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


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.

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.”

“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.


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