The colors of Charleston

Published 9:42 am Thursday, May 12, 2011

Growing up in New York, like any other typical Yankee, I’ve always had this romantic image of the American South.

The sweeping picturesque homes, the hospitality and the sheer idea of sitting on a porch somewhere overlooking a beautiful country scene with trees covered in moss, sipping a mint julep—yeah, all of those idyllic and typical scenes produced somewhere on a Hollywood set.

While this area offers some of those characteristics that make up the South, there are certain cities below the Mason-Dixon Line that are synonymous with that dreamy image of the South.

My mom along with her baby sister, Aunt Dolly, and I have made it a point to take at least one road trip a year. Our adventures have taken us many places over the years from Maine to Florida, Mexico to Canada and Oklahoma to Massachusetts.

A few years ago, we ventured (with my mom’s other little sister, Aunt Maureen) to New Orleans, La. At the time we had family in the area to visit, but before we made it to the relatives’ house we decided to spend a little time in New Orleans.

For all of us the whole experience was a crash course in “southernisms.” We were schooled not only the history, culture and cuisine of the city, but specifically how to say the name: “New Aw-lin’-s.”

Last year, we made our way to Savannah, Ga., a city I’ve always wanted to visit.

It’s easy to see why Savannah is considered “the jewel of the South” with its history and architecture. Each corner you round in the city is like a living painting with Spanish moss covered live oaks and vibrant private gardens hidden behind wrought iron gates. And, yes, Savannah fits that “Yankee” romantic image to a “T” even right down to the mint julep.

This year’s road trip was to Charleston. Last week, mom, Aunt Dolly and I spent a few days exploring the harbor city’s offerings.

The thing I’ve learned about the South is that there is a story for everything and in Charleston it is no different.

On one tour we had a guide named “Henry” who was quick to remind us that we, along with a few others on the same tour, were “of the Northern kind.”

Among his other quirks, Henry was filled with stories, including one of the different colors that dot the cityscape.

He explained to us the light pastel colors that grace the various buildings around town, including Rainbow Row, were placed there by European settlers that relocated to the city from the Caribbean island of Barbados, where those colors are commonplace.

Henry also told us about “Charleston green,” a dark paint that adorns shutters and doors in the city. At first glance it could be considered black, but Henry informed us that there was green and even yellow mix within the color’s formula.

According to Henry, after the Civil War (or as Henry says, “The War of Northern Aggression”) the Union sent thousands of gallons of black paint to Charleston for citizens to paint their homes with, a form of punishment for the city starting the conflict with the first shot fired at Ft. Sumter.

Instead of painting their homes, the residents mixed the color with green and yellow and used it on their shutters and other places outside of their homes.

Perhaps my favorite story about the city’s different colors was the one Henry told about “haint blue.” The light blue color is often found on doors, porch ceilings and even as an all over color on houses.

Haint blue, according to the still present Gullah culture, is said to ward off ghosts, hags and evil spirits. The Gullah believe these specters cannot come out during the day, rather roam in the shadows of night. The color is used on the outside of houses to confuse the spirits into thinking it is daytime.

Amanda VanDerBroek is a Staff Writer for the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. For comments and column suggestions email: or call (252) 332-7209.