Vesey, who was executed after leading a failed slave rebellion in 1822. It is home to the oldest African-American congregation south of Baltimore.
4. Drayton Hall, Charleston
Built the early 1700s, Drayton Hall is the oldest preserved plantation house in America that is open to the public. It tells the story of the Drayton family and the generations of African-Americans who lived there. Take the Connections: From Africa to America tour and visit one of the nation's oldest African-American cemeteries still in use. Of note: The grounds are closed for maintenance during the first week of February.
5. African-American Monument at the SC State House, Columbia
This monument, modeled after an African village in the round, honors the contribution of African-Americans to the state. It also shows the native countries from which they came and includes rubbing stones from those lands. The diagram of a slave ship is particularly moving.
6. Mitchelville, Hilton Head Island
This small town near Hilton Head Island was formed by freed slaves in 1861, becoming the first the first of its kind in America. More than 1,500 people lived there by the end of the Civil War. Because there isn't much left of the original town, it's best understood by taking on one of the many Gullah tours offered in the area. You also can stop at Mitchelville Freedom Park, where markers explain much of the history of the place. Look for South Carolina's other Toni Morrison bench here, too.
7. The Penn Center, St. Helena Island
The Penn Center on St. Helena Island is the site of the first school for freed slaves in America. This historic 50-acre campus also is home to a museum and conference center, which include cultural performances, exhibits and enrichment programs. The center is considered to be the heart of the Gullah culture and its grounds are designated a National Historic Landmark District, the only African-American Landmark District in the country.
8. The Mann-Simons Site, Columbia
This small house in the heart of Columbia was home to generations of the same African-American family since 1843. The site tells the story of the state's less affluent citizens and their struggle to survive and thrive through the lens of this one family, founded by free people of color who worked as a midwife and boatman.
9. Columbia 63 Tour, Columbia
Take a walking tour of downtown Columbia and learn about the city's role in the civil rights movement. Formed as part of a national effort to mark the 50th anniversary of 1963, the tour identifies pivotal people and places that might have been otherwise forgotten.
10. Benjamin Mays House and Museum, Greenwood
Learn about how African-American sharecroppers lived and survived at the birthplace of education leader Benjamin Mays, the son of slaves who grew up to become president of Morehouse College. The complex in Greenwood has been restored and includes an interpretive center, home and one-room school.