Tommy Dew: An engaging and unscripted historian
By Prioleau Alexander
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, there were two popular South Carolina bands traveling up and down the East Coast, and both seemed bound for stardom. One was Hootie and the Blowfish, and the other was The Archetypes. Hootie got their break, but — as so often happens in rock and roll — the road wore down the members of The Archetypes, and they finally called it quits.
The lead singer for The Archetypes, Tommy Dew, took it in stride, and went from one type of performing to another — by becoming a tour guide.
In 1996, the Internet was still in its infancy, so breaking into a business such as guiding tours was extremely hard work. Tommy leaned into it, and says he did as many tours as visitors would pay for — sometimes six in a single day. But his unique approach to educating visitors caught on, and slowly clients began to show up explaining they’d been referred by a friend.
Today, virtually 100 percent of his clients are referrals because Tommy tells the story of Charleston in an utterly fearless manner, and helps visitors understand why Holy City residents did what they did throughout the centuries.
“I don’t view history as a bunch of names and dates,” he said. “It’s about the how and why. We live in an incredibly unique place. I want guests to understand the circumstances that led our city to evolve the way it did.
“If you want to learn about our city, you’ve got to have the courage to talk about uncomfortable facts,” Tommy continues. “History is history. We can’t change it, or act like it didn’t happen. Increasingly, society is quick to pass judgement, holding those who came before us to a set of standards they did not know existed. The woke cancel culture that dominates academia, media and the government is illogical and dishonest.”
“History,” he says, “is about context.”
A key aspect of Tommy’s tours — in addition to his wealth of knowledge — is his ability to distill complex topics down to digestible sound bites. He says it’s important that his walking tour guests learn while being entertained … but not overwhelmed. Covering 350 years of history in two hours requires graceful delivery of interesting facts.
Tommy has had clients take his tour a dozen times because every tour is unscripted and different. He will take different routes, tell human interest stories, and read the crowd based on their questions. He makes sure to communicate that those who came before us are just like us today — the brokenness of the human condition pervasive and perpetual.
Some of the questions Tommy gets are based on myths his clients have heard. Among the most common are:
“Slaves were sold in the City Market.” Tommy: It was a farmers’ market where slaves bought and sold food. It was always against the law to sell slaves in the city market, in part because they did not want working slaves to be exposed to such a grim event.
“Rainbow Row is colorful because most people back then were illiterate.” Tommy: The myth says that the color represented what was sold there. Pink sold watermelon. Green sold cabbage. The truth is Rainbow Row didn’t get its famous pastel look until the 1930s.
“Mounting blocks were small slave auction blocks.” Tommy: They are nothing more than steps to assist homeowners step up into their carriages.
“An open garden gate it is an invitation to enter.” Tommy: Actually, it’s an invitation speak with a very cross homeowner.
“Our houses are narrow to avoid taxes.” Tommy: There was never a frontage tax in Charleston, but because so many cities did tax that way, a travel writer made the assumption, put it into print decades ago, and it’s never gone away. Narrow houses allow for windows to wrap the rooms providing cross ventilation.
As Charleston had grown into one of the nation’s biggest vacation spots, Tommy well understands local frustrations with downtown crowding.
“The way I see it,” Tommy says, “if the guide simply has good manners, walking tours are the best way to show off the city. It’s important to be discreet, and not interfere with locals trying to live their lives. Guides should ensure their guests never block the sidewalk, speak only loud enough for the group to hear, and cross the street as a tight group. And if I see a homeowner on the porch of a house I’d like to discuss, I’ll bypass their house — everyone deserves their privacy.
While most people — especially natives — view Charleston as a sort of historical island, and look inward regarding our history, Tommy enjoys telling the story of our small city’s impact on the entire history of America. The way he weaves the story together is something every Charleston resident should experience.
Tommy has been giving historic tours of Charleston for more than 25 years now, and claims he’s never had a bad day at work.
“There are enough stories, alleyways and questions” he says, “to keep this job different every single day. And it’s a special treat for me and my guests when a local friend says hello … they can’t believe there’s a city where friends run into each other walking around outside their neighborhood.”
“But,” he adds, “as we all know, that’s Charleston.”
If you’d like to learn the oft-untold stories of our Holy City, visit tommydewswalkingtour.com or call 843.856.8687 (TOUR).