Charleston Tourism Is Built on Southern Charm. Locals Say It’s Time to Change.

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The week that George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, the Charleston, S.C., Convention & Visitors Bureau introduced a campaign to assure tourists that despite the coronavirus pandemic, Charleston — a city that has topped must-go travel lists for years — was ready to welcome them back.

The program asked hotels and restaurants to take a “White Glove Pledge,” which would assure guests a high level of commitment to hygiene. The campaign’s logo was a white-gloved hand holding a tray. The unwitting reference to the servitude of plantation life came at a moment when Black Lives Matter protests were beginning to fill streets in cities across the nation.

“The white glove pledge could not have been any less well-conceived,” said Steve Palmer, the managing partner of the Charleston-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which employs about 1,000 people in 20 restaurants and bars in four Southern states and Washington, D.C.

Days later, the Black Lives Matter protests reached Charleston and turned violent. Nearly 125 buildings in the core of the city were damaged.

The next morning, Helen Hill, the chief executive of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, who has been marketing the city for more than 30 years, sent an email to the bureau’s members, praising people who emerged the next morning to clean up.

“They are sweeping and not weeping!” she wrote, without acknowledging the pain that had spurred the protests. “Please remind your staff who handles social media to post only uplifting and positive content. Remember our audience is bigger than local!”

To many who make their living from the 7.4 million people who visit the Charleston region every year, Ms. Hill’s response seemed tone deaf at best and, at worst, laid bare what has for years been simmering just below the surface of the city’s genteel antebellum image: the delicate balance between the narrative promoted by the powerful visitors’ bureau and the city’s history as the capital of the North American slave trade. That balance could no longer hold.

The tension between the two story lines is not new. In recent years, the mostly white leadership of the city and the tourism industry have worked to highlight the region’s African-American heritage. The visitors’ bureau added a deeply reported section on Charleston’s African-American history to its website. And after more than two decades of planning and fund-raising, the city in 2022 will open the International African-American Museum on Gadsden’s Wharf, which had been the first stop for as many as 100,000 Africans — an estimated 40 percent of the people captured and brought to America to be sold into slavery.

But as cultural institutions across the country take a more cleareyed look at interpreting history in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the push to change how Charleston tells its own story has taken on a new urgency.

The bureau, with an annual budget of $18 million and the ability to help direct $8 billion in tourism dollars to specific businesses, is being asked to do more to tell a more realistic tale and to support Black-owned business, many of which have been priced out of the city as its tourism industry has grown.

“There has been a deliberate effort by very powerful industries and organizations to sanitize and whitewash Charleston and show a ‘safe’ and white and palatable Charleston,” said Mika Gadsden, founder of the Charleston Activist Network, a media platform that focuses on Black and Gullah experiences.

She has become one of the most vocal critics of the C.V.B., as the visitors’ bureau is known, saying that its attempt to soften the city’s history of enslavement with a big serving of genteel Southern charm has worn thin, particularly during a painful moment for many of the people who keep the tourism industry moving in Charleston.

Ms. Hill, who has worked for the C.V.B. for almost 34 years and has seen the city become a popular tourist destination, said that her cheery email after the protests was not unlike what she sends out after a hurricane. The idea was to show the can-do spirit of the city in the face of disaster. It was misconstrued to make it seem like she and the C.V.B. don’t care about racial justice, she said.

The agency has been working to leave the “magnolias and moonlight” Charleston narrative behind for 15 years, Ms. Hill said. The effort became more urgent after nine Black people were murdered by a white supremacist at Mother Emanuel AME Church five years ago.

The agency worked to promote and educate tourists about the city’s history of slavery, so much so that it has been criticized for capitalizing on Black people’s pain, she said. Finding the right balance is challenging, with criticism coming from people who think it isn’t focusing enough on the Black experience and those who think it’s overcorrecting, she said.

Still, she said, the C.V.B. can do more.

“We’ve learned through this period of time that we have to do a better job of getting the story out to the people that are in Charleston about what we are doing,” Ms. Hill said. “We realize we’ve got to let our locals know what we’re doing, especially, especially around this issue.”

The C.V.B. has previously been called out for having few Black members, a criticism Ms. Hill has responded to by saying that the agency has 31 Black-owned businesses as members out of more than 800.

The agency’s budget comes from three sources: Charleston’s share of a state accommodations tax, a state grant that matches industry contributions and contributions from businesses, which pay $700 a year to be part of the C.V.B. For the past two years, Black business owners have been allowed to join for $300.

Kwadjo Campbell, president of JC & Associates, a firm that works on development for African-Americans in Charleston, and K.J. Kearney, the founder of Black Food Fridays, an online campaign that encourages people to patronize Black-owned restaurants on Fridays, said that the C.V.B. hasn’t done enough to connect with Black Charlestonians.

“We haven’t seen a change in dollars going to Black businesses,” Mr. Campbell said. “We haven’t seen dollars come through from the C.V.B. The way this will work is if there are real partnerships and conversations. Helen’s got to listen to Black people in this sector. She has got to share the wealth.”

Being part of the C.V.B. helps businesses connect more with large tour groups. Members are promoted on the Explore Charleston website and in social media channels. When tourists inquire about things to do in the city or where to eat, they are directed to C.V.B. members. The C.V.B. spends a third of its budget advertising in magazines like Condé Nast Traveler, which has named Charleston as its No. 1 destination in the United States for nine consecutive years.

“The C.V.B. has such power and influence and not just locally,” said Allyson Sutton, a co-owner of Sightsee Shop, a store and coffee bar in the Elliotborough neighborhood in downtown Charleston. She and her husband, who are both white, recently resigned from the C.V.B. in protest.

“For this organization to have a $20 million operating budget, a huge social media following and a website they invest a lot of money into, and for the bulk of that content to whitewash history, not promote the incredible Black culture we have now and to not at the very least use its platforms to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ is incredibly disappointing,” Ms. Sutton said.

One point of frustration is the agency’s promotion of plantation weddings on its website, where people can take a quiz that matches them with a venue.

Getting married on the grounds of a plantation has long been sold as a romantic experience. But critics say that celebrating on plantation grounds where Black people were tortured, killed and, in many cases, buried, dishonors their history.

Olivia Williams is a historical interpreter at McLeod Plantation, whose tours focus on the quarters where enslaved people lived rather than the grand home that belonged to the white family. Ms. Williams’s tours focus specifically on enslaved women.

“I’m able to make connections between the history of these women and treatment of Black women and how that treatment hasn’t changed, especially in the wake of Breonna Taylor and the treatment of Black trans women that we hear about,” she said.

She said both the C.V.B. and other historic sites could take a cue from McLeod and tell the stories of the enslaved more accurately, making Black experiences more central.

“The narrative many plantations have been telling, that the city has been telling, is a simple one,” she said. “It’s not easy transitioning from this one narrative that seems to have worked in bringing people here to a difficult one, but it has to happen. ”

McLeod stopped allowing people to book weddings on its property in 2019 (weddings that were already scheduled for future dates will still take place). In December, the Knot Worldwide, one of the biggest online wedding-planning platforms in the United States, and Pinterest, the image sharing site, said they would no longer promote images that romanticize plantations.

Ms. Hill said that many plantations tell the story of slavery well and shouldn’t be excluded from the C.V.B. site.

“There’s this whole thought that somehow you shouldn’t have celebratory things happening at this beautiful outdoor venue,” she said. “We just feel really strongly that we want to support our attractions because they have worked so hard, and if they decide that they want to use their special facility for weddings, we’re going to support them.”

Stephanie Burt, a travel writer and host of The Southern Fork podcast, has been one of a growing chorus of people lobbying for changes at the visitors’ bureau. In its drive to market Charleston, the agency has smothered the city’s history, she said.

“The focus is tourism at any cost and it doesn’t matter if we are drowning in Covid or are telling the wrong story about slavery,” she said. “The tourism industry is decimating African-American communities and flattening nuance and narrative.”

Indeed, the influx of expensive hotels and tourist shops has driven up the cost of living in Charleston and sent the working class — many of whom are African-American — to less expensive parts of the region.

Since the 1980s, the racial makeup of Charleston has flipped. Once, two out of every three residents was Black. Now, the city is about 72 percent white.

“Charleston’s viability has come at the expense of Black folks,” Ms. Gadsden said.

In recent years, the C.V.B. has been unpopular among locals who believe that it is pushing for tourism at any cost. There have been yearslong battles over allowing large cruise ships to dock in the city, complaints about constant bachelorette and bachelor parties and pushback against the opening of new hotels in residential areas.

Restaurants have played a major part in making Charleston a destination city. The modern Southern food movement, which blew up the cornpone national perception of Southern eating popularized by cooks like Paula Deen, and made stars out of the region’s restaurants, was built in large part in the kitchens of Charleston restaurants like Husk, FIG and Rodney Scott’s BBQ.

While some in the city’s food community worked to better tell the narrative of the region’s Gullah Geechee food traditions and support Black chefs, many restaurant owners paid their dues to the visitors’ bureau and didn’t question how the city was being promoted, Mr. Palmer, of Indigo Road Hospitality, and others in the industry said.

The latest push for social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement shifted the tone. The Charleston Food & Wine Festival, which works with the visitors’ bureau and last year attracted nearly 12,000 travelers and national television coverage, announced in June it would no longer host events at plantations. In addition, unless the city removed from Marion Square a 12-foot-tall bronze statue of John C. Calhoun, a former U.S. vice president who was one of the 19th century’s most prominent defenders of slavery, the festival would no longer stage its events there.

(Pressure had been mounting for the statue’s removal for years, and the city took it down on June 24. The food festival organizers recently announced they would not hold the 2021 festival, usually scheduled for March, citing the pandemic.)

Festival organizers took criticism from people who thought politics were outside the event’s purview, and others who called the move performative and argued that the organizers should do a better job in the way they treat people of color they ask to participate, both as volunteers at the festival and as guest cooks and winemakers.

Gillian Zetter, the executive director of the festival, said the nonprofit organization had since last fall been examining issues of diversity and inclusion, including diving deeper into the history of venues it selects for the festival, creating a more diverse board and developing deeper relationships with South Carolina’s Black hospitality professionals who have been historically underrepresented at the event.

The organization also has pledged to make the festival more accessible to African Americans and other people of color.

B.J. Dennis, a chef whose ancestors come from a Gullah Geechee community in Wando, outside Charleston, has worked with the festival to curate events that more accurately explore the Gullah Geechee food traditions developed by West Africans who were enslaved along the southeastern Atlantic coast.

He has long been an advocate for telling a more complete story about Charleston, and says he has watched with a heavy heart as many Black-owned restaurants have been priced out of the core of the city. But he remains skeptical that Charleston is really ready to tell its truth.

“I think people are more aware and have been put on notice with the movement,” he said, “but as far as change, people got to want to change.”

“To get the plantation narrative to move from the ‘Gone to the Wind’ narrative to telling the true story of plantations, which is really the story of concentration camps, is not going to come easy,” he said. “But for every two of your blue-blooded faithful customers you may lose by telling the truth, you may gain 10 to 20 followers who will want to hear the real story.”

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