Hidden in Plain Sight: Centering the Domestic Slave Trade in American Public History

Article excerpt

THERE IS A SECRET HISTORY LURKING IN ELIZABETH O'NEILL Verner's etching Mellowed by Time (1935-1936), one of the more enduring artistic depictions of Charleston, South Carolina. At first glance, this image presents a lovely glimpse of one of the city's famous landmarks, St. Philip's (Episcopal) Church, whose cemetery boasts the graves of elite South Carolinians, including Senator John C. Calhoun and Declaration of Independence signer Edward Rutledge. A slight shift in the angle of approach to the church, however, brings into focus a very different perspective on the history of the city. Situated in the foreground to the right of the church steeple is a four-story, windowed, and decidedly run-down brick building that might seem to be just another example of the dilapidated charm that characterizes much of Historic Charleston visual culture. (1) In fact, the building is the remains of the Ryan's Mart barracoon, or "'Ryan's nigger-jail,'" the brutal ground where enslaved African Americans were imprisoned and prepared for sale and dispersal in what was one of the city's robust slave-trading businesses of the antebellum period. (2)

Although the internal slave trade in the United States was one of the largest forced dislocations in world history, and the antebellum southern slave market its central commercial agent, the reality of the domestic trade remains abstract for most Americans today. Like the Ryan's Mart barracoon in Verner's image, remnants of this vital history are largely hidden in plain sight on the American commemorative landscape. Few southern communities that explicitly bank on their plantation past through historical tourism highlight properties or venues associated with the domestic slave trade. The racialized commerce in human beings is a painful subject that is exceedingly difficult to present in public historical form, as evidenced by the heated debate surrounding the controversial 1994 reenactment of a slave sale in Colonial Williamsburg. (3) It is the rare community that even acknowledges the physical reminders of the local trade in its midst, and most of these exceptional instances of public recognition have only come about in recent years, in Virginia, for example, a slave auction block on a street corner in Fredericksburg and a landmark plaque and small, private museum noting the site of Alexandria's notorious slave-trading firm Franklin and Armfield gesture toward this past. (4) Outside Natchez, Mississippi, a marker recognizes "The Forks of the Road," the location of the region's vigorous slave market that fed the expansion of King Cotton into the Old Southwest. The result of grassroots organizing, the display consists of a series of interpretative panels alongside the highway and is, unfortunately, easily sped past by visitors heading to view the capital of old Mississippi's cotton-planter elite. Likewise, in Savannah, one of the single largest auctions of slaves in American history, known as "the Weeping Time"--a tragic tale of 436 men, women, and children who were sold at the city's racetrack in 1859 to pay off the debts of planter Pierce M. Butler--is similarly reduced to a signpost. Finally, in New Orleans, the booming commercial hub of the antebellum domestic trade, where one would expect to find multiple examples of its formal commemoration, none exist. (5)

Charleston's Old Slave Mart Museum (OSMM), located on a portion of the former Ryan's Mart property, serves as a vivid physical corrective to this glaring absence. Situated in the center of a thriving tourist town otherwise known for its impressive stock of elaborate planters' mansions and seen as a rather romantic destination landscape, the OSMM is a rare and preserved original structure where enslaved human beings were regularly sold in the years leading up to the Civil War. Through the building's material reality and its exhibits detailing the internal slave trade, the OSMM makes the history of American trafficking in human beings inescapable for Charleston residents and visitors. …