Celebrating Black History in South Carolina

In honor of Black History Month, we thought we'd share some stories uncovered during our travels about the inspirational African-Americans who are part of the fabric of our local history in the South Carolina Upstate.

Did you know that Spartanburg was the training ground for the first American soldiers who served in World War I?  In 1917, the 15th New York Infantry, an all-black regiment under the command of primarily white officers, was sent to Jim Crow-era Spartanburg for training at Camp Wadsworth. The men were greeted with fierce racial tension in the local community, which ultimately led to them being shipped out of Spartanburg after just two short weeks of training. As the first American soldiers to arrive in a devastated Europe in early 1918, they were a beacon of hope, warmly welcomed as heroes by the French. They also brought something else with them that uplifted and delighted the war-weary Europeans: jazz.

Nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters," and reorganized as the 396th Infantry, these men were the longest serving American troops on the front lines and saw some of the war's bloodiest battles. Due to institutional racism, they served not as part of the American forces, but were integrated into French and British units that desperately needed more men in the trenches. Some of these soldiers would choose to stay in France after the war, where they experienced far less discrimination than at home. The jazz that they brought across the Atlantic would take off in 1920s Paris as an integral part of les Années Folles.

Another World War I African-American hero is South Carolinian Freddie Stowers. Born and raised in Anderson County, Stowers enlisted in 1917, and fought in the famous Meuse-Argonne campaign in the fall of 1918.  On September 28th, his company led an assault on a heavily defended German-held hill. The Germans appeared to surrender, and then, as Stowers' company approached, they re-opened fire. His commanding officer was killed, along with over half of the original platoon. Though all hope seemed lost, Stowers rallied the remaining men, and they managed to take the first line of German trenches under heavy fire. Mortally wounded, Stowers continued to lead his men until he could not go on, galvanizing them to push forward and successfully capture the hill.

Just 22 years old at the time of his death, Freddie Stowers was posthumously recommended for a Medal of Honor for his "conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men" - the first African-American to receive this highest honor during World War I. His family would not receive his award until 73 years later, in 1991. His Medal of Honor is now on display in the South Carolina Military Museum.

Freddie Stowers gravesite

Freddie’s grave in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery


Uncover more moving World War I stories with Explore Up Close in October 2019 during our All Quiet on the Western Front trip.



For further reading about the Harlem Hellfighters:




For further reading about Freddie Stowers:





Posted on February 18th in History and Culture

The Virginia Presidential Tour

What better way to celebrate America’s birthday than with our Virginia Presidential Tour? Virginia can claim the most presidents of any state - 8 of our former commanders-in-chief were native Virginians. We visited the homes of five during our Virginia Presidential Tour, in partnership with Wofford College’s Lifelong Learning Institute. Read on to discover who they were!


Departing just a few days after the Fourth of July, this trip was the perfect way to immerse ourselves in early American history. Our small group departed the Greenville / Spartanburg area and made our way north, passing through downtown Greensboro for a leisurely lunch, before stopping for the night at the lovely Berry Hill Estate near South Boston, Virginia.


Built by James and Eliza Bruce in the early 1820s, the estate was built in the Greek Revival style and modeled after the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. The couple shared a love for Greek art and architecture, which they believed echoed the republican values of young America. We enjoyed touring and exploring the house and grounds, which today serve as a hotel and conference center. One unique feature of Berry Hill is its remarkably intact stone slave cabins, which serve as a witness of the enslaved people who lived and worked on the plantation.



We then continued our touring at Red Hill, home of Patrick Henry, near Brookneal, VA. We enjoyed learning more about his life, both personal and public, and his legacy. After a relaxing lunch in Farmville and a drive through the idyllic Hampden-Sydney campus, we arrived in our home for the next two nights: the iconic Williamsburg Lodge in Williamsburg.


For our third day, we explored the James River plantations of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, our 9th and 10th presidents, respectively. At Berkeley Plantation, we walked through the main hall, where Washington himself danced, and learned about Thomas Jefferson’s role in reshaping the house’s architecture. We then paid a visit to Sherwood Forest, just down the road - the plantation home of William Henry Harrison’s cousin, neighbor, and Vice President, John Tyler. Tyler gave his estate this name in response to Henry Clay’s public jab at him as a political “outlaw” at the end of his presidency. Tyler's Sherwood Forest is the longest frame house in the United States, stretching the length of a football field. The president’s grandson and his family still reside in the house today (yes, we got the full family history on location).



Later that afternoon, we stepped back in time in the streets of colonial Williamsburg - as restored by John D. Rockefeller in the 1920s.



Thursday brought us into the Charlottesville area, where we visited Highland, James Monroe’s estate. His home neighbored that of his close friend and fellow Francophile, Thomas Jefferson. We enjoyed an enormous Southern spread of a lunch at the Mitchie Tavern, before spending the afternoon exploring Jefferson's iconic Monticello.


On the last day of our tour, we paid a visit to our fourth president: James Madison. His estate, Montpelier, is located in Orange County, Virginia. We enjoyed learning more about Madison’s presidency and life with Dolley, before visiting the Barboursville Winery. While not home to a former president, the winery is on the site of the ruins of the estate home of Governor James Barbour, which was designed in 1814 by - who else? - Thomas Jefferson.


Thanks to all who traveled with us on this special adventure uncovering the lives and legacies of Virginia's presidents!






Posted on July 20th in History and Culture | Small Group

Historic Charleston's Festival of Houses & Gardens

Our Lowcountry adventure began with lunch in tiny Santee (a "one stoplight town" kind of place), and led us down meandering roads until we reached the Biggins Church ruins of Moncks Corner. Thought the ruins are hauntingly lovely at any time of year, this site becomes a natural garden in the spring. Surrounded by old oaks festooned in Spanish moss, azaleas in every shade of pink, and draped in wisteria, it's a photographer's dream. The church structure dates to 1761, and suffered three fires before reaching its present state of happy abandon.  


Just down the road is Mepkin Abbey, with a rich history of its own. Once the plantation home of Henry Laurens, the estate was gifted to a group of Trappist monks in 1949 by Clare Boothe Luce and her husband, Henry Luce. Today, you can visit the abbey and lovely botanical gardens with beautiful views of the Cooper River. For history lovers (and avid Hamilton fans!) you can visit the graves of Henry Laurens and his son John.

Our next stop was a special visit to Pompion Hill Chapel - a 1763 chapel of ease that is now privately owned and has been beautifully preserved. Situated beside the Cooper River, the churchyard's gravestones are weathered but still legible after centuries of close contact with the water, and provide a fascinating glimpse into early South Carolina life.


After our drive along the Cooper River, we crossed the Ravenel Bridge and arrived in Charleston. After a wine and cheese reception at our pink plastered hotel, the Meeting Street Inn, our group enjoyed a delicious dinner together at Anson's Restaurant. We're still thinking about that pecan pie...


Monday dawned pearly gray, with the promised rain holding off to a short shower. We began our day with a driving tour around downtown Charleston, which looped us around the Battery and up through the Citadel grounds...where we found ourselves briefly trapped on campus during a class change, as cadets kept up an endless file in front of our van. After we made our escape, our attention turned to learning more about Charleston's previous inhabitants. We met Virginia Ellison, Director of Archives and Research, and her colleagues for a special tour of the South Carolina Historical Society's archives. They treated us to a look at special items from their collection, including a lithograph of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession, and a Union soldier’s Civil War letters. Following this thread of Civil War era history, we drove to James Island to see the community formerly - and rebelliously - named Secessionville, and uncovered the site where the first shots were fired on Fort Moultrie (now Sumter).

After a leisurely lunch, it was time to begin our touring of the Meeting Street homes with the Festival of Houses & Gardens. A few favorites were Two Meeting Street Inn, now a lovely bed and breakfast, and the Dependency of Brandford-Horry House - formerly a carriage house, now a stunning private home with an Italianate interior.



Tuesday morning saw us off to explore Johns Island and Wadmalaw Island. At the Charleston Tea Plantation, we enjoyed a trolley tour of the grounds, and even waved to the founder, Bill Hall, who was at work out in the fields. We sampled just about every type of tea imaginable, then visited the lovely, well-hidden village of Rockville and the iconic Angel Oak. After a tasty lunch at the Stono Market and Tomato Shed Cafe (the locals recommend the chocolate zucchini bread), it was time to head home. We’ll be back, Charleston.


Posted on March 20th in History and Culture | Small Group

Exploring Abbeville with OLLI at Furman

Explore Up Close and a group of OLLI at Furman members recently spent the day exploring Abbeville, South Carolina. This day trip included sunny backroads drives through South Carolina farmland, stories about Abbeville's French Huguenot roots and local history, and exploring some of Abbeville's beautifully preserved buildings.


Our first stop: a driving tour of significant colonial and Civil War sites with local guide, Fred Lewis. We learned about blockhouses built during the colonial period, which were fortified log buildings meant to withstand attacks from Native Americans on the frontier.  We also visited Secession Hill, where Abbeville became the first South Carolina district to secede from the United States - a month before the state of South Carolina officially seceded in December 1860. Fittingly, Abbeville was also the place where Jefferson Davis would come at the end of the Civil War to meet for the last time with his cabinet before conceding the Confederacy's defeat.

We enjoyed walking around Abbeville's downtown square, surrounded by colorfully painted historic shops and buildings, including the Abbeville County Courthouse (designed by South Carolina's Robert Mills), Opera House, and the Belmont Inn. Abbeville’s lovely rose-hued Trinity Episcopal Church is another highlight, built in the Gothic Revival style in 1860.


After a leisurely lunch, which featured several decadent Southern pies for dessert, we made our way to the Burt-Stark Mansion for a house tour. This historic home was built in the 1830s, designed after a home that the first owner’s wife fell in love with in the Hudson River Valley. Most interestingly, the house's architect was one of the family slaves, Cubic, who was sent to the Hudson River Valley to draw plans for the construction of this house. His role in the design and building of the house is especially remarkable, since laws were passed in 1831 that outlawed slave literacy and travel. The Burt-Stark house was also the site where Jefferson Davis stopped as he fled south after Lee's surrender at Appomatox, where his generals finally convinced him to accept defeat. Inside, we enjoyed looking at the architecture, period furniture and antiques, including a collection of early 20th century dresses owned by the Stark family daughters.


Thanks to OLLI at Furman for joining us on this South Carolina Trip of Discovery!  

Posted on March 7th in History and Culture

New York with OLLI at Furman

New York with OLLI at Furman

I recall, Central Park in fall... At Explore Up Close, we think New York may be at its most pleasant in the fall, especially for Southern visitors. The brisk yet pleasant weather and changing foliage makes it a perfect time to explore the city by foot. Explore Up Close spent five days exploring New York's historic neighborhoods and sites with an OLLI at Furman (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) group from Greenville, SC. The trip was born of a "New York, New York" class taught at OLLI at Furman in the spring of 2017, and our itinerary included many highlights of the class. Our group fearlessly hit the streets and the subway to take it all in!



Our first stop was Grand Central Terminal - not to be confused with Grand Central Station, the nearby post office. At Grand Central, we took in the impressive architecture and history of the Beaux Arts style train station. We also enjoyed a tour of the Morgan Library and Museum, where we marveled at the incredible collection of books, art, and striking interiors. The art lovers in the group also visited the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side, where we saw Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” which may also be known to cinema fans from the film “Woman in Gold.” The Neue Galerie also features an impressive array of Austrian art and design work from the early 20th century.


For the outdoors lovers among us, Chumley led the group on a jaunt through Central Park to soak in the changing leaves and crisp fall air. Highlights from the park included views of the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, the Strawberry Fields homage to John Lennon, and Belvedere Castle. For a special aerial view of the city, we crossed the East River on the Roosevelt Island Tram. With all our walking and sightseeing, we kept our energy up with an onslaught of New York delicacies - bagels, sandwiches, and Italian food, oh my!


We didn't just stay in Manhattan. Our group braved our way through the fog across the Brooklyn Bridge, and made the journey over to Liberty and Ellis Island. We continued to learn about New York’s immigrants’ stories at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. Finally, one of our favorite highlights of the trip was a night out at the award-winning Broadway show, Come From Away, which brought to life an incredible true story of hope and humanity following the 9/11 attacks. The end of the show included a rousing rendition of Gaelic-folk rock music that had us all on our feet.

Thanks to all who came and enjoyed the sites and bites with us!  Until next time, New York.


Posted on November 14th in History and Culture

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