Charleston's museums finally chronicle history of slavery





CHARLESTON, S.C. — Here, in this lovely town, once one of the most prosperous in the American colonies, there is no escape.

In the Old Slave Mart Museum that opened in 2007, you read: “You’re standing in the actual showroom, the place where traders sold — and buyers bought — American blacks who were born into slavery.”...

Slavery and its heritage are everywhere here. Charleston was one of the main colonial ports of the 18th century, dealing in rice, indigo and slaves. In 1860 South Carolina held as many slaves as Georgia and Virginia, which were at least twice its size. The genteel grace and European travels of its wealthy citizens were made possible by the enslavement of about half the population.

So on a recent visit, I searched for a public display of an understanding of that American past and its legacy. After all, is there any more vexed aspect of this country’s history than its embrace and tolerance of slavery? And is there any aspect of its past that has been less well served in museums, exhibitions and memorials?

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War that is about to be commemorated means that it has been nearly 150 years since American slavery was brought to an end. But even in the North, the subject is still approached with caution, delicacy and worry. It inspires profound shame, guilt, anger, recrimination and remorse, aimed in many directions for many reasons on both sides of a racial divide.

There have been immensely valuable surveys of slavery in recent years, like the analysis of its connections to New York in two shows created by the historian Richard Rabinowitz and the New-York Historical Society. But there have also been misguided attempts to right historical wrongs, as in Philadelphia’s confused exhibition at its President’s House site. And even affecting commemorations — like the African Burial Ground in New York — mix important facts with overcharged analysis.

Of course, in the North slavery can seem like a distant abstraction, creating its own problems. But in Charleston all abstractions are gone. The strange thing is how long it has taken to see the substance, and how much more is yet to be shown. Several directors of the region’s historical plantations and homes, which offer tours of these once-prosperous estates, told me that until the 1990s, slavery’s role was generally met with silence....



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