Don’t go there. I mean it.
Let me give you some backstory. I’m from California. My husband and I are accustomed to a truly multicultural society and we took for granted that, to some degree, the rest of the country was pretty much in step. We were excited to visit Charleston and learn about its history, especially its important place in the Civil War.
Our first clues that we were entering another world started long before we hit Charleston. We stopped into a roadside diner, the kind of place that has no sign because everyone who goes there knows where it is, just a rickety shack down by the river. The only sounds were mosquitos and banjo music. A very rotund woman with more tattoos than teeth asked, “What’ll ya have?” I marked us as tourists right away by asking to see a menu.
She leveled her gaze at me and said, “Y’all ain’t from around here.” It wasn’t a question.
By the way, y’all is generally singular. The plural of y’all is is “all y’all.” You’re welcome.
“We got fried chicken, fried okra, fried greens, fried shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, cheese grits, plain grits, and biscuits”
“How is that prepared?” I foolishly asked.
Again, she looked at us as if we were speaking another language. And apparently, we were. “Everything’s fried,” she said as though stating the obvious. “I can grill it for a dollar more.”
We were really off the beaten path, and there was a one-eared fellow with a bowl haircut named Bubba sitting silently in the corner and smiling at my husband. He was the waitress’ brother, or husband, or both. Couldn’t be certain.
We quietly took our food to go and made sure to leave the county by the shortest path possible while remaining well under the speed limit; neither one of us wanted to spend the night in jail there.
Once in Charleston, we made arrangements to tour some of the city’s more relevant historical sites. And everything in Charleston is about history. The city had a pivotal role in the American Revolution, and the first shots of the Civil War were fired there. Any structure built after 1850 is referred to as “new construction.”
Our guide was a pretty, 40-ish Charleston native and an expert on local history. She took us through the basement of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, built in 1771 and previously known as the Customs House. During the Civil War, the building was also used as a post office and was attacked by Charleston rioters when the postmaster refused to burn a shipment of pamphlets advocating abolition of slavery.
As Union forces approached, the basement was used as a hiding place for supplies and valuable goods, including humans considered to be property. Our guide took us from room to room, narrating as she went, her voice becoming increasingly strident: “We had to hide owah guns over hee-yah, and owah rice over hee-yah, and owah slaves over they-yah ...”
My husband and I listened in horror as she categorized humans as chattel without a second thought to the meaning of her words.
Believe me when I tell you, readers, the Civil War isn’t history there — it’s like yesterday. They’re still living it. And, by the way, they don’t call it the Civil War — they call it the War Between the States or even the War for Independence. It’s 170 years ago and they’re still in full PTSD mode.
The next day, we had lunch in a gorgeous restaurant, about 200 years old, and I realized there was only one person of color in the entire place. One. A man in a sharp suit, obviously having a business lunch. And I realize I haven’t seen a single other person of color the entire time.
Later that day, I left the hotel to get my husband some Tylenol and I took a wrong turn out of the driveway, over the train tracks. I just kept going, assuming one way was as likely as another to lead to a pharmacy. I drove though 5 miles of 100 percent black neighborhoods. Subdivisions, schools, shopping, libraries — a mirror image of “the other side.” Until that point in my life, I always thought the phrase “the wrong side of the tracks” was a metaphor. From the air, the city must look like an Oreo with one cookie missing.
Suddenly, I saw what I had been blind to before. Our hotel’s conference room staff were all black, but the servers — people we came into direct contact with — were white. In the restaurants, the kitchen help was black, but the hosts and waiters were white. In the stable where we rented a carriage, the stable staff were black, but the drivers were white.
Remember the phrase “separate but equal?” It’s hard to believe that some people still believe that.
Last week, our nation celebrated the 242nd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We have a long, long way to go.
— By Shari Savage, Tribune community columnist