Museum gives voice to a brutal past

The aged voice that fills the Old Slave Mart Museum's first gallery belongs to Elijah Green. He was born on Christmas Day in 1843 – and survived to describe life as a slave to a 1930s interviewer with a microphone.

In another recording, Delicia Patterson tells the story of when she was auctioned off as a 15-year-old, and a man who was known for his meanness tried to buy her. Her words still hold some of her youthful fire.

“I spoke right up on the auction block,” she says, “and told him, ‘Old Judge Miller, don't you bid for me. I would take a knife and cut my throat from ear to ear before I would be owned by you.'”

She didn't have to do it. The judge walked away, another buyer moved in, and Patterson remained among the last of the slaves who labored in the United States for generations. More than 300,000 were hauled into the United States through Charleston's port. Even after importing slaves was outlawed in 1808, the buying and selling of those who were already here – or were born here – remained big business.

The Old Slave Mart Museum, which reopened in the fall after being closed for 20 years, picks up there.

“To most Americans, this is an unknown part of our history,” says the museum's curator, Nichole Green.

The museum is in the last surviving building that housed Charleston's part of the slave trade. Run by the city of Charleston, this is the latest incarnation of a museum that was established in 1938, when it was one of the first in the United States to focus on African-American history. Since its reopening, it has had more than 14,000 visitors.

Most everyone knows that slavery was the foundation of the Old South's agricultural economy. The Old Slave Mart fills in a less-familiar part of the picture: how slaveowners and businessmen turned humans into a commodity.

Using information from a long-ago slave trader, a museum display shows the prices that slaves typically fetched in 1860. Among those with no special training, a 20-year-old commanded top dollar: $900, which equals about $20,000 today. A slave trained in carpentry or another skill might cost around twice that.

Until the mid-1800s, the dealing in Charleston was done outdoors. That gave the auctions plenty of room to operate. But it also meant visitors to town could stumble upon the trading. Some didn't like what they saw.

The museum displays an account by a traveler from England, the home of many Charlestonians' ancestors. The writer, Eyre Crowe, tells his homeland about “the curse of slavery” by describing a slave auction in the Illustrated London News. A European visitor, Crowe says, wants to “blush for the unworthy descendants who can thus profane the freedom cherished by their British ancestry.”

Like image-conscious cities to this day, Charleston caught on to its public-relations problem. Its leaders didn't ban trading. They simply ordered it indoors as of July 1, 1856. That day, businessman Thomas Ryan opened an auction house a short walk from the waterfront. It was one of several dozen that sprang up in the neighborhood adjoining East Bay Street, which then as now was one of Charleston's main thoroughfares.

The last remaining part of Ryan's Mart – as the business became known – today houses the Old Slave Mart Museum. The sturdy, arched façade opening onto the cobblestones of Chalmers Street leads to what was originally the high-ceilinged auction room. Today it holds two floors of galleries. Upstairs galleries feature changing exhibits. Downstairs, permanent exhibits show how traders made their money.

Ryan was ready with everything it took:

A building at the rear of the complex contained holding cells.

A kitchen in another building supplied food for the slaves, who might be weak from a long trek on foot.

To prepare slaves for sale, Ryan's workers bathed them and oiled their skin to make them look healthier. If a slave had gray hair, the staff would pluck it out or dye it. Ryan could also supply clothes.

Auction-house workers coached the slaves on what to say if potential buyers wanted to talk to them. The sellers wanted them to play up what hard workers they were, in hopes of driving up the price. Older slaves were encouraged to lie about their age.

Yet the business wasn't about tender loving care, despite the baths and food. As Elijah Green recalls in that 1930s recording, Ryan was merciless with slaves who disobeyed.

“Very rarely did one of his slaves survive a beating,” Green says.

Even more sobering are displays of a cat-o'-nine-tails whip or an array of shackles. But they also testify to human ingenuity. Some resourceful designer crafted shackles with compartments holding pebbles that rattled if a slave tried to move quickly. Yet those fell out of use, the display text explains, when slaves realized they could silence the shackles by stuffing them with mud.

Elijah Green and Delicia Patterson talk with the calm strength of survivors.

Patterson, describing the day she was sold, says her father hoped the man who owned him would buy her. But when the slaveowner heard her talk back to old Judge Miller, he declared that he didn't want a slave who was “sassy.” He passed her up.

“That broke my father's heart,” Patterson says. “But I couldn't help that.” Another owner came along who liked slaves with “some spunk.” He bid for her, won, and took her to his home.

“I lived with that family,” Patterson says, “til the Civil War was over.”