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SLAVERY'S HISTORY IS NO SECRET IN CHARLESTON

Published Mar. 20, 2011|Updated Mar. 22, 2011

By Edward Rothstein

New York Times News Service

CHARLESTON, S.C.

Here, in this lovely town, once one of the most prosperous in the American colonies, there is no escape.

In the Old Slave Mart Museum that opened in 2007, you read: "You're standing in the actual showroom, the place where traders sold - and buyers bought - American blacks who were born into slavery."

Or go to Drayton Hall, a local plantation hewn out of the Low Country landscape by hundreds of slaves who also made its rice fields so profitable. At a clearing in the woods near the entrance, you see an information panel and a memorial arch: This was a "burying ground," used at least as early as the 1790s, where the plantation's slaves buried their dead.

Or drive to Boone Hall, another plantation, which you approach through an avenue of moss-draped ancient oaks that leads visitors to the main house: You see a row of rare brick slave dwellings, placed so no visitor could have missed the immense wealth in human chattel. At one time, these one-room homes were joined by others on either side of the oak road, creating corridors of the enslaved, ushering guests to the master's domain.

Or walk into the almost Italianate back yard of the Aiken-Rhett House in town, in which William Aiken Jr., who served as South Carolina's governor, lived in the mid 19th century. Listen to the audio tour explaining that this was a work yard and that such yards "were part of every town house in Charleston in the first half of the 19th century and were the domain of slaves." The house, together with the yards, we learn, "is referred to as an urban plantation."

Slavery and its heritage are everywhere here. Charleston was one of the main Colonial ports of the 18th century, dealing in rice, indigo and slaves. In 1860 South Carolina held as many slaves as Georgia and Virginia, which were at least twice its size. The genteel grace and European travels of its wealthy citizens were made possible by the enslavement of about half the population.

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War that is about to be commemorated means that it has been nearly 150 years since American slavery was brought to an end.

Of course, outside the South, slavery can seem like a distant abstraction, creating its own problems. But in Charleston all abstractions are gone. The strange thing is how long it has taken to see the substance, and how much more is yet to be shown. Several directors of the region's historical plantations and homes told me that until the 1990s, slavery's role was generally met with silence.

At one plantation, Middleton Place, where restored 18th century formal gardens and an exquisitely contoured landscape have won landmark status, descendants of slaves and of the plantation family have had a tradition of recalling their Middleton connections in separate gatherings. But at such gatherings, Charles Duell, president of the nonprofit Middleton Place Foundation, which owns the plantation, has written: "Slavery was never mentioned. The subject was uncomfortable, very uncomfortable - not forgotten, but deeply sublimated."

Slavery, he adds, was "simply not discussed within the family or by employees or with visitors to the gardens."

Then, in 1991, a wood-frame house that freed slaves had lived in since the 1870s was restored as "Eliza's House" to show the living quarters that served generations of workers. In 2005, half of Eliza's House was used to mount an exhibition, still on display, that tells the history of slavery and free black labor on the plantation, complete with the names and cost of each slave - about 2,600 people in all.

The dedication of the black burial ground at Drayton Hall last October also suited a broader plan developed by the hall's executive director, George W. McDaniel. The plantation, owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, not only displays its stunning Palladio-style house but interprets the plantation with special attention to its slave-holding past.

A similar approach has been taken by the Historical Charleston Foundation, which owns the Aiken-Rhett House. The place has been so well preserved that its slave-holding records and the intact buildings provide what it describes as "one of the most complete records of an urban slave community in Charleston, and also the South."

Under the direction of Nichole Green and with Elaine Nichols as curator, the Old Slave Mart, owned by the city of Charleston, is a place where a narrative history is adroitly and soberly told, mostly on mounted wall panels. Part of that history is reflected in the building itself.

Spend an hour here and it starts to seem remarkable that a museum has not undertaken a more ambitious examination of the subject. That will be one of the challenges for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which is scheduled to open in 2015. In the meantime, remnants of slavery's presence are so prevalent here that it becomes poignantly evident just how major an achievement is its enduring absence.

if you go

Visiting Charleston

Websites for museums and attractions listed in this story:

- Old Slave Mart Museum, nps.gov

- Drayton Hall, draytonhall.org

- Boone Hall, boonehallplantation.com

- Aiken-Rhett House, historiccharleston.org (general site where you'll find information about many other sites)

- Middleton Place, middletonplace.org

- National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, scheduled to open in 2015, nmaahc.si.edu