Charlie Lloyd

Charleston, South Carolina, 2011

Last year I decided to apply to the University for a Travel Scholarship to visit Charleston, SC in order to gain more knowledge on slavery which became a subject of special interest to me during my first year. Charleston seemed like the ideal location to choose because of the city’s history of slavery until the time of Emancipation. Once I got to Charleston I found a number of places to visit which I felt would help me learn more about the institution of enslavement. Among these places were the Old Slave Mart, which has been transformed into a museum entirely about slavery, the Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House; two former homes of prominent Charleston slaveholders. I also attended a Carriage Tour around the city and spent time exploring the city by myself in order to gain a sense of the remaining legacy of slavery in the city. By the end of my visit I had learned a number of things about slavery and Charleston’s role in remembering it. Whilst I did gain some knowledge of slavery at the Old Slave Mart and on the Carriage Tour, one of the most striking things I learnt during my visit to Charleston was that the primary focus of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation in remembering its history is remembering the prominence and wealth the city had in the past, and whilst slavery is remembered to an extent, I certainly sensed that this was almost because Charleston ‘has’ to remember, and that talk of slavery, particularly at the Aiken-Rhett and Nathaniel Russell Houses, was something that is preferred to be kept to a minimum. This was incredibly interesting in itself and I came home with a feeling that I had had a fascinating and hugely worthwhile experience, both in viewing slavery’s legacy in the South and in gaining an understanding of the nature of remembrance of the peculiar institution.


In terms of witnessing the present day legacy of slavery in America, it was evident as soon as I arrived. Even before I left the airport in Charlotte, NC it was clear that skilled and unskilled jobs had a stark division on racial lines as the vast majority of janitors, cleaners etc. were black whilst more highly paid positions were dominated by white labour. This was even more true of Charleston than the airport and on my bus journey into the city centre I was shocked to see the dilapidated condition of the areas of Charleston that housed largely poor black citizens, particularly in contrast to the grandeur of the homes in the centre which housed extremely wealthy families which were mainly inhabited by whites. Also hugely interesting was seeing the traditional baskets made by African Americans on sale along many of the streets in the heart of Charleston. Many of these handmade baskets had a price of over $1000 which is of course partly due to the incredible skill involved in the making of them but also I suspected due to a certain degree of white middle-class guilt. Overall the legacy of slavery was abundantly clear and whilst I arrived in Charleston expecting to see such gaps in wealth between whites and African Americans, seeing it in ‘real life’ was still hugely disturbing.


Over the course of my stay in Charleston, I did gain information about slavery which will have helped me in my exam that summer. The Carriage Tour and in particular, The Old Slave Mart were the two aspects of the visit which provided me with the most information. I have to say the Slave Mart, now converted into a museum, was the highlight of my trip to Charleston. The fact that I was walking around a building where slaves were once bought and sold was chilling yet fascinating, and the museum was certainly very informative. The most profound memory of the Mart was seeing the shackles which were used on slave children, which brought home more than anything else on the trip the grim reality of slavery. Gaining this sense of reality, which is never as easily achieved when reading books and articles, was perhaps the deciding factor in my dissertation topic and made a previous interest in slavery something which I feel will always be a lifelong fascination.


Two other locations I visited were the Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House, both well maintained homes of former Charleston aristocrats who owned slaves who lived on the grounds of the properties. In the Aiken-Rhett House, whilst on a headphone tour, I walked around the former slave quarters and found it intriguing to see the basic conditions in which they lived in juxtaposition to the immaculately furnished main home. The most interesting thing about the tours of both homes however, was what the guides did not say rather than what they did talk to us about. I was slightly surprised at the lack of emphasis on talk of slavery at the Aiken-Rhett House, however I was utterly perplexed at the almost complete lack of mention of anything regarding slavery at the Nathaniel Russell House. This tour was given by a tour guide, as opposed to the previous headphone tour I had attended, and I was amazed that the entire tour was focused solely upon the wealth of the Russell Family. Amidst talk of wallpaper and finely carved mahogany beds, the word ‘slave’ was mentioned once, in response to a question regarding the slaves by another visitor on the tour. The tour guide responded ‘There were slaves, yes’, and that was the extent of the tour guides offering on the subject. At the end of the tour I asked the tour guide where the slaves lived, and he replied that the slaves previously lived in a building in the grounds of the property which burned down long ago. That satisfied my questioning of why we were not shown around the slave quarters, but I was still left intrigued that on a tour of a house which is meant to encapsulate Charleston’s past, the tour was devoted entirely on the finery of the house’s fittings and its history of keeping slaves was brushed completely under a very expensive carpet.


This tour in particular posed a number of questions and to an extent epitomised the nature of the way in which Charleston harks back to its past. The Old Slave Mart was hugely informative, but outside of this museum detailed analysis of the institution which was the life blood of the city for so long was mentioned no more than absolutely necessary. It is understandable that the city feels guilt about its very active role in slavery in the past, and the city also has every right to also look nostalgically at the beauty and wealth of its old homes, yet I was still concerned that not enough has been done by the Historic Charleston Foundation to provide stark and comprehensive information on the institution that provided much of the wealth that is celebrated.


Despite this, my trip to Charleston was hugely beneficial to me and I had an experience that I shall always remember. The nature of remembrance in the city is intriguing in itself and apart from the joys of tourism I experienced such as local food and exploring a foreign city, I also gained some truly worthwhile experiences both in witnessing the legacy of slavery and in viewing the historical items that are featured in the Old Slave Mart. I am very grateful to the University for funding my trip which I returned from with an even greater interest in slavery in America.

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