Charleston, South Carolina, is a city that markets itself as a center of heritage tourism. With millions of tourists visiting each year to see its historic architecture and landscaped gardens, how can public historians and public history professionals in Charleston and the Lowcountry accurately share the stories of workers, both enslaved and free, who built and fundamentally shaped the regional cultural landscape? The authors of this collaborative essay explore different avenues for ensuring that labor history and heritage—past and present—becomes integrated in the public history of the city and region. Through her work in historical interpretation at the McLeod Plantation Historic Site and the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, Leah Worthington explores ways of publicly interpreting how enslaved people shaped the natural and structural landscapes of the Lowcountry—landscapes that are at the heart of the historical tourism industry. Rachel Donaldson examines the significance of the places of labor history and the importance of recognizing and preserving these sites as integral features of the region’s built environment. With the assistance of oral histories conducted with Leonard Riley Jr., a longshoreman and member of the International Longshoremen’s Association, her focus on the historical and contemporary significance of International Longshoremen’s halls in downtown Charleston sheds light on how sites like these have facilitated, and can continue to facilitate, labor and social activism. As Kieran Taylor argues, Charleston has a rich history of protest that fuses traditional labor demands for better wages and working conditions with demands for racial equality and black power. His project examines the efforts of African American workers in recent years to harness those traditions to build worker power at fast food restaurants, in hospitals, and in public services throughout the region.
Making Labor Visible in Historic Charleston
LEAH WORTHINGTON is the codirector of the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative and the Project Coordinator for the Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston Libraries in Charleston, South Carolina. Previously, she worked as the lead interpreter at McLeod Plantation Historic Site.
RACHEL DONALDSON is a historian and historic preservationist. She is currently an assistant professor of public history at the College of Charleston. In addition to two monographs, “I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity and Roots of the Revival: American and British Folk Music in the 1950s, coauthored with Ronald D. Cohen, she has published articles in Journal of Popular Culture, History of Education Quarterly, Left History, and Public Historian. Her work uses a place-based historical lens to understand the history of the labor movement in the United States, and she is currently cowriting a National Historic Landmark nomination for the Jefferson County Courthouse, the site of the West Virginia “Treason Trials” of UMWA leaders and other coal miners in 1922.
KIERAN TAYLOR teaches twentieth-century US history at The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina. He directs the Citadel Oral History Program and serves as Tri-Chair of the South Carolina Poor People’s Campaign. He is author of Charleston and the Great Depression: A Documentary History (2018) and coeditor of volumes 4 and 5 of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (2000, 2005) and American Labor and the Cold War (2004).
Leah Worthington, Rachel Donaldson, Kieran Taylor; Making Labor Visible in Historic Charleston. Labor 1 March 2020; 17 (1): 45–73. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-7962792
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