When it comes to friendly, gracious cities, Charleston has to be one of the finest I’ve ever visited. Walk along the battery to watch modern sailboats glide by or peer into the distance to find the fort where the Civil War began. Step into the historic Charleston City Market to pick up a woven sweetgrass basket or some locally-grown tea. Get the urge to sing Gershwin’s “Summertime” when you stroll past the row of buildings, Catfish Row, that inspired “Porgy and Bess.” I haven’t even mentioned the restaurants, drinking establishments or art galleries. In other words, I could go on and on….
So why was I so troubled when I visited the Edmondston-Altson House? The Greek Revival house overlooking the Cooper River has witnessed so much — the battle at Fort Sumter, horrific city fires, hurricanes — and yet it remains a model of elegance and style.
And it is gorgeous to see. It’s the house I always want to see when I visit Charleston. Its rooms are family-size rather than palace size. Its first floor piazza seems like a pleasant place to while away a hot afternoon while the second floor piazza offers breathtaking views of the river. I can’t help but notice the architectural elements, from the floor to ceiling windows to the winding staircase to the tidy wood trim around the doors and fireplaces. Much of the furniture has been in the Alston family since the mid-1800s.
Problem was, this time around, it wasn’t fun to see.
Now I try to be positive when I write about the places I see because usually I have had a good time. But this visit rankled us so much we talked about it all week.
The ladies at the ticket desk welcomed us graciously. I can’t fault them.
But our tour guide needs some lessons in tour guiding. She rushed our group of three through the house. There was no time to stop and look at a medal presented by George Washington. I was scolded for trying to take a photo. (Hence, my photos are inadequate. And why do historic houses worry about that anymore anyway?)
She spoke about the North like it was still the enemy — so I questioned her interpretations of that whole unpleasantness between North and South.
I think the thing that disturbed us the most was the dining room table.
Let me explain.
It’s a beautiful heavy table that resided in the first floor dining room for family meals. That was so the servants didn’t have to run up and down the stairs so much, we were told. However that same table, its leaves and its 20 chairs had to be moved upstairs every time the family had a party. During the social season, that was bound to be quite a lot, I would think.
Then I saw the staircase. And then I saw all the furniture that had to be moved from the rooms where the table had to be put. This was no easy task. And those servants? She called them “Afro-American servants.” They were slaves, 17 of them who lived over the kitchen house.
The whole issue of the house having slaves was waved away with one of those “That’s the way things were done and they didn’t know any better” excuses.
Maybe I wouldn’t have thought about all this if I hadn’t read First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent comment “… today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
But I think I would. I have been in a number of grand houses lately that remember the role of slavery in their history. It’s hard to look at a slave cabin or learn about the harsh lives these people endured. But it’s good to learn about the craftsmanship of woodworkers, the artistry of painters, the kindnesses of nannies.
And I wish that had been done here. That beautiful rope-like woodwork in the second floor library did catch my eye. And I wondered, who created it? The house is elegant and a model of southern charm and hospitality. It could only be enhanced if we learned about all those people who lived there, kept it looking so elegant, made it the house everyone wanted to visit.
ⓒ Text and most photos by Mary K. Tilghman
Library photo reproduced from house brochure.