There is – as I have recently discovered – a straight line running from Ferguson, Missouri to Charleston, South Carolina. Ferguson is small town of twenty one thousand people sitting close to the St Louis International Airport, known until very recently for very little either in or out of the its home state.
By contrast, Charleston with a population of one hundred and twenty thousand is a tourist mecca attracting visitors from near and far to experience its renowned Southern charm and architectural beauty.
Yet these two places seemingly so dissimilar and separated by over eight hundred and fifty miles are inexorably linked by the issue of race. The connection between them reaches across centuries from slavery to segregation, right up to present day with the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen year-old African-American shot by police in Ferguson.
A few weeks ago I visited Charleston, and alongside experiencing great food and sweltering heat, I discovered that it is an appropriate place to begin when pondering the difficult and highly sensitive subject of race.
One of my first stops was to one the city’s cobbled and palm tree-lined streets. Sitting opposite a clutch of picture postcard eighteenth-century houses, is a two story brick building that while modest in size, occupies a big place in the most shameful chapter of American history.
It is believed to be the last surviving building of its kind which served as a slave market – a location for human beings to be bought and sold.
The Old Slave Mart – as it’s called – originally contained a jail, kitchen and morgue alongside room for potential buyers to inspect the human chattels. The space is now a museum, and recalls its former purpose along with the experience of those who passed through it.
Alongside boards explaining the way in which men, women and children were priced and sold, are artifacts such as pamphlets advertising forthcoming auctions, and a leather whip used to flay those people destined to a life of slavery.
The museum guides are the descendants of those who passed through Old Slave Mart and other places like it that once proliferated in Charleston.
Walter Boegs – ‘biker, bartender, tour guide and concierge’ (in that order) says he is a living embodiment of Charleston’s mixed history.
‘Look at me,’ he says indicating his light brown complexion. ‘I have French Huguenot, Native American, and African blood.’
With his rich James Earl Jones-like voice, Walter describes the important place of Charleston in the slave trade, ‘forty percent of the half million Africans landed in North America came through the port’.
He tells of how people were divided by their ‘owners’, irrespective of family bonds, and the scale of the commercial enterprise that was the international slave trade.
About ten miles outside Charleston, are examples of where these people were put to work, and how they carved out a new society and economy for the benefit of others. Middleton Place’s lush landscaped gardens line the banks of the nearby Ashley River. Barring the tropical climate, the grand house and surroundings that make up the former plantation, resemble an English stately home (think Downton Abbey with mosquitos).
Here men, women and children once worked in the withering heat, planting, nursing and harvesting rice bound for markets in Europe. The Middleton family, originally from England founded the property and at its height they had 3,500 slaves. While the Middletons lived in faux-aristocratic grandeur, their slaves subsisted in simple wooden shacks possessing the same rights as the estate’s cattle, sheep and horses.
This was of course a long time ago, and the current day Middleton Place Foundation carefully and sensitively describes the horror of what once transpired on the plantation.
An African-American guide explains how the end of the civil war did bring about the official demise of slavery in the South but did not deliver freedom. That only came with civil rights over a century later.
But even now securing the rightful place of African-Americans alongside others in the US is unfinished business. On the day I toured Middleton Place, the news from Missouri was of unrest and boiling anger following the death of Michael Brown, who had been shot six times and left uncovered on the street for four hours. Justifiable outrage consisting mostly of peaceful demonstrations (with a minority of violent outbursts) was met by M-16 wielding cops, a tank, and force resembling that of an occupying army, rather than a police force meant to serve the community.
That is hardly surprising when you consider that among the fifty three officers of the Ferguson police force only three are black (the town is over 65% African-American). It’s also been reported that at least five of the Ferguson’s police officers are facing civil rights lawsuits for using excessive force (they all pre-date the killing of Michael Brown).
It would be comforting to think that Ferguson is an aberration – but that is not the case. In many places in the US today, having a black skin is a presumption of guilt in the eyes of the police and other officialdom.
While racial profiling has been ruled illegal by the Constitution, on the ground it flourishes, meaning that African-American drivers are around four or five times more likely to be stopped than others. Data on the numbers of African-Americans killed by police are hard to come by, but in the course of a few weeks around the time of Michael Brown’s killing a further four other unarmed black men were killed by police around the country. Additionally, according to a 2013 report, one in three (!) African-American men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime (compared tone in seventeen for whites). These figures are shocking but absent of the anger and frustration that African-Americans must feel when confronted with what this means in reality for them and their communities.
It seems inconceivable that a country founded upon the notion of the equality of all men possesses such inequalities.
African-Americans say the system is stacked against them, and it’s easy to see what they mean. For while segregation ceased decades ago, the de-facto separation of people according to race has persisted. Washington D.C is over fifty percent black, and yet where we live in the prosperous North West you are utterly separated from that reality with a population that is overwhelmingly white. In my neighborhood we benefit from good transport links, well-funded schools, and excellent public services from municipal swimming pools to numerous well-maintained playgrounds. That is not the situation for the African-American majority in D.C.
And while race is an issue that bubbles beneath the surface, discussion of it is codified. While on vacation near Charleston, I got talking one day while relaxing by the swimming pool to a (white) man called Rick from rural Ohio. He explained to me that gun crime began in the wake of the 1968 riots (sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King). Welfare – I was told – was an issue of mainly ‘minorities’ and some others not wanting to work. Rick never uttered the word ‘black’ – he didn’t have to – he hid the term in plain, sight cloaking his racism with euphemisms. It’s the same modus operandi used by others, including some nationally broadcast commentators, when talking about drugs, law and order, or other social issues.
As an outsider (and a privileged white one at that), I am ignorant of what life is like for African Americans. In observing race relations, there are radically different impressions to draw upon. On the positive side of the balance sheet the country has travelled a massive distance in a relatively short period. It has gone from situation just decades ago, when black people in many places in the U.S were not allowed to sit at the same lunch counter as white people, to a place where a man of color is incumbent in the Oval Office.
On the negative side, the socio-economic underclass in DC (and in other cities in the US) is overwhelmingly black. In dealings with the police, the courts, in housing, education and a multitude of others ways, discrimination and disadvantage are everyday occurrences for African-Americans.
This situation has come about in the US over the course of hundreds of years. Starting in Charleston and elsewhere, it stripped a people of their culture, family ties, dignity and most basic rights. It dehumanized them and resulted in unfathomable suffering. Modern America promises full equality and the same opportunities for all, yet many African-Americans are still waiting for that to be realized.
The shadow of Charleston still tragically hangs over the country, and continues to be felt as far away as Ferguson and beyond.