Race, Place, and the Legacy of the Past in Charleston by Flora Ward

On a recent visit to Charleston, SC nearly one year after the Mother Emanuel Massacre, Flora asks how art can engage with the painful legacy of violence and racism in the city. – Artblog editor

How can art engage with the legacy of the past, still so alive in a historic city like Charleston, SC? Founded in 1670, Charleston is best known as the birthplace of the Civil War, which began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter. Nowadays, Charleston is a popular tourist destination, named in 2015 by Condé Nast as the number one American small city to visit for the fifth year in a row. Tourists come to see the city’s historic architecture and experience its famous Southern charm–and eat its delicious cuisine.

But behind this romantic vision of Charleston is the painful history of slavery, as well as ongoing racism and inequality. The city found itself at the center of national debates about racism, gun violence, and the legacy of the past following last year’s massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Church, known as Mother Emanuel. Nearly one year ago, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into an evening prayer meeting and opened fire, killing nine people. Mother Emanuel is one of the most historic black congregations in the city, and it has repeatedly been the target of racial violence in the past. Tensions were already high in the city before the awful events of June 17, following the fatal shooting in April of Walter Scott by a police officer in North Charleston. These horrific events prompted a range of responses both locally and nationally. During a recent visit to my hometown of Charleston, I spoke with two local artists who have engaged with issues of race, place, and the past in different ways–Jonathan Green and Fletcher Williams III.

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