The Charleston Museum is set to unveil a new exhibit that extends their permanent exhibit beyond 1865 with “A Storm Beyond Control: Freed Slaves and Political Mobilization in Reconstruction South Carolina.” That’s right, up till now, for one reason or another, the museum ended its history of the state with the end of the Civil War. That means that the history of African Americans in South Carolina only encompassed the institution of slavery.
That powerful narrative went largely unchallenged here until the late 20th century, but since then the racial and cultural myths at its core have aged poorly, causing decades of controversy and indigestion for numerous local institutions. Which raises the question: Did From Slaves to Sharecroppers represent another evolutionary step away from the aristocratic party line? Museum Assistant Director Carl Borick doesn’t think so, contending the organization made a break from the past when it updated its mission in the 1980s. “Since 1983, we’ve been pretty up-front about our history,” Borick says. “The museum has been very open to admitting the good and the bad. Slavery was what it was. We show that in our permanent exhibit.”
But good history also teaches us a healthy respect for irony, and no matter the efforts of its current employees, memory at the Charleston Museum remains highly selective. Glorious victory at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776 gets a special display case. Humiliating defeat on the peninsula in 1780 — the largest surrender of patriot troops in the Revolutionary War — essentially goes unmentioned. Captured German and Japanese weapons from World War II? They’re on display. But the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969? Nada.