Monday, June 6, 2011

Exploring Urban Slavery at Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, SC

Many may not realize it, but three out of every four slaves that came to America did so through Charleston. The Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston has well preserved slave dwellings.  We appreciate the work of Joseph McGill and his efforts through The Slave Dwelling Project to preserve and share our history. See his next article below and see Historic Charleston Foundation to learn more about African American slavery in Charleston.
--Robin Foster, About Our Freedom


Exploring Urban Slavery at the Aiken-Rhett House

By Joseph McGill, Jr. | Program Officer, Southern Office
  National Trust for Historic Preservation | William Aiken House, 456 King Street, 3rd Floor, Charleston, SC 29403 | Phone:  843.722.8552 | Fax:843.722.8652 | Email: joseph_mcgill@nthp.org |www.preservationnation.org

Aiken-Rhett house
Saturday, April 30, 2011 found me at the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, SC to spend the night in a former slave dwelling located there. I went there the day before with my daughter Jocelyn who had spent the night with me earlier this year in Eliza’s House, the Freedman’s Cottage at Middleton Plantation, also in Charleston, SC. Our purpose for being there on Friday was to receive a tutorial on the alarm system for the big house and tour the slave dwellings. In the end, it was decided that access to the big house was not necessary. 

Stables and Carriage House
That Friday I realized how people can be easily lulled into a false sense of history. The magnificence of the Aiken Rhett does not disappoint. As the house is approached from any angle, one cannot help but marvel at its architectural significance. As stated in its brochure: “Built in 1820 and greatly expanded by Governor and Mrs. William Aiken Jr. in the 1830s, the Aiken-Rhett House and its outbuildings have survived as a time capsule virtually unaltered since 1858. The house speaks powerfully about the interconnections among all members of the household. Original outbuildings include the kitchen, slaves’ quarters, stable, coach house and privies.”

Slave Dwelling at Aiken-Rhett House

It is the purpose of places like the Aiken-Rhett House to appeal to tourists, but it is the purpose of the Slave Dwelling Project to bring much needed attention to extant slave dwellings. More recently, this project is allowing me to explore how urban slavery factored into that peculiar institution. The former home of a slave holding governor of the state of South Carolina would be a great place for me to continue my exploration.

The Stay
I got there at 4:50 pm on Saturday which was ten minutes before closing time. Although I had a key to the back gate that I had obtained the day before, the purpose was to get there while staff was still on duty in case there were last minute instructions. Staff was wrapping up an unscheduled group tour. This was a night that I was not scheduled to sleep in the slave dwelling alone. Ernest Parks, James Brown and Terry James all fellow Civil War reenactors were all scheduled to stay. This would be the second stay for Ernest and James and the fourth stay for Terry. All the gentlemen showed up but James Brown was not able to stay because of an impending job that did materialize. 

(left) Ernest Parks (right) Terry James
The remaining three of us slept in the building that contained the kitchen and slave quarters across from the stable and coach house. We all slept in the same room on the upper level farthest away from the big house. Before falling asleep, Ernest and I were engaged in conversation until 2:00 am while it was obvious by Terry’s snoring that he slept well. Terry decided to sleep in the period slave shackles for a second time. Both Ernest and I passed on the opportunity to sleep in the second pair that he brought.  The morning after the sleepover afforded us the opportunity to explore the site without having to compete with tourists. To that end, lots of pictures were taken.
 
One more thank you is in order for the Historic Charleston Foundation. This is the second property under its stewardship of which it has allowed me to stay. The Aiken-Rhett House like McLeod Plantation both preserve and interpret all aspects of its history. If the Slave Dwelling Project had a rating system for stewards of former slave dwellings, Historic Charleston Foundation would rate highly.
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