Charleston is often cited as the most beautiful city in the United States. With its remarkably well-restored historic downtown, fabulous pastel-colored mansions and excellent restaurants, it is indeed an exceptional place. However, it would be a mistake to content yourself with blissfully admiring the landscape, because the discovery of Charleston also involves exploring its heavy slavery past.

Charleston is as if Jacques Cartier had sailed for summer, to paraphrase the great Robert Charlebois. Walking the narrow streets covered in cobblestones, one could imagine a moment in Old Quebec, but with palm trees and Spanish moss clinging to the branches of holm oaks. But come to think of it, it feels much closer to the Caribbean than to Cap Diamant!

Charleston has been under strict conservation rules for almost 100 years that prevent any form of uncontrolled development. Moreover, no construction can exceed in height the top of the highest church tower. The result is a city on a human scale that can be explored on foot, from the luxurious mansions of the South of Broad sector to the hotels of Radcliffeborough and the must-see French Quarter.

Because yes, there is indeed a French quarter in Charleston, a distant echo of the contribution of the Huguenots, these French people of Protestant religion who took refuge in the United States at the end of the 17th century. A hundred years later, Catholics were also welcome, so we saw Pierre Fayolles founding the French Society with the subjects of Napoleon I who had fled Saint-Domingue after the Haitian revolution. You can find a plaque indicating the location of the French Society on King Street, but the original building was actually a little further south…

That’s why it’s called the “Holy City”.

What one notices while walking through the pretty streets of the city is the very particular orientation of the houses, whose facade and sumptuous balconies overlook the side courtyard. Urban legends claim that this saved homeowners taxes by reducing the square footage of their home’s frontage, but it’s all about taking advantage of the cooling sea breeze, an essential feature during the very hot months of July and august.

Some of these residences can also be visited by the public. This is the case of the Nathaniel-Russell, Aiken-Rhett or Edmondston-Alston houses, which all testify to the not so distant past of the owners of rice and cotton plantations in South Carolina (to read in the next tab) .

All of these homes have stood the test of time despite the terrible earthquake of 1886, which destroyed more than 100 buildings, and despite the violent passage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which only significantly damaged a handful of historic residences. Nevertheless, federal funds earmarked for reconstruction helped restore the city to its former glory. It has also led to the accelerated gentrification of much of the Charleston Peninsula. “Anything south of Broad Street sells for millions of dollars these days,” Kourtney Jones, Explore Charleston’s director of media relations, tells us. Some places I dared not go when I was in college are now perfectly safe. »

In short, to date, Charleston is home to no less than 3,500 historic buildings protected and restored under heritage laws, making the city the best-preserved urban architectural treasure in the United States. We talk about it as a living museum, and it is indeed the case.

Like the fingers of slaves whose footprints have forever marked the bricks of the sumptuous residences of Charleston, the history of South Carolina will always be tainted by its terrible slavery past. Recent initiatives ensure that the memory does not fade from memories.

We had the chance to visit the International African American Museum before its official opening on June 27th. You come out of it upset, but the feeling is increased tenfold when you add to your stay the visit of some plantations where slaves used to work.

You feel caught up in history even before entering the museum, located in a residential area a little north of the city center. It was precisely here, at Gadsden Quay, that ships filled with men, women and children docked. From 1710 to 1808, nearly 152,000 sequestered Africans were landed in Charleston, in addition to 17,000 repatriated slaves from the Caribbean—thousands more were smuggled in until 1866 despite the transatlantic ban on the slave trade. slaves.

Beneath the concrete pilings of shells in the 1300m⁠2 museum, the ground where the limit of the Gadsden wharf was at the time was marked, with right next to it the life-size reproduction of the Brookes diagram, a graphic representation of the how slaves were crammed into the holds of ships. Subject to the movement of the tides, the striking work is sometimes in the open air, sometimes under a thin layer of sea water. “The Brookes diagram is the most iconic image of how Africans were brought to America , chained to each other, says the museum’s assistant curator, Matthew Stevenson. It is very poignant to see this. »

The interior of the museum is no less disturbing; the main exhibition is laid out like a timeline, from the arrival of the first slaves on American soil, at the turn of the 16th century, to the present day. What we learn is disturbing, especially the section where we see on one side the names of the people sequestered in Africa and on the other, the nicknames that their owners gave them when they arrived in America. With, in between, the description of the horrors of the crossing – it is estimated that 1.8 million Africans perished in the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

An entire room is also dedicated to the genealogy of African Americans in South Carolina, including the family of former US First Lady Michelle Obama. “The year 1870 represents a wall behind which we lose track of our ancestors, because that’s when they ceased to be listed as merchandise,” Matthew Stevenson tells us, referring to the end of the slavery in the United States. But we got our hands on files that date back to the civil war and that should help us break down that barrier. We also hope that people will come here to do their research. »

Visiting the plantations imagining the conditions of slaves is another harrowing experience. On the one hand, it is impossible to be insensitive to the beauty of the place, especially when strolling through the gardens of Middleton Place created in 1786 by André Michaux, botanist to King Louis XVI of France. The south wing of the domain is also superbly preserved – built in 1755, it is the oldest building that still remains to this day in the domain which in 1860 was spread over more than 26 km⁠2. Inside, the collections on display are sublime: silverware, draperies, works of art, clothing, furniture, almost 95% of what you see is original, everything was salvaged from the descendants of Henry Middleton. “Most of the items are from family members, some were on site, some were on other plantations, some were kept elsewhere,” says guide John Neil. We found a way to bring it all together in the museum. »

Slaves whose large families lived crammed into small two-room cubbyholes like the house inhabited until 1986 by Eliza Leach. This is where Beyond the Fields begins, one of the guided tours offered to the public, which focuses on the estate’s African-American heritage.

Located a few miles from Middleton Place, McLeod Plantation is another place absolutely worth visiting. More modest, the former cotton plantation also houses the slave houses which were inhabited until 1990. You read that right: the last descendants of slaves lived here, in small houses without electricity or running water, until ‘on the death of the last of the McLeods, William E., at age 104. After the Civil War, freed slaves were offered land belonging to their former masters, but often could not afford to pay for tools and equipment, among other things. Some therefore become indebted to their former owners and choose to pay their dues by directly providing their labor, a form of debt bondage inherited by the children of freed slaves. It is therefore with amazement that we learn that John Gathers, descendant of the slaves Hanna and Gable Gathers, was still paying $25 a month in 1990 to stay in the same house as his ancestors…

366: This is the number of years that the legal and illegal slave trade between Africa and America lasted, from 1501 to 1866.

36,000: This is the number of documented voyages undertaken as part of the slave trade.

12.5 million: This is the estimated number of Africans who were forced onto slave ships.

Charleston boasts one of the finest dining scenes in the United States. Still loyal to local Lowcountry dishes like shrimp

Located in East Central, Lewis Barbecue is one of the most popular barbecue joints around, along with neighbors Rodney Scott’s BBQ and Home Team BBQ. Tender briskets, juicy ribs or pulled pork, everything is cooked in a style reminiscent of owner John Lewis’ native Texas, but with the influence of his adopted country, characterized by its sauce just enough vinegar with a hint of mustard. . Don’t worry, the queue moves quickly, and you can wait while sipping a local beer — most of Charleston’s many microbreweries are also established in the area. The roof terrace at Revelry Brewing is particularly inviting, and it’s less than 300m from Lewis Barbecue.

Casual Crabing With Tia was named one of Airbnb’s coolest things to do, and for good reason. First, Tia Clark is incredibly friendly, and the experience she offers is unique. Blue crab can be fished at the end of the wharf in the Ashley River with a retractable basket, a net, or simply with a wire that has bait attached to it. This last technique is more difficult, but much more satisfying, as we can attest. We can keep our catch if it’s possible for us to cook it, otherwise we can take it to the Charleston Crab House, where we can have it cooked. Couldn’t get any fresher!

Established in 1804, the Charleston Public Market is one of the oldest in the United States. Its stalls span more than 400 m, between East Bay and Meeting streets. Taking advantage of an investment of 5.5 million in 2011, the market has been completely revamped. In particular, the Great Hall was built, an indoor and air-conditioned section that houses some permanent businesses, including the Historic Charleston Foundation, which offers a variety of local products as well as a selection of books retracing the history of the city.