Lavender Landmarks of Charleston, South Carolina (Podcast Episode 55)
Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Services’ National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Mary O’Connell Murphy, Library Project Manager at the Schlesinger Library of Harvard University. In this podcast, Mary talks about her work with Lavender Landmarks, LGBT sites in Charleston, South Carolina.
Church: Before we get onto our subject, tell us a little bit about the Schlesinger Library.
Murphy: Okay, thanks Jason. I’m glad to be joining you on this podcast today. So the Schlesinger Library is one of many Harvard University research libraries within the university system but our library focuses specifically on the history of women in America. We collect both published and unpublished materials of women across America, both common women, everyday women, as well as more well-known women including suffragettes, famous second wave feminists like Betty Friedan and now third wave feminists. We’re really reaching out to try to collect those women’s papers as well. So the library originally began as part of Radcliffe College and now we are part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
Church: Very nice and today we’re here talking about the National Park Service has initiated June as LGBT month. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about a project that I knew that you did in the past called Lavender Landmarks of Charleston, South Carolina. I have not heard the term Lavender Landmarks before, so what is that?
Murphy: So that is a term, I can’t remember if I made that up or if that was already floating around so, I started doing my research in this area in 2003 going into 2004 and it took me, I researched it for about a year. So the concept of studying historic landmarks associated with the GLBT community was sort of young in and of itself. The earliest that I could date the study of it was really in the late 90’s, around 1997 there was a lot of research that emerged, although I’m sure there was more before then. So the term Lavender Landmarks was just easy to remember, right. Lavender is a color that is associated with the gay rights movement, lavender, pink triangles, so on and so forth and so I just used that and then tied it to the built environment, Lavender Landmarks. I thought it was sort of handy and wrapped into the context of Charleston, South Carolina.
Church: For this project, Lavender Landmarks in Charleston, you actually made a historic walking tour of sites in Charleston that are directly tied to the gay rights movement. Can you tell us a little bit about the sites that you picked, why you picked them and what made them important?
Murphy: Right. So first of all, I will stipulate that the sites that I chose were not necessarily related to the gay rights movement. They are sites associated with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-gender history. So there’s one of the sites that I researched, 14 Queen Street, which was actually the home of a hate crime that occurred in 1958 between a navy serviceman and another local man who was robbed, murdered in that home there. The man who perpetrated the crime was not held accountable by any means and the writing of what happened that night was really scathing and today we would look back and understand that that was a hate crime that occurred there and one that was significant in documenting the way, the poor way, that gay men were treated under the law in the 1950’s. So that was one of the sites and just an example that it was a sad history but one that was also significant.
So the other sites that I did, I sort of organized them in chronological order. We have 7 Gibbes Street, which is one of the most famous streets in downtown Charleston and that was home to Laura Bragg and she was the first female director of the Charleston Museum. So I thought that the site was significant in terms of women’s history in and of itself. But she shared the home with Belle Heyward who was a socialite in Charleston at the time. They were considered Boston wives. The assumption has to be made that they were a couple. Their history of course dates to the 1920’s and they started a salon in their home for significant poets in the area. This group that began inside the home on 7 Gibb Street would later see poets like Gertrude Stein and Edna St. Vincent Millay participating in that organization. So that’s the first site that I chose and some of the oldest GLBT history that I know.
I’m going to just skip ahead and say that two most interesting sites personally to me was 56 Society Street, which was the home of Gordon Langley Hall and he was a transsexual person who was very involved in the restoration of 56 Society Street and who in his personal life transitioned to a female and was involved in the first interracial marriage that took place in Charleston and that was in 1969 and it was the first interracial marriage at all in the city of Charleston and little is it known that that marriage involved a transsexual person and that ceremony took place in the basement of 56 Society Street. What I found so alarming is there was no note of this in the general history of this building. Many of the historic sites in Charleston are well documented and this house is also very well documented in the history of the original architects and so on and so forth but there is nothing noted about this key piece of history that took place there. It wasn’t until the historian James t. Sears, who is a southern traditional American historian who was interested in GLBT history, discovered this place and this story and then I, using his research went to the site, went to the place and documented the bricks and mortar history of it as well as of this tale.
So I thought that one was really important to me and I think one that is worth checking out and then
of course, 5 Liberty Street, which was the home of the Arcade Theatre and the Liberty Mix Nightclub and that is now, where today the College of Charleston School of Business stands in this place that once was home to very well-known drag queens of the era. It was a place that really documented the mid-twentieth century gay life history, right, it was the cultural headquarters for avant-garde artists and other gay Charlestonians and it was one that really marked the first time that the Historic Charleston Foundation put it’s toe in the water to defend a GLBT historic site when they were notified that it was going to be demolished. I happened to be doing an internship with the Historic Charleston Foundation at the time and we worked together to try to fight that demolition but unfortunately we were unsuccessful. So those are really interesting sites.
Church: …the time period of the Arcade Theatre and nightclub?
Murphy: Okay, so the Arcade Theatre was built by Augustus E. Constantine. He was a Greek born architect. He built a number of different buildings in the Charleston area but he did build the Arcade Theatre in 1947 and in sort of the art modern style. I actually had an opportunity to go inside the arcade with my boss at the time, Katherine Saunders of the Historic Charleston Foundation, and that was really neat. It was everything that you would think; a lot of wrought iron and rounded corners and I think carpet at the time. But its GLBT history started basically in the late seventies and ended in the early eighties. Once it was a movie theatre I believe. In 1984 it opened as the Liberty Mix. This was really an interesting time of course in the GLBT and GBLT America in the early 1980’s of course as the Aids crisis was sweeping through and so you have to make an assumption that that was also a really prevalent component of the history there too in the city of Charleston. It was this tiny little building that was sitting on a very lucrative piece of real estate but I don’t know. Today if the city of Charleston was looking at it again and if Charleston College was looking to build their business school today, I don’t know, maybe they would think twice because of where we are in the country about preserving Lavender Landmarks and the gay rights movement as a whole.
Church: I noticed in the brochure that the nightclub operated until 1997 when its license was revoked because if it’s controversial nature.
Murphy: Yes, so again you have to remember that there was so much pushback at the time. It’s hard to almost put yourself in that place now. GLBT citizens have really enjoyed this remarkable revolution that’s been going on over the course of the last five years I would say. But in the south and in the eighties and nineties, it was a different story and I think that I can make the assumption that the over-the-top nature, like a maybe what some people would say, “in your face” community or culture of that nightclub was maybe not palatable for a lot of citizens and as a result they shut the nightclub.
So there are very few images that exist of the nightclub. I took them on my own. Both that nightclub and also Charleston’s Club 49, which was another gay nightclub that of course was flattened into a parking lot on King Street. There’s very little documentary evidence of these places. I think if there was piece of the history of Lavender Landmarks, it’s about sort of a secret history, a place where people could slip out of their normal lives and into their personal lives in these personal places even though they were in public if that makes any sense. So I actually found it quite difficult to find images of the buildings. There is one of the Charleston’s Club 49 at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston that I know of.
Church: Other than yours, have you seen many other tours that dealt with the social history of the LGBT movement.
Murphy: Right, so the most famous is of course, there’s a couple of tours in San Francisco in the Castro District that I know of. There are also a number of public art projects that have happened in New York City but I know that the history based tours really do center in San Francisco. I know there’s one that focuses on Don Harvey Milk and I know that there’s one that just focuses on the Castro District as a neighborhood. But I think that may all be changing now right? I mean just the fact that the National Park Service is making this effort to roll in GLBT history under their larger umbrella of areas that they want to document in terms of bricks and mortar places and sites. More and more will pop up. There’s a couple of books out there too, like Historic Gay and Lesbian Walks of New York. There’s a couple of books like that that you can just Google search them online and they’ll pop up and you can do them on your own.
Church: Well hopefully you’re right. As organizations like the National Park Service publicizes this, maybe we will get more landmarks noted and more history will come out. Maybe people who have these photographs that you looked so hard for will come forward with them and then more progress will be made on documenting some of these sites.
Murphy: Right and I think that the same can be said generally for archives as well. Gay and lesbian archives, there’s a few really well known ones across the country but just a handful. So the power to be honest of Web 2.0 technology like flickr are really beneficial in this area because people have their personal collections at home that they’re now scanning and putting online, so I know researchers are doing a lot of their studies that way as well. But again for me, I started my research about historic sites in 2003 and to really see how far this world has come is really quite fascinating to me and you know there is a financial benefit to these things which was part of my research, that cities really if they want to embrace these histories and the National Park Service wants to embrace this under their umbrella, they will reap the benefits of communities of people who want to go see them and we’re seeing that as well or states and cities that are opening their doors in their communities to gay marriage.
Church: As we reflect on the gains and public recognition over the ten years since you began your research I think we can be very optimistic for what the future might hold.
Murphy: I know right, and I hope that people do check out the brochure online and try to do the walk. It’s all in a very dense area within Charleston. I sort of would like to do it again. It’s good to do over coffee like on a Saturday morning.
Church: Thank you Mary for talking with us today. We hope to hear more form you in the future, maybe any future research that you’re doing.
Murphy: Sure thing, yes, if you ever want to do a podcast on historic sites related to women’s history, give me a ring.
Church: That sounds good, thank you Mary.
Murphy: Thanks Jason. Bye, bye.
Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.