CHARLESTON, S.C. — The road trips were short and simple.
Four former plantations where they worked.
A small museum devoted to the Confederacy.
Two cemeteries, one black and one white, where slaves and Confederate soldiers were buried.
The beginning, middle and end of American slavery.
Before making his final trip, to 110 Calhoun St. in Charleston — where he is accused of fatally shooting nine black people at Emanuel AME Church, a historic place whose founders once planned a slave revolt — he put pictures of those visits, along with photographs of him holding a .45-caliber Glock pistol and a Confederate flag, on his Web site, “Last Rhodesian.”
The effect of this final journey, with these sightseeing predecessors as background, has been so forceful on the national psyche that it may accomplish something that no other white-supremacist horror has: drive the Confederate flag from the halls of Southern state governments, and from much of the mainstream marketplace.
No other event — the murder of Emmett Till, the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four young girls, the killing of Medgar Evers, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — has caused conservative white Southern politicians to say the X-marked red, white and blue flag is a symbol of hatred and call for its ouster. No other killing prompted retailers to say they will stop selling the flag.
No one can know what Roof’s thoughts and full actions were on these road trips, although there may be more to learn as the investigation develops. Retracing his steps, finding the places where he made his photographs, nonetheless offers some insight into his view of the South and the Confederacy.
He was drawn to former slave-owning plantations recast as “graceful” tourist attractions meant to evoke an antebellum ideal of romance and valor of the “Gone With the Wind” variety. This sophistication never really existed — plantations were brutal money-making enterprises that thrived on human bondage, beatings and rape. But there is an entire industry devoted to the moonlight-and-magnolias ideal and it is very popular.
The order and dates of Roof’s trips from his home in Columbia aren’t clear, as the time/date stamps on his photographs appear to show only when they were uploaded. But from seasonal clues, and from his appearance, it’s likely that they were all taken within the past year. In one, of him at a beach, he appears to be wearing the same sweater he wore when he went to Emanuel AME.
The sites are all in or around Charleston, Columbia and Greenville, running southeast to northwest. A little more than 200 miles separates the farthest points, but an interstate connects all three. From his home in the central part of the state, Charleston was about two hours away and Greenville, 90 minutes. It’s possible that he could have visited them all in two or three outings.
Roof appears to have traveled alone and spoken to few people. No one at any site remembers seeing him, and no wonder: The pictures show him dressed unremarkably, in dark clothes and boots, with his bowl haircut, standing either alone or well away from other tourists. In some photos, he wears a black jacket with flag patches of white-minority-ruled Rhodesia and South Africa. The pictures appear to have been taken with a timer. Each spot where he snapped a picture of himself has an object on which he could have balanced the camera or placed a tripod.
The photos that have so inflamed public opinion — of Roof glaring at the camera, gun or the Confederate flag in hand, or burning the American flag — were all taken at private residences that have not been identified.
A deep hostility revealed online
Roof drove to Sullivan’s Island, just north of Charleston Harbor and connected to the mainland by a short bridge. Historians say as many as 40 percent of all enslaved Africans brought to British North America disembarked here, looking out across flat tidal marshes and waves of heat that would define the rest of their lives.
A plaque by the side of tiny Poe Avenue is the only marker of this somber fact.
“It’s never too late to honor the dead,” Nobel laureate Toni Morrison said in a ceremony here in 2008. She had come to dedicate a park bench, a small memorial, along the nearby docks, and tossed a wreath into the water as a memorial for those who died on the Middle Passage.
Roof came to mock them.
He posed by the Sullivan’s Island road sign, by the plaque, then went the 100 yards or so to the beach.
Here he drew “1488” in the sand as the waves rolled in. It’s numerology well-known to white supremacists. Fourteen stands for the 14-word mandate of David Lane of the Order, a white separatist organization: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The 88 is the symbol for “Heil Hitler” (“h” is the eighth letter of the alphabet).
So, on the very place where nearly half of all African Americans can trace their histories: Heil Hitler.
Standing here, looking out over the bay, visitors notice something: Fort Sumter, the island fortress where the Civil War began. Roof came all this way to Sullivan’s Island, but if he took the tour boat to Fort Sumter, he included no photographs.
At first, it seems odd for someone who drives a car with a Confederate license plate to ignore the place where the Confederacy began. But when the totality of pictures on his Web site, and the manifesto he posted there, are considered, it becomes apparent that the only part of the Confederacy that interested him was slavery. There are no pictures of Civil War battlefields, no screeds about the heroic Robert E. Lee, George Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, no Lost Cause ideology.
There are pictures of Roof holding the Confederate flag, toying with his Glock and glowering at the camera. He wears a jersey with “88” in some pictures, and uses a still frame from a 1992 Australian film about skinheads, “Romper Stomper,” as the sole image on the site’s homepage. Rhodesia, Hitler, Australian skinheads, the Confederacy — he was putting together a paper-thin I-read-it-in-a-chat-room survey of worldwide white supremacy.
From Sullivan’s Island, it’s about a 20-minute drive past strip malls and through suburbs to Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens.
Privately owned, it is distinguished today by (a) a row of towering live oaks, more than 200 years old, draped with Spanish moss, that form a shaded approach to the mansion, and (b) the tourists who pay $20 to tour the property and be escorted through the house by a hostess in a Colonial-era dress.
The plantation’s Web site opens on a video of soaring orchestral voices and instrumentation, replete with images of budding flowers, galloping polo ponies, the live oaks, the big house. Weddings and other events on the cotton dock — “A building which is nestled in a majestic setting on a tidal marsh amongst three centuries of history, beauty and grace” — start at $4,200.
The first photo in Roof’s portfolio is of him in one of the slave cabins, now maintained as an interpretive history exhibit, posing in front of wax figures of slaves.
He includes a picture of himself squatting in front of the brick mansion, apparently to bolster his idea of how well slave owners lived, unaware that it was built in 1936 by a Canadian.
“This disturbed person . . . came here to further his agenda, not ours,” Rick Benthall, Boone’s director of marketing and public relations, said in a statement.
Roof also went to Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, on the banks of the Ashley River, west of Charleston. It also goes heavy on the antebellum romance idea. “Magnolia cooperates with nature to create a tranquil landscape like Eden where humanity and nature are in harmony,” the Web site advertises.
It’s tempting to speculate that these types of Disneyesque fantasies attracted Roof. But he also went to McLeod Plantation, just south of Charleston on James Island. That property, which opened to public tours this spring under the ownership of the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, bills itself as an “important Gullah/Geechee heritage site.” Which is to say, a memorial to the enslaved more than to the masters.
And yet Roof took the same pictures here — in front of the slave cabins, in front of the main house — as he did at the lush plantations. He also exited the front gate, walked across Country Club Drive and about 20 yards into a grassy, tree-filled lot. There’s a weathered wooden sign here, marking a lost-to-time cemetery of “our African Ancestors.” Roof set the camera a few feet back, then posed in front of the sign: arms clasped behind his back, smirking.
It’s worth noting that Roof offers no evidence that he drove a few miles north to Georgetown, S.C., to take in the Friendfield Plantation, where some of first lady Michelle Obama’s ancestors were enslaved. It’s now run as a 3,264-acre “historic hunting property.”
Roof also gassed up the car and went west to Greenville, three hours and change from McLeod, to visit the Museum and Library of Confederate History. He took yet another picture of himself outside, but no one inside remembers him. It’s in keeping with the intellectual thinness of the rest of his travels: a toe-touch at the shrine, and then he was gone.
Likewise, when he visited the Elmwood Cemetery in Columbia, a sprawling place that includes about 1,200 Confederate graves, he did so without any apparent depth of thought.
The first picture he posted was of a statue of an angel that stands perhaps 100 yards inside the main gate, along the main drive. It’s impossible to miss. He appears to have no connection to the family plot at which he posed. Then he walked about 60 or 70 feet to pose beneath a huge magnolia tree, probably balancing the camera on a headstone. And he took a picture of the wrought-iron arch that marks the section marked off for some of the Confederate soldiers, just over a small ridge.
The photos could have all been taken in less than 10 minutes.
John Sherrer III, director of cultural resources at Historic Columbia, a nonprofit agency devoted to preserving local history, reviewed all of Roof’s pictures for The Washington Post. There is no special Southern symbolism, he said, no coded South Carolina-themed message to the masses.
“It’s a superficial montage of plantations and iconic flora — the live oaks, the magnolias, the Spanish moss — that people often consider to be stereotypical images of the South,” he said.
Thematically, Roof’s journey was also a montage of subjugation, beginning with the cruel Ellis Island of African Americans and how they had been made to suffer.
He ended it in the fellowship of their descendants, just across Charleston Harbor, as they prayed and worshiped the God they credited for their and their ancestors’ strength, succor and mercy. And then, police say, Roof raised the Glock and began to kill them.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the “14 Words” mantra popular among white supremacists. The slogan was written by David Lane of the Order, a white separatist organization, not George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. This version has been corrected.