With the city in ruins and the freed slaves facing poverty and discrimination, Charleston’s prosperity was at an end. But, the city would rebuild once again and as industries were revived, many of its citizens returned. As the city’s economy improved, it worked to restore and rebuild a number of organizations. In 1865 the Avery Normal Institute was established as a free private school for Charleston’s African American population. Today, the building still stands as part of the College of Charleston and operates as the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
General William T. Sherman lent his support to the conversion of the United States Arsenal into the Porter Military Academy, an educational facility for former soldiers and boys left orphaned or destitute by the war. The academy later joined with Gaud School and continues to operate as a prep school called the Porter-Gaud School.
The elaborate Renaissance Revival style United States Post Office and Courthouse was completed in 1886 and signaled renewed life in the heart of the city. Today, it still functions as it did originally, used as the downtown branch of the post office and federal district court.
The very same year that the courthouse building was completed, Charleston suffered another tragedy when it was nearly destroyed by an earthquake on August 31, 1886. Measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale it was the most damaging earthquake to hit the Southeastern United States. Felt as far away as Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans, it damaged 2,000 buildings in Charleston and caused $6 million worth of damage. Again Charleston rebuilt.
Charleston’s economy declined after the Civil War but would grow slowly but steadily in the 20th Century. Always maintaining a large military presence that supported the local economy, this was boosted by the building of a naval shipyard in WWI and with the many industries established during WWII.
Like other cities across the United States, it went through its own Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s, one of the last major events of which was the Hospital Strike of 1969. After 12 employees were fired by Medical College Hospital for trying to organize a union in the hospital, over 60 other employees walked out and began a strike that lasted through the summer and brought major Civil Rights leaders to the city.
It was not until the election of Joseph P. Riley, Jr. as mayor in 1975, that the city experienced a modern-day renaissance. Riley, amazingly still serves as mayor as of this writing.
Under his leadership, Charleston has increased its commitment to racial harmony and progress, achieved a substantial decrease in crime, and experienced remarkable revitalization of its historic downtown business district. He has also been the major proponent of reviving Charleston’s economic and cultural heritage.
Though the city has experienced war, fires, and hurricanes throughout the years, an extraordinary number of Charleston’s historic buildings remain. The city’s historic district looks much as it has throughout the centuries, boasting 73 pre-Revolutionary buildings, 136 late 18th century structures and over 600 others built in the 1840s, making it one of most complete historic districts in the country. In total, the city sports more than 1,400 historically significant buildings.
Today, Charleston manufactures many products including paper and cigars and its port is one of the leading sources of revenue, but the city thrives primarily on tourism. The County Seat of Charleston County, it is called home to about 115,000 people today.
Numerous tours, museums, two forts, galleries, theaters, and musical venues are available for entertainment. The downtown Charleston Historic District is best experienced on foot to see the many buildings and historic sites such as the Market Hall and Sheds, the U.S. Customs House, the Old Jail, Marine Hospital, Dock Street Theatre, and more. Charleston’s nickname, “the Holy City,”‘ speaks to the many religious sites that serve its neighborhoods, some of which are more than 250 years old.
Primary Source and More Information:
Charleston Area Convention and Visitor Bureau
423 King Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29403
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, December 2019.