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Charleston SEO Agency

If you are a business owner, there’s probably a good chance that you have asked yourself this question before. It’s a question that many entrepreneurs ask, and for good reason.

According to a recent study, the first five organic search results on Google account for about 67% of all website clicks. With more than 2.3 trillion Google searches in 2019 alone, it has become clear that if customers can’t find your website online, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to grow your business.

The good news is, with a trustworthy SEO company in Charleston on your side and an effective SEO campaign,your website can show up on the first page of a Google search. The bad news is, many “SEO agencies” offering such services provide clients with outdated, a la carte options at ridiculous prices – and good luck getting them on the phone if you have a question that needs to answering.

Unlike some of our competitors, mediocre customer service and ineffective digital marketing strategiesaren’t in our digital DNA.

Our innovative, all-inclusive SEO services work together to form a digital marketing machine, unlike anything on the market. We call it Local Magic?.

What local SEO services in Charleston can you expect? Keep reading to find out.

Comprehensive Link Building

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Most veteran SEO professionals agree that one of the most important signals that Google uses to rank websites is backlinks. Backlinking is essentially a link that is created when one website links to another. According to recent statistics, 91% of webpages that don’t get organic traffic are because they don’t have any backlinks. Mr. Marketing solves this problem for you through comprehensive backlinking techniques, which adds authority to your website over time so that Google recognizes your website as trustworthy in your industry.

Online Review Management

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Positive online reviews can be incredibly beneficial for your business. 93% of online shoppers say that online reviews play a part in their purchasing decisions. The problem is, many business owners don’t have the time to request online reviews from happy clients, manage those reviews, or display them on their company’s website.

That’s where Mr. Marketing’s Review Manager comes in. Review Manager is the world’s first comprehensive reputation management system, allowing you to get more from your reviews. With Review Manager, you have the ability to request reviews via SMS and Email, track pending review requests, and even publish your most favorable reviews right to your website, with a few taps on your phone.

Website Optimization

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As local SEO consultants in Charleston, we see a lot of good-looking websites. While a website might be attractive on the surface, it needs to be optimized on the backend for it to have a better chance of showing up in a Google search. Our team of skilled web developers will optimize your website both on the surface and “under the hood”, so that your business gets noticed by customers who are already looking for the products or services you sell.

Website Hosting & Updates

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Most veteran SEO professionals agree that one of the most important signals that Google uses to rank websites is backlinks. Backlinking is essentially a link that is created when one website links to another. According to recent statistics, 91% of webpages that don’t get organic traffic are because they don’t have any backlinks. Mr. Marketing solves this problem for you through comprehensive backlinking techniques, which adds authority to your website over time so that Google recognizes your website as trustworthy in your industry.

Google Ads Management

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Here’s a fact you might not know – Google controls more about 71% of the search engine market. If you want customers to find your business online, you need to show up in Google searches. As part of a comprehensive digital marketing strategy in Charleston available from Mr. Marketing, Google Ads can be an excellent wayfor new clients to discover your business both on mobile devices and on desktops. Much like online reviews, however, managing a Google Ads campaign can be burdensome and time consuming for busy entrepreneurs. Our team will work closely with you to figure out the best ways to use Google Ads to your businesses’ advantage so that you can focus on day-to-day tasks while we grow your presence online.

Does Your Local SEO Company in Isle of Palms Care?

Most veteran SEO professionals agree that one of the most important signals that Google uses to rank websites is backlinks. Backlinking is essentially a link that is created when one website links to another. According to recent statistics, 91% of webpages that don’t get organic traffic are because they don’t have any backlinks. Mr. Marketing solves this problem for you through comprehensive backlinking techniques, which adds authority to your website over time so that Google recognizes your website as trustworthy in your industry.

When We Say All-Inclusive, We Mean It

Believe it or not, you get even more customized SEO services in Charleston than those we listed above. While you may certainly pick and choose which digital marketing services work best for your unique situation, with our Local Magic package, you also gain access to:

  • Conversion Optimization
  • Programmatic Ad Management
  • Advertising Landing Page Development
  • Google My Business Management

So, what’s the next step? We encourage you to reach out to our office or fill out the submission form on our website to get started. Once we understand your goals and business needs, we’ll get to work right away, forming a custom marketing strategy for you. Before you know it, your phone will begin ringing, your reviews will start to pour in, your online connections will grow, and your website traffic will explode with interested clients looking to buy your products or services.

Latest News

36 Hours in Charleston, S.C.

Walking in Charleston is one of life’s great pleasures, like an oyster roast or England in bloom. The Preservation Society of Charleston’s annual fall Tour of Homes and the Historic Charleston Foundation’s spring Festival of Houses and Gardens grant entree to private drawing rooms and pruned azalea bushes. But you can just wander around the southern tip of the peninsula on your own to see the densely packed, incredibly well-preserved showcase of American history and ...

Walking in Charleston is one of life’s great pleasures, like an oyster roast or England in bloom. The Preservation Society of Charleston’s annual fall Tour of Homes and the Historic Charleston Foundation’s spring Festival of Houses and Gardens grant entree to private drawing rooms and pruned azalea bushes. But you can just wander around the southern tip of the peninsula on your own to see the densely packed, incredibly well-preserved showcase of American history and architecture: Federal, Greek Revival, rowhouses, 18th-century wrought-iron boot scrapers on the sidewalk and second-story porches (piazzas, in common parlance) on many a wooden “single house.” Some street names, such as Longitude Lane, Savage Street and South Battery, read like Gothic poetry, while others will teach the local tongue. Legare Street is pronounced “La Gree,” Hasell is “Hazel.” Get a map and get lost on purpose.

In a city hugged by rivers, there are surprisingly few places to raise a glass by the water. Order an Aperol spritzer at the Rooftop bar at the Vendue hotel: $9, views of the harbor and the church spires that pock the skyline included. A mix of newlyweds, girlfriends in colorful blouses and office mates out for after-work stress relievers crowds the open-air space to drink in the unobstructed sky and its riot of color as the sun goes down.

The restaurant explosion in Charleston has repurposed defunct buildings, revived ill-used corners and seduced a number of entrepreneurs “from off.” Across the street from the Harris Teeter supermarket on East Bay, for instance, Jesse Sandole — whose family opened the Nantucket fish market in 1978 — has made a success with the whitewashed brick 167 Raw. Specials are scrawled on a mirror backed by glossy white tile, otherwise decorated with framed field guides to fish. Young friends gather on high bar stools to share tart ceviche with warm tortilla chips ($14) or have a bountiful lobster roll (about $27) all to themselves.

Ethylene oxide linked to several cancers

News South Carolina has been awarded a grant to test air in the North Charleston area for a pollutant that’s known to cause cancer. Ethylene oxide may be coming from the Lanxess chemical plant, or another source. State Circuit Judge Roger Young issued an order on Monday saying Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-run utility, still has a right to sell electricity to Century’s Mount Holly plant. Young also ruled an agreement between Goose Creek and Century was illegal because it gav...

News

South Carolina has been awarded a grant to test air in the North Charleston area for a pollutant that’s known to cause cancer. Ethylene oxide may be coming from the Lanxess chemical plant, or another source.

State Circuit Judge Roger Young issued an order on Monday saying Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-run utility, still has a right to sell electricity to Century’s Mount Holly plant. Young also ruled an agreement between Goose Creek and Century was illegal because it gave the aluminum company far too much power over the city government.

Raskin Around

The Post and Courier Food section is checking in weekly with four downtown Charleston restaurants coping with the coronavirus pandemic and recovering from restrictions designed to contain it.

A local’s guide to Charleston, S.C.

There’s more to Charleston than “Southern charm.” Living here requires a love for adventure and a willingness to have all the senses engaged. The cuisine, the architecture and the soothing sound of the ocean can make a resident feel truly alive. Explore the city on foot, taking in stories — old and new — along the way. The culture here is more than the shrimp and grits visitors often expect to see on their plates. Today’s Charleston holds reverence for music, theater, visual arts, literature and finding new w...

There’s more to Charleston than “Southern charm.” Living here requires a love for adventure and a willingness to have all the senses engaged. The cuisine, the architecture and the soothing sound of the ocean can make a resident feel truly alive.

Explore the city on foot, taking in stories — old and new — along the way. The culture here is more than the shrimp and grits visitors often expect to see on their plates. Today’s Charleston holds reverence for music, theater, visual arts, literature and finding new ways to relax one’s soul.

In Charleston, one cannot avoid history — both the triumph and tragedy. To visit the city is to appreciate the richness of many of the cultures that are now part of America. There’s something for every taste packed into the city’s few square miles.

The King Street “shopping district” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s true that shoppers can find better-known hits like Louis Vuitton and Club Monaco, but this district is always buzzing with local music, food, dancing and some of the best people-watching in town as well. Find this neighborhood.

For a quieter night, Ansonborough is the place to unwind. Nestled between the busier City Market and King Street, it’s perfect for enjoying a quiet nighttime stroll among stately homes, 250-year-old churches, parks and intimate restaurants. Find this neighborhood.

A favorite morning haunt for peninsula residents, local politicians, artists and everyone in between, this is where you can check out what really makes Charleston tick. At Saffron, visitors can start their day with a strong cup of coffee and a plate of Charleston avocado toast (featuring a fried egg and a slice of the best local tomatoes), or give in to a little indulgence with a housemade pastry.

BTW: While it’s a place to see and be seen around town, there’s no need to dress up. Saffron is a diner with a come-as-you-are attitude.

Saffron Restaurant & Bakery, 333 East Bay St. Charleston, S.C. 29401

Get your morning French cuisine fix and practice the language, if you desire. Owners Florence and Dominique Chantepie are known by locals and returning tourists for making customers feel at ease while serving up crepes and quiches. Smoothies, pastries and pre-made breakfast sandwiches are available for those on the go without skimping on authenticity.

BTW: “The Market” has everything needed to start the day. Think egg souffle made with garden vegetables and bacon, then wrapped in a warm crepe.

Cafe Framboise, 159 Market St. Charleston, S.C. 29401

For those in need of a sandwich on the go, Caviar & Bananas serves up gourmet sandwiches and prepared foods for every appetite. Most items are perfect for taking on a walk around the city. Try the chicken tenders (for the kids) or a more grown-up duck confit sandwich.

BTW: Hit the bakery counter on your way to the register. A butterscotch blondie is an essential treat.

This restaurant boasts charcuterie plates with carefully curated options that are often locally or regionally sourced, and delicious beer brewed on site. Entrees include pub-worthy items like cheeseburgers and roast chicken, but there are also plates for the adventurous eater, like “BBQ escargot” and grilled octopus.

BTW: There are two seating spots that can’t be beat: An outdoor space features a romantic atmosphere under string lights, and a seat at the bar inevitably leads to an education in mixology and international beers.

Set in a historical home on Charleston’s Society Street, Muse is anything but stodgy or stuffy. An eclectic crowd of locals and tourists pack the Italian restaurant and wine bar regularly for a bowl of tagliatelle bolognese or some crispy sea bass. The wine selection leans old world but features something for every taste.

BTW: For some of the most interesting conversations anywhere, sit at the bar.

Muse, 82 Society St. Charleston, S.C. 29401

A late-night drink at the Commodore is a step back into the Age of Funk. With black and white tile floors, green velvet bar stools and groovy red-toned lighting, the mood is always set for hitting the dance floor after indulging in one of the bar’s signature cocktails. Everyone rubs elbows together here in the name of good music and a good time.

BTW: Try to get there on a night when local band Lady & The Brass is headlining. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a musician get so into a set that he starts playing the trombone and the keyboards at the same time.

Even in one of the most touristy areas of Charleston, Cane’s vibe stays laid back and local. It’s a respite from the crowded nighttime scene around the Market, and while there’s a diverse offering of cocktails to suit the rum theme (including tasting flights), the menu also offers a variety of beers and Caribbean street food.

BTW: Spicy beef empanadas and banana bread pudding are the best way to end a night out.

Cane Rhum Bar, 251 East Bay St. Charleston, S.C. 29401

  1. Charleston can be so beautiful that it may seem as though it were created just for visitors. But please remember that people do live here, and not all the beautiful buildings are public; don’t peek into our windows!
  2. While we’re at it, please don’t get too swept up in ogling the city’s beauty while driving, either.
  3. Shrimp and grits are great, but the local cuisine offers so much more. Look for things like pimento cheese and pickled okra on menus.

The hidden path that officially begins in the churchyard of St. John’s Lutheran Church leads visitors through the graveyard of Charleston’s Unitarian Church to a quaint street on the other side. As they would in a mysterious and storied secret garden, smells of jasmine and Spanish moss drip from angel oak branches above. After passing by 200-year-old headstones, the path deposits visitors at the front of the church, where a marker acknowledges the indignities suffered by the enslaved workers who built the site in 1772.

BTW: Bring a small meal or snack with you and sit on one of the benches to eat, think and take it all in.

Saturday mornings should be reserved for the market at Marion Square. Find local produce, eclectic food vendors, milliners, artists, live music and everything in between — but only until noon! Many locals get their entire week’s produce here, and many of the handmade wares for sale make perfect gifts.

BTW: Some of the best tomatoes in the world come from Johns Island, S.C., and this is the place to find them and swoon over their salty perfection.

Charleston farmers market, 329 Meeting St. Charleston, S.C. 29403

The antique and design center provides booths to designers, artists and dealers while also offering a hefty array of its own home and lifestyle goods and services. You can find interesting items as antique poker sets and unique fabrics. The collective is located in the old Cigar Factory, which was once a production facility for the American Tobacco Company.

BTW: Ask to see the building’s plaque commemorating the spiritual “We Shall Overcome.” The song was popularized here during a factory strike in 1945.

Fritz Porter Design Collective, 701 East Bay St., Suite 106 Charleston, S.C. 29403

This independent bookstore is a cozy space featuring new and used titles. The displays highlight South Carolina’s rich literary tradition by featuring authors from around the state. The shop holds regular readings by state and national authors. In the fall, it plays host to YALLFest, a young adult book festival that has drawn national acclaim.

BTW: Head toward the back hallway, where some of the most interesting pre-loved titles on the most random subjects can be found.

The crossing has become one of Charleston’s most iconic landmarks. It runs 2.5 miles across the Cooper River, connecting the peninsula to neighboring Mount Pleasant. While it’s mostly an eight-lane highway, there’s also a popular path for walking, biking and running. Expect a full-on cardio session rather than an easy jog, however, as the incline and wind add a bit of a challenge.

BTW: Go at sunset. If the exercise doesn’t take your breath away, the view will.

This is where theater gets real in Charleston. Before settling into its current location on Cannon Street, PURE was located just a half mile from Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The summer after Mother Emanuel became better known to the world following a mass shooting, PURE staged the East Coast debut of the stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a work that takes a difficult look at racism in America.

BTW: Watch for plays that include talkbacks with the audience afterward. The 20 members of PURE’s ensemble are brilliant and engaging.

PURE Theatre, 134 Cannon St. Charleston, S.C. 29403

Charleston Tourism Is Built on Southern Charm. Locals Say It’s Time to Change.

Hunter McRae for The New York Times The week that George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, the Charleston, S.C., Convention & Visitors Bureau introduced a campaign to assure tourists that despite the coronavirus pandemic, Charleston — a city that has topped must-go travel lists for years — was ready to welcome them back. The program asked hotels and restaurants to take a “White Glove Pledge,” which would assure guests a high level of commitment to hygiene. The campaign’s logo was a white-g...

Hunter McRae for The New York Times

The week that George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, the Charleston, S.C., Convention & Visitors Bureau introduced a campaign to assure tourists that despite the coronavirus pandemic, Charleston — a city that has topped must-go travel lists for years — was ready to welcome them back.

The program asked hotels and restaurants to take a “White Glove Pledge,” which would assure guests a high level of commitment to hygiene. The campaign’s logo was a white-gloved hand holding a tray. The unwitting reference to the servitude of plantation life came at a moment when Black Lives Matter protests were beginning to fill streets in cities across the nation.

“The white glove pledge could not have been any less well-conceived,” said Steve Palmer, the managing partner of the Charleston-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which employs about 1,000 people in 20 restaurants and bars in four Southern states and Washington, D.C.

Days later, the Black Lives Matter protests reached Charleston and turned violent. Nearly 125 buildings in the core of the city were damaged.

The next morning, Helen Hill, the chief executive of the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, who has been marketing the city for more than 30 years, sent an email to the bureau’s members, praising people who emerged the next morning to clean up.

“They are sweeping and not weeping!” she wrote, without acknowledging the pain that had spurred the protests. “Please remind your staff who handles social media to post only uplifting and positive content. Remember our audience is bigger than local!”

To many who make their living from the 7.4 million people who visit the Charleston region every year, Ms. Hill’s response seemed tone deaf at best and, at worst, laid bare what has for years been simmering just below the surface of the city’s genteel antebellum image: the delicate balance between the narrative promoted by the powerful visitors’ bureau and the city’s history as the capital of the North American slave trade. That balance could no longer hold.

The tension between the two story lines is not new. In recent years, the mostly white leadership of the city and the tourism industry have worked to highlight the region’s African-American heritage. The visitors’ bureau added a deeply reported section on Charleston’s African-American history to its website. And after more than two decades of planning and fund-raising, the city in 2022 will open the International African-American Museum on Gadsden’s Wharf, which had been the first stop for as many as 100,000 Africans — an estimated 40 percent of the people captured and brought to America to be sold into slavery.

But as cultural institutions across the country take a more cleareyed look at interpreting history in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the push to change how Charleston tells its own story has taken on a new urgency.

The bureau, with an annual budget of $18 million and the ability to help direct $8 billion in tourism dollars to specific businesses, is being asked to do more to tell a more realistic tale and to support Black-owned business, many of which have been priced out of the city as its tourism industry has grown.

“There has been a deliberate effort by very powerful industries and organizations to sanitize and whitewash Charleston and show a ‘safe’ and white and palatable Charleston,” said Mika Gadsden, founder of the Charleston Activist Network, a media platform that focuses on Black and Gullah experiences.

She has become one of the most vocal critics of the C.V.B., as the visitors' bureau is known, saying that its attempt to soften the city’s history of enslavement with a big serving of genteel Southern charm has worn thin, particularly during a painful moment for many of the people who keep the tourism industry moving in Charleston.

Ms. Hill, who has worked for the C.V.B. for almost 34 years and has seen the city become a popular tourist destination, said that her cheery email after the protests was not unlike what she sends out after a hurricane. The idea was to show the can-do spirit of the city in the face of disaster. It was misconstrued to make it seem like she and the C.V.B. don’t care about racial justice, she said.

The agency has been working to leave the “magnolias and moonlight” Charleston narrative behind for 15 years, Ms. Hill said. The effort became more urgent after nine Black people were murdered by a white supremacist at Mother Emanuel AME Church five years ago.

The agency worked to promote and educate tourists about the city’s history of slavery, so much so that it has been criticized for capitalizing on Black people’s pain, she said. Finding the right balance is challenging, with criticism coming from people who think it isn’t focusing enough on the Black experience and those who think it’s overcorrecting, she said.

Still, she said, the C.V.B. can do more.

“We’ve learned through this period of time that we have to do a better job of getting the story out to the people that are in Charleston about what we are doing,” Ms. Hill said. “We realize we’ve got to let our locals know what we’re doing, especially, especially around this issue.”

The C.V.B. has previously been called out for having few Black members, a criticism Ms. Hill has responded to by saying that the agency has 31 Black-owned businesses as members out of more than 800.

The agency’s budget comes from three sources: Charleston’s share of a state accommodations tax, a state grant that matches industry contributions and contributions from businesses, which pay $700 a year to be part of the C.V.B. For the past two years, Black business owners have been allowed to join for $300.

Kwadjo Campbell, president of JC & Associates, a firm that works on development for African-Americans in Charleston, and K.J. Kearney, the founder of Black Food Fridays, an online campaign that encourages people to patronize Black-owned restaurants on Fridays, said that the C.V.B. hasn’t done enough to connect with Black Charlestonians.

“We haven’t seen a change in dollars going to Black businesses,” Mr. Campbell said. “We haven’t seen dollars come through from the C.V.B. The way this will work is if there are real partnerships and conversations. Helen’s got to listen to Black people in this sector. She has got to share the wealth.”

Being part of the C.V.B. helps businesses connect more with large tour groups. Members are promoted on the Explore Charleston website and in social media channels. When tourists inquire about things to do in the city or where to eat, they are directed to C.V.B. members. The C.V.B. spends a third of its budget advertising in magazines like Condé Nast Traveler, which has named Charleston as its No. 1 destination in the United States for nine consecutive years.

“The C.V.B. has such power and influence and not just locally,” said Allyson Sutton, a co-owner of Sightsee Shop, a store and coffee bar in the Elliotborough neighborhood in downtown Charleston. She and her husband, who are both white, recently resigned from the C.V.B. in protest.

“For this organization to have a $20 million operating budget, a huge social media following and a website they invest a lot of money into, and for the bulk of that content to whitewash history, not promote the incredible Black culture we have now and to not at the very least use its platforms to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ is incredibly disappointing,” Ms. Sutton said.

Plantations and tours

One point of frustration is the agency’s promotion of plantation weddings on its website, where people can take a quiz that matches them with a venue.

Getting married on the grounds of a plantation has long been sold as a romantic experience. But critics say that celebrating on plantation grounds where Black people were tortured, killed and, in many cases, buried, dishonors their history.

Olivia Williams is a historical interpreter at McLeod Plantation, whose tours focus on the quarters where enslaved people lived rather than the grand home that belonged to the white family. Ms. Williams’s tours focus specifically on enslaved women.

“I’m able to make connections between the history of these women and treatment of Black women and how that treatment hasn’t changed, especially in the wake of Breonna Taylor and the treatment of Black trans women that we hear about,” she said.

She said both the C.V.B. and other historic sites could take a cue from McLeod and tell the stories of the enslaved more accurately, making Black experiences more central.

“The narrative many plantations have been telling, that the city has been telling, is a simple one,” she said. “It’s not easy transitioning from this one narrative that seems to have worked in bringing people here to a difficult one, but it has to happen.”

McLeod stopped allowing people to book weddings on its property in 2019 (weddings that were already scheduled for future dates will still take place). In December, the Knot Worldwide, one of the biggest online wedding-planning platforms in the United States, and Pinterest, the image sharing site, said they would no longer promote images that romanticize plantations.

Ms. Hill said that many plantations tell the story of slavery well and shouldn’t be excluded from the C.V.B. site.

“There’s this whole thought that somehow you shouldn’t have celebratory things happening at this beautiful outdoor venue,” she said. “We just feel really strongly that we want to support our attractions because they have worked so hard, and if they decide that they want to use their special facility for weddings, we’re going to support them.”

Stephanie Burt, a travel writer and host of The Southern Fork podcast, has been one of a growing chorus of people lobbying for changes at the visitors’ bureau. In its drive to market Charleston, the agency has smothered the city’s history, she said.

“The focus is tourism at any cost and it doesn’t matter if we are drowning in Covid or are telling the wrong story about slavery,” she said. “The tourism industry is decimating African-American communities and flattening nuance and narrative.”

Indeed, the influx of expensive hotels and tourist shops has driven up the cost of living in Charleston and sent the working class — many of whom are African-American — to less expensive parts of the region.

Since the 1980s, the racial makeup of Charleston has flipped. Once, two out of every three residents was Black. Now, the city is about 72 percent white.

“Charleston’s viability has come at the expense of Black folks,” Ms. Gadsden said.

In recent years, the C.V.B. has been unpopular among locals who believe that it is pushing for tourism at any cost. There have been yearslong battles over allowing large cruise ships to dock in the city, complaints about constant bachelorette and bachelor parties and pushback against the opening of new hotels in residential areas.

Food’s role

Restaurants have played a major part in making Charleston a destination city. The modern Southern food movement, which blew up the cornpone national perception of Southern eating popularized by cooks like Paula Deen, and made stars out of the region’s restaurants, was built in large part in the kitchens of Charleston restaurants like Husk, FIG and Rodney Scott’s BBQ.

While some in the city’s food community worked to better tell the narrative of the region’s Gullah Geechee food traditions and support Black chefs, many restaurant owners paid their dues to the visitors’ bureau and didn’t question how the city was being promoted, Mr. Palmer, of Indigo Road Hospitality, and others in the industry said.

The latest push for social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement shifted the tone. The Charleston Wine + Food Festival, which works with the visitors’ bureau and last year attracted nearly 12,000 travelers and national television coverage, announced in June it would no longer host events at plantations. In addition, unless the city removed from Marion Square a 12-foot-tall bronze statue of John C. Calhoun, a former U.S. vice president who was one of the 19th century’s most prominent defenders of slavery, the festival would no longer stage its events there.

(Pressure had been mounting for the statue’s removal for years, and the city took it down on June 24. The food festival organizers recently announced they would not hold the 2021 festival, usually scheduled for March, citing the pandemic.)

Festival organizers took criticism from people who thought politics were outside the event’s purview, and others who called the move performative and argued that the organizers should do a better job in the way they treat people of color they ask to participate, both as volunteers at the festival and as guest cooks and winemakers.

Gillian Zettler, the executive director of the festival, said the nonprofit organization had since last fall been examining issues of diversity and inclusion, including diving deeper into the history of venues it selects for the festival, creating a more diverse board and developing deeper relationships with South Carolina’s Black hospitality professionals who have been historically underrepresented at the event.

The organization also has pledged to make the festival more accessible to African Americans and other people of color.

B.J. Dennis, a chef whose ancestors come from a Gullah Geechee community in Wando, outside Charleston, has worked with the festival to curate events that more accurately explore the Gullah Geechee food traditions developed by West Africans who were enslaved along the southeastern Atlantic coast.

He has long been an advocate for telling a more complete story about Charleston, and says he has watched with a heavy heart as many Black-owned restaurants have been priced out of the core of the city. But he remains skeptical that Charleston is really ready to tell its truth.

“I think people are more aware and have been put on notice with the movement,” he said, “but as far as change, people got to want to change.”

“To get the plantation narrative to move from the ‘Gone With the Wind’ narrative to telling the true story of plantations, which is really the story of concentration camps, is not going to come easy,” he said. “But for every two of your blue-blooded faithful customers you may lose by telling the truth, you may gain 10 to 20 followers who will want to hear the real story.”

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'Not everything is pretty here': Charleston tourism reckons with slavery and racism

(CNN) — Charleston, South Carolina, regularly is mentioned as one of the top cities in the world to visit, for many reasons: the natural, Lowcountry beauty and Spanish moss; its charm, sophistication and candy-colored houses angled toward the breeze; beaches and bottomless bowls of freshly trawled shrimp and stone-ground grits. Also to be considered when you travel here: Visits to grand homes and sprawling farms, their pre-Civil War glory preserved down to the wallpaper, furniture, chandeliers. One envisi...

(CNN) — Charleston, South Carolina, regularly is mentioned as one of the top cities in the world to visit, for many reasons: the natural, Lowcountry beauty and Spanish moss; its charm, sophistication and candy-colored houses angled toward the breeze; beaches and bottomless bowls of freshly trawled shrimp and stone-ground grits.

Also to be considered when you travel here: Visits to grand homes and sprawling farms, their pre-Civil War glory preserved down to the wallpaper, furniture, chandeliers. One envisions, perhaps, the dashing Rhett Butler and carriage rides, slow evenings on the veranda, elegant dinners.

Despite the city's beauty, this image is not a complete version of history.

Behind those stately homes either in the downtown or on those farms -- plantations -- often are smaller ones made of stone or wood, utilitarian, without verandas, elegant furniture, sweeping staircases or laughing men in fancy suits.

Charleston, as did the rest of the South, grew and thrived because of the unpaid labors of African men and women who had been kidnapped, beaten, raped and enslaved. The plantations that produced rice and cotton and sugar, or processed indigo, all prospered at extreme human cost. The in-town homes and their white owners were tended to and cared for by enslaved men and women.

The Holy City is undeniably popular. The town's thriving tourist industry brought in $8 billion in 2018, and has grown by about $26 million yearly for the past five years.

In the United States, and particularly in the states that made up the Confederacy, it often is impossible to disentangle the beauty of the surroundings from the history. But that history is a painful one for those who are Black and who are often the descendants of enslaved women and men.

Can Charleston's tourism and true history co-exist with the recent attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and the current global awakening?

When my husband and I lived in Charleston, we marveled at sunsets over the Battery, examined side streets and tested as many out-of-the way restaurants as possible. We did not lose weight or become bored while living there.

However, we were sometimes stunned at the genuine invitations to visit plantations for oyster roasts, weddings or festivals. We listened as downtown tour guides glossed over details related to anyone enslaved: where they might have emptied slop jars, where they would have been sold (not the center of town, as the buying and selling of humans was not allowed inside the city).

Several times, I was stopped and cheerfully asked about the slave market, usually right in front of the Daughters of the Confederacy building.

I wondered whether anybody saw the irony in asking a Black woman to visit a plantation at all, let alone for a party. I began to wonder whether anybody thought deeply about the words they used, or the places where we stood.

The plantation visits did not happen. I refused. We challenged tour guides' information. The City Market was not where slaves were sold, and the actual space, called a barracoon, gives us chills.

Now, I am a tourist, and a tourist of color, and a stroll through this beautiful city -- which I loved, still love -- isn't always simply a stroll through my former home. Each step can sometimes take me and other people of color deeply into old injustices and current-day racism and insensitivities that run parallel to the romantic ideal that other visitors may see.

A visit to the City Market, when we first moved to town in the 1990s, could as easily turn up a piece of unique jewelry as it could a set of blackface salt-and-pepper shakers. A step inside a shop for a T-shirt could lead to a discussion with a clerk who is standing beside a display of Confederate memorabilia.

I once worked in a downtown shop, and the owner, while explaining the parameters of the job, escorted me to the far corner of a back room: The Confederate corner, crammed with paintings of battle scenes, soldiers, the Stars and Bars. She sheepishly explained that she did not like selling Confederate merchandise, but said that one painting sold would pay bills and payroll for two months. She did not expect me to promote these items.

A turn onto Calhoun Street can take a person past Emanuel AME Church, where nine members -- all of whom were Black -- were murdered in 2015 by a white supremacist who had a love for the Confederate flag.

Across the street from the church, which is lovingly known as Mother Emanuel, is Marion Park. Until recently, this where a statue of Vice President John C. Calhoun, a slaveowner and staunch supporter of antebellum plantation slavery, stood.

The Civil War that started here indeed was about states' rights -- the states' rights to continue using slave labor for the gains of White people. Cadets from The Citadel in Charleston fired the first shots in that war. The Confederate flag still flies on the campus, despite the efforts of current-day alumni to remove it.

Doug Warner, vice president of Media & Innovation Development at Explore Charleston, acknowledges the deeper truth of his aesthetically lovely city. But he says the hard work of confronting racism had already begun for Charleston -- before 2020, Covid-19, protests and a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement -- and especially for the tourism industry.

There simply was no way to continue the status quo of life after the murders at Mother Emanuel. Racism had to be fully acknowledged and addressed, from the inside, in much the same way as it has been across the country in 2020, and that reckoning had to come from the space that promotes exploration of the city.

"Not everything is pretty here," Warner says. "We as a community had a head start primarily because of the tragedy at Mother Emanuel. That event shook our community to our very soul. And because of the family members, and their grace and ability to forgive, this made everybody stop and think 'we can do better with Charleston and the egregious past.' "

He allows that there is much to be done. The PR and tourism industry saw a need, after the murders, to do its own internal, intercity, interindustry work. It had to turn the magnifying glass on itself.

As a starting point, what was the industry doing to eradicate racial stereotypes and to elevate not only diversity in hospitality, but to be certain the truth of Charleston's residents was evident and visible in every space possible? Was the industry continuing a stereotypical norm or was it progressing?

It wasn't enough to have Black and White people on a hotel staff; most of the time, the staff at the front of the house was White, performing in professional spaces, while the Black staff worked at more menial jobs. Black employees were cooks rather than head chefs. Housekeepers rather than marketing staff.

The antebellum period is over and unacceptable, and the industry had to be sure it reflected that truth.

To that end, the tourism industry in Charleston developed Heart for Hospitality, an outreach and business effort that encourages hospitality businesses to develop and promote more equitable opportunities for employees across the board.

People who have worked in hospitality from the back of the house -- traditionally service jobs held by people of color -- have moved to more visibly and professionally prominent positions, which Warner says is a start.

The program encourages goal setting for employees, and it trains owners to create opportunities that allow for equitable advancement within a business, particularly to reflect the racial makeup of the city.

It is only right, Warner says, to begin to correct generations of wrongs. If not for contributions of enslaved Africans and their descendants, Charleston's beauty and success would not have been.

"Our Southern food came from Africa. Rice culture, from Africa. You can't separate our art, our architecture, our culinary scene, without telling that story. And you cannot do that without representation and honesty."

Tourism must meet fact in other spaces, however, and that goes deeper than removing flags and statues. When talking with Black people who hold the city in their hearts, and whose livelihoods also come from tourism, the conversation finds a different path.

Artist Jonathan Green, whose colorful paintings reflect the Gullah culture so perfectly that you can hear the music of the language, agrees with Warner's ideas. The story of Charleston cannot be told without fully giving proper attention to gains reaped by hijacking a continent. He takes it a few steps further.

"Charleston is the Ellis Island for Black people," he says. "Charleston was the wealthiest city in the country for 100 years, based on West African ingenuity. And racism is not reliant on or dependent on one place or one city.

"But almost everywhere I go, two things happen: There is not an example of Black people's full contributions to a place, and the other is there is no understanding or real appreciation of African culture in the city.

"Charleston is the epicenter of change, of how we're going to counteract and deal with this global issue. Racism is the global pandemic."

Green, who is now based in Charleston, says education is key.

"When I see children walking and taking tours, I talk to them. I show them what the textbooks will not tell them.

"I feel there needs to be a revamping of the education system. All of it. The history and culture needs to be more indicative of the history and population, and you must talk about history from the perspective of the people at different points in time.

"We can't do it in Charleston alone," Green says. "It has to be a national and international understanding and correction. But Charleston can certainly lead the way."

Alphonso Brown, who has owned and operated Gullah Geechee Tours since 1985, also encourages education, for children and adults. He attends Mount Zion AME Church, which is predominately Black and around the corner from Grace Episcopal Church, which is predominately White.

The two churches have a book club that is reading "How To Be an Anti-Racist" by Ibram X. Kendi, and Brown is encouraged at the hard discussions that the members have. People want to know truth, he says.

That is how he conducts his tours, which he says show an interesting trend: most participants on his tours are White, which suggests to him a growth in awareness.

"In the city, we have the option of formulating our own tour, story and dialogue. Seventy to eighty percent of my company's business is White," he says. This suggests to him a growing realization that there are untold stories, and that these stories have helped shape today's events.

As with Green, Brown is forward thinking in ways that don't necessarily involve statues. He chuckled when I mentioned the juxtaposition of the Calhoun statue to Mother Emanuel when I attended the Charleston Food + Wine Festival in 2019.

He wants a stronger, complete education for children, and he wants to address racism through economics: fair lending practices for homes and businesses, more knowledge among landowners about the value of property, more awareness of gentrification (a term he does not like).

He remembers when there was no segregation of housing, and when Black families lived in former slave houses in downtown but had to move because the houses became big business, and taxes became unaffordable.

And he wants Black people to learn more. "You can't fight well when you don't know," he says.

He and Green agree: reckoning with the past is one thing. Carving a truthful, equitable future is another.

"We [in tourism] are only supposed to talk about fun stuff, right? One day, a reporter asked if we had made a statement about Black Lives Matter. It dawned on me that saying the words mattered. We are an organization that puts ideas into action. Sometimes it's important to say the words. Black Lives Matter. Charleston would not exist otherwise."

He speaks about the International African American Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2022. It feels like a bookend, to him, of a space between the horrific shooting in 2015 and the start of a place that is committed to telling the full story of Charleston and its African American heritage.

"It's for all Charlestonians," he says. "The museum is a stake in the sand. It's not an end to anything. It's a declaration."

The Charleston Food + Wine festival, which in 2019 generated more than $18 million in revenues over five days and has been held in Marion Square beneath the Calhoun statue, in early June made a public call for the statue's removal, particularly in light of continued racial violence, protests and worldwide attention on the United States.

City officials agreed. Shortly following this, the festival declared its commitment to becoming an "actively antiracist organization, one that is a true reflection of the culinary and hospitality community of Charleston."

Part of that commitment includes expanding the diversity of community voices on the board, which currently has one African American woman, to 20%. It also includes an examination of venues, and a continued effort of past years to broaden the talent that takes part in the festival.

Sites that might have once glossed over the pain of the past have made progress. Still, the efforts could run side-by-side with what could be triggering, or at the very least, painful and saddening, to people of color.

Drayton Hall, one of the oldest surviving plantations in the South, actively encourages visitors to pay respects at the African-American cemetery on site.

Magnolia Plantation's "From Slavery to Freedom" tour is more popular than the tour of the plantation house. The tour began as The Magnolia Cabin Project, an effort to preserve the houses of the enslaved, and has consistently recognized and addressed the hardships and cruelty that challenged African-American families from antebellum times through the Civil Rights era of the 20th century.

Magnolia still serves as a wedding venue. Though it did promote wedding services on social media last year, Drayton Hall has not hosted a wedding in nearly 10 years, according to Carter Hudgins, its president and CEO. This is despite backlash that has led sites such as Pinterest and The Knot to stop promoting wedding content that romanticizes former slave plantations.

The debate around the Confederate flag and statues remains, although Warner says that walking into a store and running into a Confederate flag display is less likely to happen in 2020 than 20 years ago, or even 10 -- and particularly since the murders at Mother Emanuel.

Dartinia Hull is based in North Carolina and lived in Charleston in the 1990s. Her writing can be found in The Bitter Southerner, Noteworthy: The Blog Journal, MUTHA Magazine and Age of Awareness.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Drayton Hall's more recent history with hosting weddings. The story also incorrectly stated the number of minorities on the board of the Charleston Food + Wine Festival. It has one.

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