Charleston Unknown History


There is plenty of history in Charleston. If you have been on a walking tour, carriage tour, or just wandered around the city, there are many stories you have already heard, but there are even more that have been lost in the shuffle. All week, News 2 is uncovering many of those untold stories, pieces of history you see every day and don’t even know it.Castle Pinckney

Castle Pinckney is a structure in the middle of the Charleston Harbor that is often mistaken for Fort Sumter, but has a history all its own.

You can only get there by boat. Castle Pinckney is more of a mystery than Fort Sumter. It’s protected property, so you can’t set foot on land to explore. The fort was built before the War of 1812 to protect Charleston from Britain.

College of Charleston Assistant Professor of History, Dr. Adam Domby, says, “It was never used during the war of 1812 because the British never attacked Charleston. Had it, then it would’ve been what defended the city along with Fort Moultrie and Fort Johnson”.

Castle Pinckney was intended to be the last line of defense before enemy ships made it to shore.

Domby says, “It was not meant to defend against land-based invasions. It was meant to stop ships, and because of that, fortifications were built to a specification to stop sea-borne artillery. Land-based artillery would have decimated such a fort very easily.”

Historians say Castle Pinckney never fired any shots, but was still an important piece at the start of the Civil War.

Domby says, “It’s the first piece of property, federal property, that the South Carolina militia takes during secession. They take Castle Pinkney right away. And in fact, Maj. Anderson who commanded the fortifications at Fort Sumter wanted to put a garrison at both Sumter and Pinckney because he saw Pinckney as able to threaten Charleston Harbor, but it was never done. He didn’t have enough men to defend both and Sumter was more important in his mind.”

Grimke House

The house on East Bay Street is currently a law office, but at one time, it was the home of the Grimke Family. Grimke sisters Sarah and Angelina played a significant role in the abolition movement in Charleston and across the country.

College of Charleston Assistant Professor of History, Dr. Adam Domby, says, “They were born to a very wealthy family, it was an old family, a family that had been in South Carolina for generations.”

It was also a family that owned many slaves. But as the girls grew up and saw the way slaves were treated, they began to object.

Domby says, “The very first time they saw abuse may have been from their parents in this very house. Sarah, at a young age, thought it was wrong that slaves weren’t allowed to read. And it may have been in this very house that she first rebelled against slavery herself by teaching her personal maid to read at night, secretly.”

The sisters began to actively protest slavery through writing and forming petitions.

Domby says, “The Grimke sisters became abolitionists at a time it wasn’t popular anywhere to be an abolitionist, not even in the North. They were part of the group that helped make it more popular to be an abolitionist.”

And because of that, they were forced out of Charleston.

Domby says, “It was made known to the family, to their mother, if they returned to Charleston they would be arrested.”

There is a historic marker outside of the Grimke house, but Dr. Domby says it was only put up in the last couple years because the Grimkes are a part of history Charleston is trying to forget.

He says, “The Grimkes, because of their importance in the abolition movement, would force us if we focus on it, to address the fact that all those beautiful houses South of Broad were build on the backs of enslaved peoples, and that’s less romantic”.

The Grimke sisters also fought for women’s rights by pushing barriers traveling the country to promote their beliefs, which was unheard of for a woman at the time.

1886 Earthquake

We’ve seen some natural disasters hit hard in the Lowcountry recently, from the Thousand Year Rain to Hurricane Matthew. Looking back in our area’s history, one disaster that stands out is the earthquake of 1886.

Library Society Acquisitions Librarian Laura Mina says, “I think the extensiveness of the earthquake and just how devastating it was is lost in the shuffle”.

When the earthquake hit, Charleston’s Mayor, William Courtenay, was out of town. So, there are pages and pages of letters detailing the damage across the city. Buildings crumbled, tent cities popped up for people who had lost everything.

Mina says, “There’s aid that came in from all over the world and all over the country. There’s correspondence from the Queen of England at the time, Queen Victoria, there’s correspondence from the King of Hawaii.”

And in those documents, a list of relief applications. It’s a log of the value of property lost, the amount needed to rebuild, and how much was given to each family.

Mina says, “I think when you start to read through the names and the families affected by the earthquake and the losses, it becomes a lot more real.”

And the city of Charleston in 1886 was especially vulnerable because they were hit hard the year before by a devastating hurricane. While Charleston in vastly different 131 years later, the spirit of the community remains the same.

Mina says, “They noted the spirit of the people really being a strong force that was driving the city toward recovery. And I think especially in the last couple of years, that’s been something that you still see today.”

Hampton Park

If you’ve lived in Charleston long enough, chances are you’ve been to Hampton Park off of Rutledge Avenue. And when you were there, you may have noticed one roadway a little different from the rest in the city, and it’s pretty surprising why.

You may feel like you are driving in a circle on Mary Murray Drive, and that’s because you basically are. It’s a one mile roadway around Hampton Park that almost makes an oval. That’s because the road is built on the old Washington Race Track.

Deborah Fenn, Historian and Curator for the Charleston Library Society, says, “It was part of the elite planter families racing their thoroughbreds and watching them from a beautiful Italian grandstand.”

The clock which used to time those races survives in the Charleston Library Society.
Fenn says, “The Jockey Club Clock was made by EJ Dent in London  in the 18th century. Mr. Dent was known for the accuracy of the clocks, and time keepers that he manufactured. He’s best known as being the gentleman who won the commission to build Big Ben.”
The track fell by the wayside after the Civil War when no one could afford to raise thoroughbreds. The land was temporarily leased to a large trade exposition, and then a portion was given to build the current Citadel. The rest, sold to the city to build a park.

Fenn says, “The property was sold to the city of Charleston for $32,500 in 1903 and that would be equivalent to about $3 million today.”

If you want to go and check out the Jockey Club Clock, it is currently on display at the Charleston Library Society.

Charleston Library Society

It’s a building you’ve probably passed multiple times in downtown Charleston. It’s on King Street, almost to Broad. It has an iconic staircase that is hard to miss, but most people have not climbed it to see what’s at the top.

Laura Mina, Acquisitions Librarian, says, “I can’t tell you how many people walk up the stairs and say, you know this is the first time I’ve ever come in here and I’ve always been wondering what is here and what’s behind these doors.”

What’s behind those doors is history. The Charleston Library Society started in 1748, and it’s the second oldest circulating library in the country. Below the rows and rows of books, vaults containing more than 200,000 thousand pieces of local and national history.

Mina says, “Objects of history that are really great beginning places for studying Charleston history.”
Letters, maps, photographs, sketches, all which were driving forces in where Charleston is today.
Mina says, “Some of this is available online, but a lot of it you have to see first hand.”

Touching some of the same documents held by our country’s founding fathers.

Mina says, “We have the origins of the United States Navy, written by Alexander Hamilton along with his doodles in our vault. This is very deep and often unseen history.”

To get the word out about everything the Library Society has to offer, they are putting together a book of their “Favorite Fifty” items in the collection. It should be available by the end of the year. Anyone can go into the Library Society and spend time in their main reading room, but to go through some of the archives and check out materials, you need a membership. Starting Tuesday, News 2 will dive deeper into those vaults and uncover some of the unknown history of Charleston that is right under your feet.

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