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Charleston: Ghosts, Gullah and Tea

Wilted and more than ready for a glass of iced tea, we retired to Wichmann's shady garden, where she also offered a tray of cucumber sandwiches. No lingering, though. After 15 minutes or so, Wichmann booted us out to prepare for her next tour.

Charleston Tea Party Walking Tour, 843-722-1779 or 843-577-5896. Two-hour walking tours are offered Monday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.; cost is $15 and includes tea in the guide's garden. Reservations requested. Tours begin in the back courtyard of the Kings Courtyard Inn, 198 King St.

The Gullah Tour visits the remnants of an African American graveyard. (Photos Gayle Keck)

Gullah Tour

You can spend only so much time contemplating stately Charleston homes before considering they'd never have existed without a slave economy. To learn about the city's African American heritage, I signed up for Alfonso Brown's Gullah Tour.

Both black and white visitors were aboard Brown's blissfully air-conditioned 20-seat bus. In the friendly chatter before we got underway, I caught one woman's telling comment: "They built this city on our backs."

Brown settled into the driver's seat, introduced himself, and then blurted a few sentences in a language none of us understood. It was Gullah, spoken by Charleston's early black inhabitants, and still in use today in the surrounding Low Country. Brown said he could "unrabble 'e mout' all day" (talk all day) in Gullah, but we probably wouldn't get much out of the two-hour tour.

Settling into English, Brown told us we'd be covering a big swath of Charleston, from the historic district to the business district to places where few tourists are likely to set foot -- with every destination significant to Charleston's rich African American history. Before the Civil War, he explained, there were 10,000 free blacks living in Charleston. Some owned slaves themselves. There was a "very strong caste system among blacks" at the time: Mulattoes (mixed-race people) looked down on dark-skinned Africans, who in turn looked down on the mulattos because they weren't "pure Africans."

"Charleston has never had segregated housing or churches," Brown revealed. Of course, even though they attended the same churches as whites, blacks weren't allowed to be buried in the churchyards, so they founded societies -- based on color -- to fund private graveyards. Sadly, several of these cemeteries have been paved over.

We stopped by a parking lot that had once been the graveyard for slaves and free black members of Bethel Methodist Church. A few battered gravestones leaned against a fence. One simply read, "Our Flora," because slaves typically didn't have last names (and if they did, the name would change when they were resold). Another, with the name Polly Scott, had an inscription that read, "In her the character of a true Christian was exemplified as a domestic, ever submissive to the will of those whom God had placed over her."

Driving along the waterfront Battery, Brown pointed out Morris Island, site of a Civil War battle featured in the movie "Glory." He also showed us Sullivan's Island, known as the "African Ellis Island," where 40 percent of slaves entering the United States passed through, spending two weeks quarantined in the "pest hous."

We passed by the former Jenkins Orphanage, famous for its touring band; an abandoned (and haunted, Brown said) jail where prisoners were caged after an 1822 insurrection by 8,000 slaves and free blacks; and Catfish Row, home of the man who inspired the character of Porgy in "Porgy and Bess." Then, asking "Are you ready for the 'hood?" he headed to an area originally populated by free blacks.

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