Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Charleston, South Carolina: The Ellis Island for Enslaved Africans

 Historians have referred to Charleston as the "Ellis Island for African Americans" because roughly fifty percent of enslaved Africans brought to America during the transatlantic slave trade entered through ports in the lowcountry of South Carolina. this phrase is controversial because the immigrants at Ellis Island arrived there voluntarily whereas Africans were captured and brought here against their will. There are a number of reasons why Africans were brought to the low country, the main reasons had to due with climate, crops, and labor. First, the climate of the lowcountry is similar to that of countries in West Africa such as Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and the Senegambia region (Senegal and the Gambia). The Europeans were not used to this type of climate making Africans perfect for the area. Second, rice crops were prevalent to the region. Africans, not Europeans, were knowledgeable about rice cultivation again making them a perfect solution to the problem. Third, Africans did not know the lay of the land and therefore were ideal in terms of labor. Natives were not used to the type of labor needed  for the crops and were susceptible to the diseases that Europeans carried from Europe.

                                               (photo credit: Google image search)

 Charleston, South Carolina is home to a number of Historical Landmarks. Among these landmarks are slave marts, plantation homes, schools, and antebellum homes. This post discusses 4 landmarks in Charleston: Old Slave Mart Museum, Drayton Hall, Avery Research Center, and the Aiken-Rhett House Museum.

Old Slave Mart Museum:

                                                             (photo credit: Flickr)

The museum opened its doors in 2007 at the site of Ryan's Mart. The building is a complex that consisted of three other buildings- a four-story brick building partially containing a "barracoon," or slave jail, a kitchen, and a "dead house," or morgue. In 1808 a ban on the United States' participation in the international slave trade led to an increase in the demand for slave labor. This created an internal slave trade in which Charleston became a major port of collecting and reselling slaves. In the decades between the drafting of the Constitution and the Civil War, more than one million African-Americans were sold to plantations in the lowcountry. In 1856, a city ordinance prohibited the public selling of slaves resulting in the opening of the Old Slave Mart and a number of other sales rooms, yards, or marts along Chalmers, State and Queen Streets. As of November 1863, slave auctions ended at the Old Slave Mart. After the Civil War, the property had many owners. Between the years of 1878 and 1937 the building was a tenement for black families as well as an auto repair shop. Miriam B. Wilson bought the building in 1938. By then the building became a museum that featured African and African American arts and crafts. In 1964 Judith Wragg Chase and Louise Wragg Graves took over the property and in 1973 placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. They operated the building until 1987. In 1988, the city of Charleston acquired the property.

                                                  (photo credit: National Park Service)

Drayton Hall:

                                                        (photo credit: Carolina Heart Strings)

                                                       (photo credit: Google Image Search)

Drayton Hall was built in 1738 and is the oldest Southern plantation house accessible to the public. TIn its 300 hundred year history, the home has not been restored. The home belonged to generations of Draytons who owned the rice plantation and kept the Georgian Palladian house until 1974. Drayton Hall was also home to African American families such as the Bowens who were brought to South Carolina as slaves from Barbados. After slavery was abolished, Richard Bowens Sr., lived and worked on the property. They were arrived with a member of the Drayton family. The population of black people on the property was very diverse: there were Central West Africans, Angolan Catholics and African Muslims, as well as Native Americans and those of mixed ancestry.

     Similar to many public plantations, Drayton Hall is a popular wedding destination. Why anyone would want to get married on a plantation in this day and age is something I can not wrap my psyche around. I am not superstitious nor do I believe in ghosts but the thought is a bit too creepy for my liking.

                                      (photo credit: Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Avery Research Center: 
                                                      (photo credit: College of Charleston)

 The Avery Research Center opened in 1865 and was established as a school for freed slaves under the name the Avery Normal Institute. Its mission was provide an  academic education to freed slaves. The three-story structure was built in 1868. The Institute was closed in 1954, and the building was later purchased by the state of South Carolina. In 1990, the Avery Research Center opened in the renovated school building by the College of Charleston. The archives of the Avery Research Center focus on the  experiences of African peoples in the Lowcountry. The archives contain documentary material dating from 1777 to the present, including manuscript, photograph and video, and audiotape collections; oral histories; African and African-American art and artifacts; a variety of published materials, including newspapers; and bibliographies.

                                                         (photo credit: College of Charleston)

Aiken-Rhett House:

                                           (photo credit: Historic Charleston Foundation)

 The Aiken-Rhett House provides a different insight into the lives of slaves. People tend to think that slaves lived only plantations. This house provides a different picture and that is slaves living in urban antebellum homes.

                                                         (photo credit: Historic Charleston Foundation)

                                                    (photo credit: Historic Charleston Foundation)

The complex was the home of former governor of South Carolina and prominent politician William Aiken Jr. and his family. The slave quarters, home to the Greggs and the Richardson families, among others, are some of the most well-intact in the country. The preserved home contains real artifacts belonging to the families and remains a true relic of the 19th century, with no electricity or major renovations.

                                           (photo credit: Historic Charleston Foundation)

  This museum offers visitors insight into the live of domestic slaves while debunking myths about house slaves and their comfortable lifestyles. Domestic slaves were constantly under the watchful eyes of their maters and mistresses. They were called upon around the clock. There was little time for downtime. Being in the "big house" did not mean that the lives of  domestic slaves were better than slaves in the fields.

                                                 (photo credit: Historic Charleston Foundation) 

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