Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Two historians are trying to memorialize locations in the city where slaves were openly sold and auctioned. And they’re everywhere.
CHARLESTON, South Carolina — July 12, 2015, marked the 197th anniversary of “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Its senior pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was not there to celebrate the occasion—he was among the nine African Americans shot dead on June 17 by Dylan Storm Roof, a follower of white supremacist screeds.
Instead, Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff Sr., Emanuel’s interim pastor, presided over the anniversary service, receiving gifts from church visitors as far away as Africa. His sermon theme was “Things to Remember,” which focused on the Bible passage Joshua 4:21.
“And he spake unto the children of Israel, saying, When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones?”
In front of the church is an elaborate stretch of flowers and memorials occupying a sizable chunk of Calhoun Street in Historic Downtown Charleston, which can’t be missed by anyone driving or walking by. What also can’t be missed, a block away from the site of one of the nation’s most horrific acts of domestic terrorism, is another memorial: a towering bronze statue of the man the street is named after, John C. Calhoun, the former U.S. Secretary of War and forever defender of slavery. It stands on a long, granite pedestal hoisted from Marion Square, an expansive green space operated (though not owned) by the city. Not long after the Emanuel shootings, someone spray-painted “RACIST” along the base of the Calhoun monument.
Calhoun’s is but one of many public monuments honoring slavery’s advocates in South Carolina. When Klansmen and New Black Panthers clashed over the weekend at the state’s capitol, they did so below a monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers, which still stands right in front of the state house building, just yards from where the Confederate rebel flag waved before it was taken down on July 10.
There are plenty more Confederate monuments standing in plain sight throughout the state—over 170 as of 2001, according to this letter from former state Attorney General Charlie Condon. Notably, the Confederate Soldier Memorial in Columbia and the Calhoun monument statue in Charleston are both inextricably stitched into each city’s fabric. The function they serve is that they help tell their respective city’s histories. They also project who should be considered the heroes among grand narratives that focus on war.
The black descendants of the enslaved victims of these heroes, meanwhile, have grown up in these cities asking themselves the question Mother Emanuel’s pastor referenced in his sermon: “What mean these stones?”
Roughly 44 percent of black children in Charleston lived in segregated areas characterized by concentrated poverty between 2009 and 2013, compared to just 5 percent of white children, according to the Annie E. Casey’s Kids Count Data Center. The perseverance of these Confederate stones and monuments may provide some context for the ongoing segregation seen today, but that examination is obscured when the conversation focuses squarely on the valor of men who fought and died in Civil War battles.
Edwin C. Breeden, a graduate student at Rice University’s Department of History, and Joseph McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, are hoping to change this discussion. Rather than focusing on the Civil War generals, commanders, and plantations that Charleston’s historic landscapes and tourism industry rely heavily upon, they are urging the city to recognize the places where imported Africans were sold and purchased. These are locations that aren’t just about slavery, but also the centrifugal forces of commerce that set the city’s economic and physical formations in motion.
“Slave labor created the wealth that built all of these buildings, or they were physically built by the slaves themselves,” says McGill as he walks me through Charleston’s French Quarter, a tourist-driven district in downtown where swanky new taverns and bistros share shadows with centuries-old banks and libraries. “[The city] sells history to the public through these architecturally, historically significant buildings, but these same buildings were centrally involved in the institution of slavery.”
One particular building they are focusing on right now is the Old Exchange Building, built in the 18th century as a general marketplace for trading and selling goods, including enslaved Africans. They are working to place a historic marker on a sidewalk corner near the building. The importance of the Old Exchange Building to civic life in Charleston is detailed on its website:
The new Exchange was needed to accommodate the heavy export-import trade and as a place to conduct both public and private business. But the site, design, and construction of the building also symbolized the self-image of Charles Town’s elite. And it was one of the first examples of local urban planning. The site chosen for the new Exchange at the foot of Broad Street was a symbolic point in the life of the city.
Open-air slave auctions occurred mostly right outside of this building, and by the mid-19th century, Breeden tells me, this area became the “most common location” for slave-trading. He and McGill walk me to one spot outside the north end of the Exchange building where most of these auctions took place, on a street known for heavy pedestrian traffic back then.
Over 40 percent of captured Africans brought here before the Revolutionary War came through South Carolina, the grand bulk of whom came through the Charleston port and were later sold in the city’s slave markets, the most prominent of which were situated around the Exchange. Today, a young blonde woman sells Italian sno-cones from the block.
“The Exchange as a destination and landmark in antebellum Charleston included more than the building itself, and it's impossible for us to isolate the building from the commercial activities that occurred around it,” says Breeden. “These auctions, and the people who were sold during them, are as important to the site's history as any other event or person that the building ever hosted.”
The city of Charleston tried to wind down outdoor slave auctioning by passing an ordinance in 1839 prohibiting merchants from holding such auctions in streets and alleys. The city then established a “Mart” in an area outside of the downtown business district where slave trading operations were centralized. But just ten years later, the ordinance prohibiting outdoor sales of slaves was overturned by council members who thought that moving such auctions indoors was a capitulation to northern abolitionists.
As the historian Stephanie E. Yuhl writes, “The law was repealed so as to undermine the arguments of antislavery agitators that closed auctions, out of the public view, were proof that white southerners knew the slave trade was vicious and immoral.”
Charleston does have monuments memorializing the enslaved, most notably a statue honoring Denmark Vessey, the once-enslaved* African American who attempted an insurrection against drivers of the plantation state, and co-founder of Emanuel A.M.E. church. There’s also a monument dedicated to Robert Smalls, the African American who, in 1862, hijacked a Confederate naval ship and steered his family toward freedom.
As necessary as these markers are, they again focus on, in Vesey’s case, the plantation politics of slavery, or, with Smalls, the Civil War glory narrative. But such stories only partly answer the question posed on the Old Exchange Building’s website: “How did the vulnerable Charles Town, the only fortified city in English America, become Charlestown, fourth largest, most beautiful, and wealthiest city in colonial America?”
“The answer,” reads the site “lies in the shipping trade. Rice, indigo, and slavery (“black ivory”) were the major ingredients in the original Low Country recipe, and it was on that simple but powerful economy that colonial Charlestown was built.”
To their credit, South Carolina historians have been bringing more of the economic underpinnings of slave history to the forefront. Much of that is explored in the Old Slave Mart Museum in downtown Charleston, a building that used to be part of a huge mega-complex that served as a sort of distribution center where slaves were imprisoned before being distributed out to the city’s auction sites. Back then, it was called “Ryan’s Mart,” or “Ryan’s Nigger Jail,” named for Thomas Ryan, a local alderman and sheriff. It’s locations like this and the Exchange that deserve to be focal points of Charleston history, if not American history, rather than the battlefield or the plantation. Writes Yuhl:
Allowing the plantation to be the commonplace starting point for understanding slavery similarly obscures the transactional mechanism by which the enslaver's power was expressed—the slave trade. Such an approach also mystifies both the essential capitalist nature of the so-called peculiar institution and the fact that the trade in human beings required constant and deliberate maintenance by white southerners.
Few of the defenders of Confederate monuments bring these economic realities into their arguments. In Robert S. Seigler’s 580-page “Passing the Silent Cup: A Guide to Confederate Monuments in South Carolina,” probably the most comprehensive catalogue of the state’s historic markers, he writes, "Let us of this generation and of those yet to come, see in this marble shaft a daily reminder of that heroism and endurance which was yours in battle and in the trying after-battle days and may we learn the lesson it teaches, not a lesson of hostility or boasting, but the worth of duty."
But what about daily reminders of the labor, pain, and suffering of the enslaved, and what that meant in determining the worth and wealth of the city of Charleston, not to mention the United States as a whole?
California State University, Fresno* history professors Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts argued recently in The Atlantic that bringing down Confederate monuments would be “troubling.” Wrote the professors:
Confederate and proslavery memorials embody, even perpetuate, deeply flawed narratives of the Old South and the Civil War. Yet they also reveal essential truths about the time during which they were erected. … If we do away with monuments like the Calhoun statue, we risk erasing how these memorials reinforced racial inequality in the past. This would constitute a distortion of history, of memory, in its own right. We also risk losing sight of the insidious legacies of these monuments today.
It’s a bewildering argument. Somehow, we understand something about the essential truths of the Holocaust without having statues of Nazi generals embedded all over Europe. In arguing that the “risk of losing sight of the insidious legacies” of the monuments is not one worth taking, Roberts and Kytle seem to forget that related inequalities do not exist only “in the past.” Rather, we are reminded by the very architecture and design of American cities, in Charleston and beyond, how racial inequality is reinforced.
What Breeden and McGill are seeking today is support for markers of that other history that made Charleston the city it is today. When I ask if they’re seeking markers for slave auction spots other than at the Old Exchange, Breeden replies: “Really, if there was a marker at every site in downtown Charleston where enslaved people were once bought and sold, there are streets where you'd constantly be passing them. By the late 1850s, there were literally dozens of places around the city where you could go and buy a person. To be clear, that's not an argument for leaving sites unmarked—it's just one illustration of how thoroughly ingrained the slave trade was within the economic geography of antebellum Charleston.”
*CORRECTION: I identified Denmark Vesey as being enslaved, and though he was born into slavery he was not enslaved at the time of his arrest for conspiring a slave revolt. Also, I misidentified California State University, Fresno history professors Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts as being from the University of California. I regret the errors.