December 2: Charleston

The Slave Trade and Urban Slavery

Charleston was wet this morning! It stormed during the night, and we stood on the breakfast balcony of our hotel this morning and watched the water flow into the streets. The hotel manager told us this was all quite normal – they put sandbags outside the door of the hotel to keep the water from coming into the lobby!

Old-Slave-Mart-Museum-2During the day we went first to the Old Slave Mart Museum, just six blocks south of our hotel.  Ryan’s Mart was one of the most established slave markets in Charleston, known far and wide throughout the south as a place to buy slaves. The exhibits were very informative and the volunteer staffing the museum was extremely helpful in answering our questions. The museum is fairly small: just two rooms. But its message and impact were huge. We saw and heard some moving slave narratives. The one exhibit that brought tears to some of our eyes was not just the chains and the shackles, but the baby sized shackles that they used on the children.

















Aiken-Rhett-HouseWe left there and walked through beautiful downtown Charleston on our way to the Aiken-Rhett House. In the 1820’s and 1830’s, this was the governor’s mansion. The family owned approximately 700 slaves, most of whom worked on a rice plantation outside the city. Only 10-20 slaves worked at the house as servants and stable hands. The contrast between the slave quarters and the mansion was intriguing to all of us: a family of slaves shared a 15′ x 15′ room and the governor’s wife converted the ballroom into her bedroom.





On our journey, we talk about music as an integral element of the Civil Rights movement. Many of the songs of the movement have their roots in the slave songs, and our song for today was one of them:

Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom over me, over me. And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave. And go home to my Lord and be free.


Student Responses

Jared: “The Price of a Human Being,” was the title of one of the displays in Ryan’s Mart. While it is common knowledge that slaves were sold throughout history, to see what slave owners considered to be the specific dollar value of an individual put things in a different perspective. On average, at 20 years old, the dollar value for an African American was $900; depending on certain skills and abilities, your value increased. For an individual’s worth to be predicated solely on his ability to serve his master is a hell of a thing. These enslaved blacks were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and at the bare minimum human beings with feelings, emotions, individual merit, a soul— yet they are judged and valued on how they can serve their white slave owner.

This is one of those events that is down played in the way it is presented in books and taught in school. To hear African Americans were sold at slave auctions is completely different from seeing a chart that stated:

woman – age 43 / cooks/ $1100

boy – age 9/ good health/ $600

This is a perfect example that when a situation is not personal, or you have no direct ties, it is hard to get a real feel or understanding. Whether white, black, or any race or nationality, as a human, if you look at this aspect of slavery honestly, there is no way that you can describe this other than wrong.

Sarah: Today we began our tour of Charleston, South Carolina. We started at the old Slave Mart museum. The museum was in the building which had served as one of many markets where slaves could be bought and sold. The museum presented a lot of valuable information but overall it was too much reading. I doubt that the general public would have spent much time reading through all that text that covered the walls. There were some interesting aspects however. I particularly appreciated letters and actual voice recordings of people who had been enslaved themselves.

When we went I expected to see an old empty building where we could stand and try to imagine what had taken place there. I was disappointed that the building was so covered with plaques that we couldn’t even see the walls of the old showroom. I felt that the value of the museum as a landmark itself had been destroyed by the fact that the original structure was intangible.

We then proceeded to the Aiken-Rhett house. This house was owned by one of the wealthiest families in America and was home to about ten to twenty slaves. This house has remained mostly untouched where most others like it have been renovated and restored. It was definitely old: the plaster was crumbling, wallpaper was peeling and the floors were worn and uneven.

Here I had my first experience with ‘being in the presence of history.’ When we were standing in the warming room (part of the kitchen) we learned that the old shale tile floor was the original from when the house was first constructed. My head spun as I realized that I was standing on the very same surface that slaves had walked on not all that long ago. I imagined what it would have been like to lug heavy pots, crouch over the fire and prepare dishes to be brought upstairs to the master’s dining table.

One thing that is interesting about Charleston is how different groups go to historical sites for different reasons. Our tour guide Glenna was an affluent elderly white woman. She felt uncomfortable calling slaves as such in front of our group because she wasn’t sure if people would take offense to it. It was evident that she wasn’t used to groups like ours who were interested in the slave quarters. That house was preserved there to demonstrate the wealth and grandeur of Charleston’s old elite families. That is what most tourists went there for. Glenna didn’t have much to say about the spaces the slaves occupied yet she could talk endlessly about drapes, gilding and fine art.

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