June 2017 Programs

If you missed last year’s exciting program about the invasion of French and Spanish forces into the Lowcountry in the autumn of 1706, then I hope you’ll join me for an encore performance of that lecture on Saturday, June 3rd at 11 a.m. at the Mt. Pleasant Regional Library.  Most of the action during that week-long struggle nearly 311 years ago took place east of the Cooper River, so I look forward to sharing this interesting story with the current residents of that long-forgotten battleground.

Mt. Pleasant is just one part of the larger Lowcountry that is gaining new residents at a rapid pace.  As we head toward the annual celebration of Carolina Day (June 28th) in the Charleston area, I am increasingly conscious of the fact that a large part of our population has never heard of Carolina Day, and has no idea was event it commemorates.   With that fact in mind I’m presenting a new program later this month titled “Carolina Day: A Primer for Charleston Newcomers.” There’s something for everyone in this program, whether you’ve just moved to the area “from off” or whether you’ve lived in the Lowcountry your entire life.  We’ll begin with the dramatic events of the 28th of June 1776, in which a small American force within an unfinished palmetto log fort defeated a well-armed squadron of the British Navy, and we’ll trace the highlights of the history of the annual commemorations of this battle from June of 1777 to the present. All of this will take place at the Main Library’s auditorium on Monday, June 19th at 6 p.m., which leaves you plenty of time to plan your patriotic festivities on the 28th of June.

As always, these events are free and open to the public, so bring a friend and come to the library!


A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 1

Today we’re going to explore the history of a specific piece of property in urban Charleston called Marion Square. I’m sure most of you know the piece of land I’m talking about, but in case you’re new to the Lowcountry, we’ll begin with the basics.

A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 1

Marion Square is a public green space in urban Charleston. It occupies more than six acres of land bounded to the south by Calhoun Street, to the west by King Street, and to the east by Meeting Street. The northern boundary of the square is the old Citadel building, formerly the home of the South Carolina Military Academy, but now a fancy hotel. Like all good public green spaces, or commons, Marion Square is a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike. Today you’ll find a weekly farmers’ market thronged with customers, sunbathers from the College of Charleston, locals and tourists enjoying the views and the shade, and also a fair share of our local inveterate inebriates looking for a handout. During the course of the year the park hosts a number of seasonal events such as the Spoleto Festival, Fashion Week, Food and Wine Week, and the like, each of which requires the erection of a number of temporary tents. Despite all this activity, the City of Charleston’s Parks Department does a fine job of keeping the grass, trees, and shrubbery looking its best, and Marion Square is really a public amenity that the city and the community can be proud of, and it really is a “people’s park.” But this hasn’t always been the case.

The urban success story that is Marion Square today is the result of many generations of work. Over the past 260 years the site has been used for a variety of purposes—military, political, and recreational—and it has endured periods of neglect and abuse. There is also a curious vestige of the past hanging over the very existence, the concept of Marion Square: it’s a wonderful city park that the city of Charleston does not own. That’s right—Marion Square is, technically speaking, not city property, and hasn’t been since our City Council sold the property in 1833. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s set our time machine back three hundred years and start from the beginning of this colorful story.

Continue reading

The Life and Times of Thomas Grimball (1744–1783)

Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry history to explore the life story of a man who lived in the Charleston area in the eighteenth century and today is remembered by very few people. I’m talking about a man named Thomas Grimball, who was born in rural South Carolina in 1744 and died in Charleston in 1783. Never heard of him? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Actually, I’d be more surprised if you had heard of him. Thomas Grimball was not a major figure in the history of South Carolina. He was not what we might call an ordinary man, but neither was he a remarkable figure. His life story is one of many untold, interesting biographies in the long history of our state, but it’s one that piqued my interested. As part of a larger book project that I’m working on, I’ve spent a good bit of time over the past decade or so collecting details about the life of this Thomas Grimball from historic documents in archives here in Charleston and at the state archive in Columbia. This isn’t the forum for trying to tell you the whole story of the book project—we’d need a few weeks for that narrative. Rather, today I’d like to simply tell Tom’s story (and I did find documentation that at least one person called him “Tom” during the American Revolution). So sit back and set your time machine for the early days of South Carolina, as we trace the brief but dramatic life story of Major Thomas Grimball of Charleston.

The Life and Times of Thomas Grimball (1744-1783)

We can trace the roots of the Grimball family in South Carolina back to the year 1682, when an English merchant named Paul Grimball immigrated to the colony with his family. Paul Grimball was apparently a man of some means and connections, for in 1683 he was appointed to the important office of secretary of the Province of Carolina. In recognition of this status and the size of his household, which included several indentured servants, Paul Grimball received a land grant for nearly 1,600 acres on Edisto Island. There he built a large house, which unfortunately was burned and looted by Spanish invaders in the autumn of 1686. Despite this setback, the Grimball family prospered in Carolina and continued to acquire land in the area south of Charleston. Paul Grimball died in early 1696 leaving several children to continue the family into a new century.

Continue reading

148 Years of Bicycling In Charleston

May is National Bike month, so all across the United States bicycle advocates are staging events to raise awareness about topics like bike safety, bicycle rights and responsibilities, as well as promoting recreation on two wheels. In this era of high-stress traffic and congestion in the Lowcountry and elsewhere, bicycles are part of the larger conversation about pursuing sustainable, alternative forms of transportation that would help break the gridlock on our roads and help protect our fragile environment from damages caused by our long dependence on fossil fuels. But I’m not here to convince to you go out and ride a bicycle. I’m a historian, so my job is to share cool stories from the past that have some relevance in our present world. And it just so happens that the story of the bicycle in Charleston is not only fun and interesting, it also has a great deal of relevance to the transportation debates going on in our community. So strap on your helmet, kick up your kickstand, and let’s take a quick ride through 148 years of bicycling in the Charleston area.

Celebrating 148 Years of Bicycling in Charleston

I’ve been collecting information about the history of bicycles in our community for several years now, and almost all of the information I’ve gathered comes from old Charleston newspapers. At first I wasn’t even looking for information about this topic. I was actually browsing through some post-Civil-War newspapers a few years back, looking for facts to use in a program about Civil Rights history, when I happened to stumble into a very brief description of the first bicycle in the Lowcountry, which appeared on streets of downtown Charleston on the 14th of February 1869. At first I didn’t think much of it because the bicycle is such a mundane part of modern life. But the more I read, the more interested I became in this story, and so I kept on plowing through the newspapers.

Over the past few years I’ve done a series of programs on local bicycle history, and a few people have suggested that I should turn my research into a little book. I think that’s a cool idea, especially since we’re closing in on a milestone. 2019 will be the 150th anniversary of bicycling in the Charleston area, so maybe by then I’ll have a book ready to help us commemorate that event. Based on what I know now, I might organize the book in seven chapters, and I’ll take this opportunity to give you a brief description of each one.

Continue reading

German Palatines in Colonial Charleston

This week we’re travel back in Lowcountry history to explore the topic of Germans immigrants in the early days of our community.

German Palatines in Colonial Charleston

Now hold on a minute—I know there are some listeners out there saying “well, I’m not really interested in German history,” but I promise you this topic is more interesting than you might think. To be honest, German history is not high on my list of personal interests, but I’ve recently spent some time researching this topic and it’s growing on me. Why? Because it’s a great story that helps us understand our community, and that’s what history’s all about. I’m not an expert on German history or German genealogy, but I know a good story when I see one. If you want to understand the expansion of South Carolina in the first half of the eighteenth century, or if you simply want to learn about the roots of our state’s German population, you need to hear this story, so stick around.

A ca. 1800 painting of the first St. John's Church, Charleston

A ca. 1800 painting of the first St. John’s Church, Charleston

I started down this path recently because some friends invited me to participate in a lecture series at St. John’s Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston. This year St. John’s is celebrating a number of anniversaries: 2017 marks the 275th anniversary of the first Lutheran services in the city of Charleston, and it’s also the 200th anniversary of the opening of their present church building at the corner of Archdale and Clifford Streets. And don’t forget, 2017 is also the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic dispute with the Catholic Church, which lit the fuse for the epoch-changing movement we call the Protestant Reformation. Those all sound like good reasons to have a lecture series, so I agreed to participate. When I asked the kind folks at St. John’s what sort of topic they’d like me to bring, they said “can you tell us about the origins of the German community that formed the congregation of St. John’s Church.”

From the beginning, I knew that I wasn’t going to have time to delve into the genealogy of specific individuals, or to comb through historic documents looking for details about the actual founding of the church. Rather, I set a different challenge for myself. I re-framed the question and reduced it to a more basic level. And here’s my premise for the rest of this program: If Carolina began as a staunchly English colony, how in the world did we end up with German immigrants here in the first place? Well, it’s a long, complicated story of international politics, warfare, and the timeless human pursuit of peace and prosperity. I’ll do my best to give you a brief but accurate summary of this multi-generation saga.

Continue reading

May 2017 Programs

My computer ate last week’s podcast (seriously), but time and technology march onward and I’ll post a new podcast in a few days.  In the meantime, here’s a preview of this month’s offerings at a library near you.  In May we’ll explore the stories of historic landscapes and battlefields, 148 years of two-wheeled transportation, and a bit of philosophising about the relevance of it all for the rising generations.  And I’ll sneak in a preview of June as well.

As the school year draws to an end, eighth-graders throughout the state are learning about “modern” South Carolina and reviewing more than three hundred years of history they’ve learned since August.  History can often seem dull in the classroom, so I’m offering a different take on the same topic. On Tuesday, May 9th, I’ll be at the John’s Island Regional Library with 8th graders posing the questions, “Is South Carolina History Relevant?”  Does studying our community’s shared history serve any real practical purpose?  Of course my answer is a resounding “YES,” but I’m not offering a simple flag-waving, uncritical, patriotic endorsement.  Rather, I’m proposing that a lot of South Carolina’s history is in fact dark, painful, and divisive.  Despite the sometimes ugly truths in our shared past, however, our community becomes stronger and more resilient when we learn the lessons of the past and face the future with a united front.

May is Bike Month across the nation, and during the second week of the month we’ll see a host of activities and events across the Lowcountry.  Once again I’m proud to be partnering with Charleston Moves, our local bicycle advocacy group, to offer another program focusing on the history of bikes and cycling in the Charleston area.  This year I’ll recap the highlights from previous programs, from the first appearance of the two-wheeled velocipede in Charleston to the early 1960s, and then continue the story from the advent of the fitness craze in the late 1960s to the Lowcountry Low Line in 2017.   Please join us at the Main library on Wednesday, May 10th at 6 p.m. for “Celebrating 148 Years of Bicycling in Charleston.

In a few days we’ll see a sea of white tents sprouting up on Charleston’s most popular green space, Marion Square.  From Piccolo Spoleto to farmer’s markets to fashion shows, Marion Square hosts a wide variety of events that draw tens of thousands of people every year.  But how many people know anything about the rich and varied history of the landscape on which they’re treading?  Almost no one remembers why this space on the colonial town’s northern edge was set aside for public use, and only a handful of people know that the city of Charleston doesn’t actually own Marion Square.  That’s right—the city’s most public space is not actually a public space at all.  It’s a complicated story that encompasses a long-forgotten colonial fear of French invasion, a major battle of the American Revolution, a short-lived theater, state-funded police intimidation, pioneering baseball, parading soldiers, and civil rights demonstrations.  For the full story in brief, please join me at the Main library on Thursday, May 25th at 6 p.m. for “A Brief History of Marion Square.”

In the fall of 2016 I presented a program marking the 310th anniversary of the invasion of South Carolina by a combined force of Spanish, French, and Native American warriors.  I turned that story into a podcast earlier this year and got a lot of very positive feedback from the public.  It’s a great adventure story that everyone in the Lowcountry needs to know, especially those folks living east of the Cooper River, where most of the action took place.  If you missed the previous presentations, you’ll be pleased to know that I’m going to reprise that program on Saturday, June 3rd at 11 a.m., at the Mt. Pleasant Regional Library.  Come out and join us as we celebrate “Invasion 1706: France and Spain vs. South Carolina.”

As always, these programs are free and open to the public!


A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 3

In the past two episodes we’ve focused on the “normal” legal parameters that shaped the lives of women in early South Carolina, but the legal rights and “disabilities” of  enslaved women, free women of color, and Native American women in early South Carolina were not quite the same as those of their free white counterparts.  The legal framework of slavery created an “abnormal” legal existence of these non-white women, so today we’ll examine their difficult predicament and hear some interesting stories of those “other” women.

A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 3

Let’s start by looking at the legal status of enslaved women of African descent. Did the laws of early South Carolina recognize their progress through infancy, marriage, and spinsterhood? Unfortunately, the answer is no. In the eyes of our early laws, enslaved women had no rights. They were not citizens, and they were barely considered to be human beings. From a legal perspective, they were merely property. Some enslaved girls were taught skills such as cooking and sewing in order to prepare them for a life of working in the house of a white family, but the majority of enslaved people lived on rural plantations, where they faced a life of hard labor. In other words, childhood education for enslaved girls was practically non-existent. Teaching slaves to read and write was not illegal for most of our early history, but it was a luxury available only to a small minority.

Continue reading

A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 2

In our last episode, we began to survey the rights and “disabilities” (to use an old legal term) that framed the lives of women in the first century of South Carolina.  In this episode we consider the antiquated options for marriage dissolution and explore the precarious legal existence of widows, with examples from the lives of real women to illustrate our points.

A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 2

In the early days of South Carolina, the laws of this province recognized four stages in a woman’s progress through life: Infancy, Spinsterhood, Marriage, and Widowhood. Last week I left you with a description of the career of Mary Stevens, the wife of a musician in Charleston who enjoyed a brief career as a “feme sole” or “sole trader” before the American Revolution. Mary was the proprietor of a boarding house and coffee house on East Bay Street, a business she ran independently from her husband. She was able to enjoy this unusual degree of freedom because her husband had signed a legal document pledging to stay out of Mary’s business affairs. In the eyes of the law, John Stevens was giving up some of his traditional rights over his wife’s money and property in order to empower Mary to earn her own money. As I mentioned last time, there were hundreds of femes sole or women traders throughout the colonies of early America, and they were usually found among the working class of folk—people who might gladly forfeit some traditional paternalistic rights in exchange for a larger household income. We might imagine that some husbands allowed their wives to act as sole traders because their families were in need of the extra income. Allowing these colonial women to work outside the home, after all, meant that traditional duties such as childcare and domestic chores had to suffer a bit. On the other hand, we can also imagine that some husbands might have been happy to give their wives a bit of non-traditional freedom to work and earn independently. We’ll never know the details of the relationship between John and Mary Stevens, for example, but it’s certainly possible that they had a good marriage, and that John was happy to take advantage of this legal loophole that allowed Mary to act with more independence than most married women.

Continue reading

Charleston Slavery to African Freedom: Two Amazing True Stories

Boston King and John Kizell may not be familiar names in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, but these two men lived heroic lives that deserve to be remembered.  Both King and Kizell escaped slavery in the Charleston area during the American Revolution and, through a dramatic series of twists and turns, managed to blaze a trail back to a life in their ancestral homes on the west coast of Africa.

Thousands of other enslaved African-Americans and their descendants followed a similar path, but very few of these people wrote down the story of their journeys.  Boston King and John Kizell both left behind a paper trail, however, and from their life stories we can re-imagine the symphony of stories of those people who made the transatlantic crossing back to Africa.

If you missed my recent presentation on this topic, here’s a link to a video of me speaking to an audience at the John’s Island Regional Library on 11 April 2017:

And if you’d like to learn more about this fascinating topic, click this link for a list of suggestions for further reading: King_&_Kizell_bibliography


A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 1

This week we’re traveling back in Lowcountry history to talk about women. Every March we celebrate women’s history month, and in the past I’ve presented some programs on various aspects of this topic around the community. Rather than profiling the lives of famous South Carolina women, or talking about famous events in local women’s history, I’ve taken a different tack and tried to focus on the bigger picture, and to include the voices of obscure women. Whether she was rich, poor, enslaved, or free; whether she was of African, European, or Native American descent, the lives of ALL women in early South Carolina were bounded and constrained by a set of laws created by white men, based on ancient laws brought over from England at the founding of the Carolina colony. In order to gain a better understanding of how women lived, say in the first century of South Carolina, we need to understand how the law influenced their passage from the cradle to the grave.

A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 1

It’s a big, complicated topic, and I’ve been struggling to find a good title for this work. My first title was simply, “Women’s Rights in Early South Carolina,” but in reality it’s more like “The Lack of Women’s Right’s in Early South Carolina.” A more precise title might be “An Examination of the Legal Boundaries of a Woman’s life in Colonial South Carolina,” but that’s just too wordy. So how about this, simply: “A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina.” By progress, I don’t mean the accumulation of rights and liberties, as in the women’s progressive movement in the early twentieth century. Rather, I’m talking about a woman’s progression through the stages of life. Not the biological stages of life, but the legally recognized stages of a woman’s existence, from infancy to widowhood.

Continue reading