The slave history of Charleston

Before I get into the heart of what I chose to experience as a tourist in Charleston I want to say that we had a lovely time here. Our hosts were wonderful, the architecture is stunning, the people are kind, and the food was delicious. It’s a charming city and I recommend it highly.

But coming off my intense and meaningful visit to the African American Museum of History and Culture in D.C., I really wanted to see some of the sites that figure so prominently in our country’s founding. South Carolina is a good place for this. Do any serious search for things to do in Charleston and more than half of the results will bring you face to face with the state’s roots in slavery and the American Civil War.

Being a tourist in these historical areas of Charleston was a bit like walking through an artificial fog. It wasn’t the thick, blinding kind of fog that might make me doubt my sense of direction. It was the wispy, gentle fog that wanted to soften my gaze. If you’ve been to this beautiful, complicated city, maybe you noticed it – the quiet invitation to treat the past like a riddle no one was meant to solve. But bless your heart for trying.

The fog is a metaphor. The city is beautiful. Photo via.

There were three places in particular that will stay with me –  the Old Slave Mart Museum, the Avery Research Center, and the Magnolia Plantation.

The Old Slave Mart Museum

On our first day of exploring Charleston we stopped in here. (We also visited the aquarium and the City Market, both very nice). The Old Slave Mart sits on a quiet block of Chalmers Street and is surrounded by apartment buildings. We almost walked right by it.

Exterior of the Old Slave Mart. Photo via.

It was once just a large room with a 20-foot ceiling where slaves were bought and sold. Later it was turned into a tenement. Today, the room is crowded to near claustrophobic levels with information. It’s a lot to go through, but the highlight is a recording of a man talking about what it had been like. It was chilling to hear his voice as he talked about the experience of being sold.

Upstairs there is a bit more room, some chairs, and a few artifacts. A docent/employee of the museum was also upstairs answering questions. When we arrived she was having a conversation with an elderly couple, and while it wasn’t our intent to eavesdrop, it was hard not to follow the conversation.

The couple were trying very hard to convince the woman that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery.

“But, wasn’t it about an agriculture versus industry?” the wife said.

“No, no,” the employee replied, sweetly. “It was slavery.”

“From what we understand there were so many more people in the North and they were setting economic policy that wasn’t good for the South,” the wife said, her husband leaning in, nodding.

“No, it was slavery,” the employee said, calm but firm.

Everyone was smiling.  It went on like this for a while. We left before the conversation ended.

Who was right? Check out this Teri Gross interview, this interview with Ken Burns, or just read the South Carolina Articles of Secession. It was slavery. Anyone who tells you otherwise is splitting hairs.

The Avery Research Center

On the recommendation of our hostess I attended a lunchtime lecture here. We heard from historian Louise Knight, who is researching a prominent Charleston family, the Grimkés. More specifically, two of their fourteen children, Angelina and Sarah. Despite the privilege they were born into, and the fact that they had been surrounded by slaves and slave culture from their youth, these sisters became staunch abolitionists and suffragettes. (These ladies are also the subject of Sue Monk Kidd’s fiction novel, The Invention of Wings.)

How did they do it? How did these sisters extract themselves from a culture that was designed to embolden and entrench them? It’s actually hard to say, but the journey from privileged, future slave owners to abolitionists was perhaps made easier by the fact that their parents were horrible people.

The Grimke sisters by Carol Ezell-Gilson. Photo via.

The Grimké sisters diaries give the names, and in some cases the fates, of the slaves who worked in the Grimké home.

I learned that Dinah, who may have been the daughter of a king in Africa, refused to take food because she feared that she was being fattened up to be eaten. And I learned that Margaret, who was a seamstress, tried to run away once and was caught. She was sent to what they called the “Workhouse” in Charleston, but what was really a torture chamber. Margaret was whipped, very likely raped, had her front tooth pulled out to make her easier to recognize should she try to run away again, and was fitted with a collar. The Workhouse was operated by – get this – the State of South Carolina. Evil, thy name is Slavery.

There is more, of course, and I can’t do it justice here in this blog. This is why books and documentaries exist. If there’s more interest out there for the stories of the Grimké’s and the people they enslaved, you can click here, or be on the lookout for Louise Knight‘s book. If you’re in the area, check in on the programs and exhibits offered by the Avery Research Center. It’s well worth your time.

The Magnolia Plantation

My next stop was the Magnolia Plantation. It turns out this plantation was owned by none other than the nephew of the Grimké sisters, John Grimké Drayton. Small world. This guy was a reverend in the Episcopal Church. No one on the property could say how it was possible for this guy to square his religious beliefs with being a slaveholder.

A plaque honoring John Drayton. It makes him out to be a noble victim of events outside his control. Notice the abbreviated middle name, which was Grimke. His aunts were such a scandal in Charleston that he never spelled out his middle name. Photo by T.

There many tours available for just about every place on the plantation. I didn’t have time for all of them, but I did spend a good hour walking around. There is a reason this place is on the National Register of Historic Places. The grounds are beautiful and it is infinitely walkable. If you have any interest in horticulture at all then this is a must for you.

I decided on two tours – the slave cabins and the main house – since the only way to access either of these was to join a tour. The tour guides were threading a narrow public relations needle with respect to slavery. They didn’t hide from the truth, but they didn’t volunteer much of it either.

The Slave Cabins tour was meaningful both for the physicality of the cabins and for the measured words of the tour guide. This was a rice plantation that at one time held hundreds of slaves who worked more than 2,000 acres of land.

Over the course of the tour our guide uttered this sentence: “Some slaves were treated well and others weren’t.” Let’s stop for a moment to take that sentence in. To decide that you own another human being, to force that human being into laboring for you without end, to enslave that person’s children, to criminalize any effort on their part to free themselves is not kindness. It is not “treating them well.” These were human beings, actual and whole. There is no such thing as a nice slaveholder.

The slave cabins. There are four that tourists can walk through, each from different time periods. The oldest (at far left) dates back to 1850. Photo by T.

In spite of the script the tour guide was following, she disclosed that “slaves on this plantation had a 45 percent chance of living to the age of 20.” The high mortality rate was largely environmental. There is a great deal of standing water in a rice field. That means mosquitoes. That means malaria and yellow fever. South Carolina is also swampland. That means alligators and water moccasins (poisonous snakes). The high turnover didn’t matter much because the Reverend Drayton could just go to the Slave Mart and pick up another person to do his bidding.

It wasn’t until a law was passed banning the import of Africans as slaves that slaveholders would provide any health care at all. Suddenly all their slaves had to be born into it, and they became a commodity worth sustaining. Evil, thy name is slavery.

A bed in one of the slave cabins. They would keep their mattresses up in the scaffolding during the day. At night, they’d tighten these ropes to give them support before putting the mattress down. This is where the term “sleep tight” comes from. Photo by T.
Interior of a cabin that was built in 1850 but was modified in the mid 1920’s to house the family of one of the plantation’s gardeners, the Hasties. They would use newspapers for cabin insulation. Photo via.

The Main House tour was bizarre. Knowing what I know now I don’t recommend it. You’d be better off touring the gardens or the swamp. The tour guide, a pear-shaped man with an impeccable Southern accent, walked our group through ten rooms and two floors, and he mostly talked about the fantastic parties that were hosted there. Parties, you guys. Like that was the most important thing that ever happened here.

He also discussed the financial ups and downs of the Reverend John Grimké Drayton. Turning the plantation over to rice production made him rich, but then he made the mistake of putting his entire fortune into Confederate Bonds. We know how that turned out. Penniless, he sold all but 500 acres of the plantation and opened up the gardens to tourists.

Photography is not allowed in the house but there is a museum in the basement area where photos are allowed and there is an extensive collection of old pictures.

The main house at the Magnolia Plantation. This is the third home built on the plantation. The first was struck by lightning and burned, the second was burned at the end of the Civil War. Photo by T.

I left South Carolina with that foggy feeling of having witnessed something important, something that filled me with sadness and anger, but that also left me speechless.

I am a white person. I was born into a system that has been designed for generation upon generation to make things easy for me. I didn’t do anything to earn it or deserve it. It’s just there for me. This very same system makes things harder for people with a different color skin than me. They didn’t do anything to earn it or deserve it. It’s just not there for them.

This is our mutual inheritance, this baffling lie that values one life over another. How do we engage in a meaningful way with the Original Sin of our country, and the ongoing discrimination and evil that has descended from it? How do we earn our humanity?

What I know is that we can’t stop talking about it, engaging with it, witnessing each other with respect. One foot goes in front of the other. We keep marching on. This country was founded on a brutal hypocrisy. The notion of freedom from tyranny combined with institutionalized slavery doesn’t square. We built a country on unspeakable evil. We’re less evil now. We still have work to do.


One comment

  1. I thought The Invention of Wings was a great book. Very moving. And yes, it made me want to learn more about these amazing women.
    I love your thoughtful response to being witness to the sites of so much suffering. What can we do but bear witness and speak our truths?


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