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History becomes a burden at Charleston's Old Slave Mart

The Old Slave Mart museum is the only building left from a compound that opened in 1856. About 40 percent of the blacks enslaved in the United States passed through its gates.

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The Old Slave Mart museum is the only building left from a compound that opened in 1856. About 40 percent of the blacks enslaved in the United States passed through its gates.

CHARLESTON, S.C.

The Old Slave Mart sits on a quiet cobblestone street, not far from a Confederate flag that marks the entrance to a secession-era courthouse.

The scene seems profound, but in this city of history, where the Civil War's first shots were fired, the vestiges of lost causes are ordinary.

The name alone — "mart"— is difficult to fathom today. It seemed even more incongruous because I visited on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, also the eve of the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president.

The Old Slave Mart is a relatively new historical attraction in a city that preserves and promotes history with great care. The city of Charleston bought the property in 1988, but it didn't open it as a museum until two years ago.

The Old Slave Mart is the only remaining slave auction house in South Carolina. It is virtually lost deep on the Charleston peninsula, where columned mansions nestle between brick facades hiding private gardens.

In these boroughs, author Pat Conroy, writing in The Lords of Discipline, found the city's "severe covenants and secrets are as powerful and beguiling as its elegance." One of those lesser-known secrets is surely what happened 150 years ago at 6 Chalmers St.

Thomas Ryan, a city alderman and prominent slave profiteer, opened the compound in July 1856 after Charleston banned the outdoor sale of black people on the streets. Known then as Ryan's Mart, it served as the anchor of the slave-trading district and was famous throughout the South.

About 40 percent of the nation's enslaved blacks came through this port, with most landing at Sullivan's Island, a now-rich strip of sand that the state's current governor calls home.

It's widely thought that first lady Michelle Obama's ancestors came through Charleston. Her great-great-grandfather worked on a rice plantation in nearby Georgetown before he was freed during the Civil War.

The museum carries this burden of a nation's history. And the physical feeling for visitors is revealing. On the first floor, as you enter, the ceiling is low; psychologically you feel captive.

The whole tour, self-guided and no pictures, is solemn. The history appears printed on a display wall.

I see: Maps of slave trade routes. Descriptions of how the slavery business operated. The price of a slave in today's dollars. The rusted shackles in glass cases.

But the part that brings to life the full affect of this history is a first-hand audio account from former slave Elijah Green, who was born in 1843. He told his story to a writer for the Works Progress Administration in 1937. He recounts how "very seldom one of (Ryan's) slaves survived a whipping."

The slave mart's biggest shame is its small size. It once was a full compound with its own morgue. But the other buildings were long ago razed and turned into a parking lot.

Its remaining structure, really just a roofed alley, hardly speaks to the enormous impact slavery has had on our nation.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

.IF YOU GO

Old Slave Mart

The Old Slave Mart is at 6 Chalmers St., Charleston. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $7 and children under 5 years old are free. Call (843) 958-6467 for more information.

History becomes a burden at Charleston's Old Slave Mart 02/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 3:33pm]
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