South Carolina African American History
South Carolina African American history
stretches back to the 16th century when Africans arrived as slaves at Carolina Colony, now known as Charleston. By the early 1700s, they were the majority, but after the death of thousands of slaves during the American Revolution and an influx of white settlers, the demographics changed.
Enslaved Africans played a major role in the cultivation of rice and cotton in the state, working long hours in harsh conditions. West Africans were brought to South Carolina because of their knowledge of rice cultivation. Rice became a staple crop in South Carolina and dominated the economy of the Lowcountry for nearly two centuries.
About one-third of the nation’s slaves came through Charleston, SC, and were quarantined on Sullivan’s Island. Original slave houses still stand at places such as Boone Hall Plantation in Mt. Pleasant and Mansfield Plantation in Georgetown.
The Old Slave Mart Museum in downtown Charleston recounts the story of the city’s role in slave trade. The Museum focuses on the history of the building, the site and the slave sales that occurred there.
A South Carolina African American History Monument chronicling the experiences of African Americans in South Carolina now stands on the grounds of the State House in Columbia. The bronze and granite sculpture was dedicated in March 2001 and includes 12 panels that depict milestones in South Carolina African American history. The monument tells a story from the beginning of enslavement to the Middle Passage to Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights era to the great achievements of South Carolina’s African Americans in various professions including jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, tennis player Althea Gibson and former South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Ernest Finney.
The Gullah are referred to a unique group of African Americans who are descendants of enslaved Africans and settled in the Sea Islands and Lowcountry of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. The Gullah are known for preserving their African language and cultural heritage. They speak an English-based Creole language containing many African words. Visitors can learn about the Gullah culture, food, language and family traditions on Gullah tours that are offered along the coast in places such as Charleston and Hilton Head. Sweetgrass baskets are part of the beautiful art of the Gullah tradition. These baskets can be found for sale throughout the Lowcountry, but prime locations for the baskets are Charleston City Market, along Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant and at the Gullah Flea Market on Hilton Head Island. Gullah festivals are also held to commemorate and celebrate the Gullah heritage. Beaufort hosts the annual Gullah Festival at Waterfront Park on Memorial Day weekend. A festival is also held on Daufuskie Island in June. A large slave population once lived on Daufuskie Island which is still only accessible by boat.
One of the country’s first schools for freed slaves, Penn School, is located on St. Helena Island, near Beaufort. The Penn Center is one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence. The facility served as a meeting place for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prior to the March on Washington in 1963. The 50-acre campus is a National Historic Landmark. The campus is the site of the annual Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration. The three-day event celebrates the Gullah and Sea Island history through music, folk art, food and demonstrations.
All across South Carolina, African American history can be found at museums and historic sites, plantations, historic churches, art centers, monuments, historical events and festivals dedicated to honoring the art, music, spirit and accomplishments of South Carolina African Americans.
South Carolina maintains 47 state parks for public enjoyment of natural scenery, recreation, and history. More than fifteen of these parks are closely associated with African American history and cultural landscapes. They help tell the story of nearly 300 years of African American history in the state of South Carolina. For example, the Civilian Conservation Corps built sixteen of South Carolina’s state parks throughout the 1930’s, three of which, Aiken, Chester and Poinsett, were built by two segregated African-American companies – 4470 and 4475. In the Lowcountry, you can visit Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site where men and women of African descent were among the first settlers of Charles Towne in 1670. The arrival of enslaved Africans in 1670 began an unbroken transmission of African and Creole cultural contributions to South Carolina. You can learn about the park’s African-American history through exhibits, historic programs and more. Discover more African American History sites at South Carolina State Parks.