The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
March 14, 17, 21, 24, 28, 31 and April 4, 2 p.m.
A Storm Beyond Control: Freed Slaves and Political Mobilization in Reconstruction South Carolina
March 24, 7 p.m.
From Slaves to Sharecroppers On display through Aug. 31
The Charleston Museum
360 Meeting St.
It seems somehow oddly appropriate that the narrative history of Charleston, as viewed solely through the lens of the permanent exhibit at the Charleston Museum, ends abruptly with the fall of the Confederacy, followed by a few random artifacts from the late 1900s. It's not that time exactly stopped here, but rather that, for many Charlestonians, the verdict on the 20th century is still out.
An unusual thing about the Charleston Museum is that it remains in some ways as much an artifact as a collection of them. It's the nation's oldest museum (founded in 1773) fondly referred to as "Charleston's Attic," and part of its permanent exhibit is a museum of itself, recalling the organization's original mission as a window on the world to a pre-mass media audience. Its generally unloved location, built in 1979, bespeaks more modern sensibilities, but while other museums struggle to upgrade their presentation methods to an emerging interactive standard, the approach here remains staunchly low-tech.
One unfortunate consequence of ending a history of the Lowcountry in 1865 is that this consigns local African-American history almost entirely to the museum's explanation of slavery in the plantation system. This alone made the June 2008 opening of the museum's temporary exhibit From Slaves to Sharecroppers: African Americans in the Lowcountry after the Civil War worth noting. The exhibit, planned as the museum's contribution to local observances of the bicentennial of the abolition of the international slave trade, was to have closed last month.
The museum had planned to spend this spring conducting a $100,000 reconfiguration of its temporary exhibit gallery, equipping the space with cases and lighting optimized for displaying textiles. The global stock market crash last fall put those plans on hold, so From Slaves to Sharecroppers will soldier on until Aug. 31 when it may be replaced by a previously scheduled exhibition of wedding dresses.
But this unexpected extension is not entirely a bad thing. In addition to expanding the museum's public interpretation of black history, even by a smidgeon, the exhibit offers a glimpse of the Lowcountry's general post-Civil War experience, including an extremely rare Reconstruction-era red shirt, the uniform of the state's white terrorist paramilitary organizations between 1876-78.
The display of such unpleasant artifacts is not insignificant in a city where the glorious past has been a leading export since the 1920s. The critical view of popular Charleston history contends that the city's rosy self-portrait serves goals outlined in 2005 by historian Stephanie Yuhl in her book A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston. Chief among them is the transformation of "historical memories of loss and disintegration into a revitalized civic identity that rebuked the chaos of modern America and reasserted Charleston's relevance."
That powerful narrative went largely unchallenged here until the late 20th century, but since then the racial and cultural myths at its core have aged poorly, causing decades of controversy and indigestion for numerous local institutions. Which raises the question: Did From Slaves to Sharecroppers represent another evolutionary step away from the aristocratic party line?
Museum Assistant Director Carl Borick doesn't think so, contending the organization made a break from the past when it updated its mission in the 1980s.
"Since 1983, we've been pretty up-front about our history," Borick says. "The museum has been very open to admitting the good and the bad. Slavery was what it was. We show that in our permanent exhibit."
But good history also teaches us a healthy respect for irony, and no matter the efforts of its current employees, memory at the Charleston Museum remains highly selective. Glorious victory at the Battle of Sullivan's Island in 1776 gets a special display case. Humiliating defeat on the peninsula in 1780 — the largest surrender of patriot troops in the Revolutionary War — essentially goes unmentioned. Captured German and Japanese weapons from World War II? They're on display. But the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969? Nada.
In that context, the museum's latest programming efforts in support of From Slaves to Sharecroppers look positively progressive. The staff will be screening episodes of the 2002 PBS documentary The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow twice a week from March 10-April 4 (Tuesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. only; admission required). And on March 24, it hosts A Storm Beyond Control: Freed Slaves and Political Mobilization in Reconstruction South Carolina, a lecture by historian Brian Kelly that examines Reconstruction as a "regional labor insurgency."
Those are three little words guaranteed to cause spontaneous stroke-like symptoms in previous generations of museum benefactors.
Of course, change unfolds here at a pace only the Amish would find unsettling. The museum didn't finish its exhibit on the Civil War until 2006, and still the debate continues: How far beyond 1865 should that history extend? Through the 19th century? Through the 20th?
Ah, well. Some things just won't be rushed.