Charleston Historic Sights, Museums and Homes

 

Although we began our search for Charleston’s history with a couple of guided walking tours (see our June 27 post), one can’t help but to absorb some of the city’s history just by walking the historic streets, both of the southern section of the old city (most of which was destroyed and rebuild after the British shelling) and the northern section (many of whose buildings which survived and remain today).

Although we took two walking tours and did plenty of our own walking, we also wanted to more fully explore some of these historic sights. Among those we visited were the:

 

Slave Mart Museum.

This fascinating and harrowing museum was the first of 40 indoor slave markets which we opened in 1856 after Abolitionists created much furor over the traditional outdoor spectacle of slave auctions and whippings. The museum were divided into two primary parts. The ground floor (which originally consisted of the showroom, the jail, kitchen and morgue) focused primarily on the slave trade: The upstairs on abolition and the early life of freed slaves. The downstairs exhibits were more logically organized and for us, most interesting. It began by portraying the scale of American slavery (12 million in total crossed the ocean) and the predominance of South Carolina (where slaves accounted for 57 percent of the population and in which 8 of the 15 largest slaveholders (each of whom owned more than 500 slaves) lived.

Charleston-slave mart

It then looked at the slave trade; first the international slave trade and the horrendous conditions these people endured (packed tightly and chained into the holds of ships in which only about only about 75 percent even survived a typical three month passage) and the ways in which traders prepared their newly arrived cargo for sale (as by fattening then up, pulling and dying gray hair, exercising them to rebuilt muscle tone, oiling their skins to make them appear more vibrant) and the prices these new slaves commanded (from about $800 for "ordinary girls" to about $1,600 for "extra men"–prices that translated into about $21,000 to $38,000 in current prices). Then, after the international trade was abolished by Congress in 1808, on the domestic trade, in which prices were established not only be factors such as sex,age, health and strength, but also by the types and levels of skills which each possessed.

The exhibits portrayed the conditions in which these slaves were transported (as in in leg irons and ball and chains) and disciplined (especially flogged with whips designed to inflict deep cuts and leave scars and the rubbing of salt into the wounds), the barbarity of some of the slave owners and their black overseers) and even the role of professional punishes who were paid to inflict particularly severe punishment).

The upstairs, meanwhile, consisted of circulars and pamphlets promoting abolition and panels that explained the many different ways in which slaves gained their freedom (as running away, being freed by owners, being bought by previously freed relatives or enlisting in the military) and the lives of these newly freed people, as by discussing their family life, their churches, education and trades, their cultures and so forth.

Although the museum exhibits consisted almost exclusively on text, it was very informative and extremely poignant and disturbing: the horrors inflicted by some men upon others.

 

Exchange and Provost Building.

This formal Georgian building constructed by the British in 1771, was originally used to house public meetings, host sumptuous events and house the customs collector. While initially used for official Colonial business and public meeting, it ended up being used to organize protest against British taxes, elect delegates to the Continental Congress and then to public ally declare independence from England. Then, when British forces captured and occupied the city, it fell under British control.

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The tour of the building, which focuses on the late colonial and Revolutionary War periods, begins with an entertaining, but too long tour of the basement dungeon, which was initially intended as a storeroom became, under the occupation of the city, a British prison used to house everyone from common criminals to prominent patriots–including some signers of the Declaration of Independence. The first floor contains a formal meeting room and another that houses historical displays. The second floor houses the Great Hall, which housed many of the city’s most important meetings and most formal events. It was the site of the election of South Carolina’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention, of the state’s vote to ratify the Constitution and of the ball honoring the nation’s first president, George Washington.

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Exploring Charleston’s Historic Homes

Although such museums are extremely educational, one can also learn much just be walking the city to see the buildings in which free citizens (the vast majority of whom did not own slaves) lived, and also through tours of some of the mansions of some of the richest families (virtually all of which owned at least domestic slaves). We toured two such mansions.

Aikens-Rhett House

The Aikens-Rhett House, while restored to make it safer do presentable, is is relatively bare except for some of the furniture, portraits, art and personal possessions of the families who had actually lived in the house–especially of the state governor (who tried to keep South Carolina in the union) and his Confederate officer son-in-law (who married the governor’s daughter). It showed how the original Federalist style had been remodeled to the then fashionable fusion of neo-Classical with Grecian, Gothic and Rococo designs and objects. The tour began with an audio-guided walk through the slave quarters (dorm style with different size rooms depending on the slave’s skills and status), the yards, stables and garages (with two of the families rather dilapidated carriages) and then into the main house. We saw the double parlor and the dining room where the family entertained (with fragments of original paint and wallpaper), the bedrooms and bathrooms where they lived (including beds, metal-lined tubs and wash basins and so forth, saw and learned about the two stages in which the home was extended and saw some of the underlying structural elements (including some of the exposed beams and lathing). The tour ended in the family’s art gallery, which was furnished with original art and reproductions (acceptable and fashionable at the time) or classical pieces that the family actually owned. A very informative way to learn about the lives of one of the state’s most important families.

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Nathaniel Russell House

The Russell home, in sharp contrast to the Aiken-Rhett house, was restored, as closely as possible to the way it looked under the Russell Family. Twenty two layers of paint were stripped to identify the and match the original colors (including down to the gold leaf details on the living room molding and the faux lapis lazuli details in the parlor music room. Furniture was duplicated as close as possible from a family inventory, and matched with period antiques of the same description. The foundations now eve working with the same British company that produced to carpet to create a matching reproduction (although antique carpet of the same pattern is no longer available. Although the ornamentation (especially the music room molding) is exquisite and the antique furniture is beautiful, the elegant, freestanding, self-supporting, cantilevered, three-story, circular staircase is the highlight. And then there is the view over what was, and still is, the largest private garden in downtown Charleston.

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