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Step inside the back buildings and former work lots of Charleston’s private houses during the second annual Beyond the Big House Tour, Sept. 15, 2018, presented by The Slave Dwelling Project, the Charleston Gaillard Center and Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF). Kitchens, carriage houses, slave dwellings and even churches where the enslaved worshiped have survived to tell the stories of African Americans in early Charleston, their lives and immense contributions to the fabric of our city.
The Charleston Gaillard Center, where the tour will begin, stands between two historically significant early neighborhoods, Mazyck-Wraggborough and Ansonborough, separated by Calhoun Street. Now in the heart of Downtown, the earlier name for the thoroughfare, Boundary Street, represents a time when the road defined the northern edge of Charleston. Beyond the city limits in Mazyck-Wraggborough, where there were fewer restrictions on free people of color, a diverse community grew adjacent to the suburban villas of wealthy white planters and merchants. Explore several properties associated with African Americans, both free and enslaved, in these noteworthy neighborhoods and learn how the properties have been preserved and re-used by the current owners.
“When the buildings remain on the landscape, it’s hard to deny the presence of the people who lived in them,” said Joseph McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. “From these buildings, we learn about the lives of the enslaved people who inhabited or spent time in them. This event is part of a continuing effort to honor the enslaved ancestors. The history of the people who occupied these spaces should be intertwined with the stories of those who enslaved them. What started as an idea of English Purcell became a successful and enlightening sold-out event last year, one that moved many people. It continues to flourish as an opportunity for participants to explore and learn the history beyond the big house.”
English Purcell, a local researcher and administrator for the popular Facebook group “Charleston History before 1945,” said the idea came to her while “zooming across the Charleston peninsula” on Google Earth. “The number of smaller buildings behind the large dwellings on the lots was astounding,” she said. “We are very grateful to the property owners who live in these special spaces and have cared for them and preserved them. The lives of the enslaved were so unbelievably different from those who occupied the ‘big houses’ that are visible from the street. Charleston was the wealthiest city in colonial North America, and that wealth was built literally and figuratively by the enslaved. We want to highlight their stories. Focusing this tour on the buildings where the enslaved worked and lived is not only interesting historically, it is critical to telling the complete story of Charleston.”
In addition to private sites rarely open to the public, Historic Charleston Foundation’s Aiken-Rhett House lot and outbuildings, c.1820, which have been preserved as found, are included on the tour. The property survives as one of the best-preserved collections of 19th-century domestic buildings in the nation, and the expansive back lot includes slave quarters above the kitchen, laundry and carriage buildings.
“We are honored to be a part of this significant and meaningful educational program,” said Winslow W. Hastie, President & CEO of HCF. “Recent archaeological excavations in the laundry building at the Aiken-Rhett House yielded an unprecedented number of artifacts related to the daily lives of enslaved people on the property, discoveries that will allow us to continue to expand our interpretation of African American history at our house museums even further.”
Slave Dwelling Project
The Slave Dwelling Project’s mission is to identify and assist property owners, government agencies and organizations in preserving extant slave dwellings. The organization identifies preservation resources and assists communities to mitigate the possibility of demolition of local existing slave dwellings. Joe McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, is a Civil War Re-enactor (54th Massachusetts Regiment) and a descendant of enslaved people. McGill has reached over 90 historic sites in more than 18 states, engaging with diverse audiences by conducting education programs and drawing attention to slave dwellings by staying in them overnight. The goal of the Slave Dwelling Project is to bring historians, students, faculty, writers, legislators, organizations, corporations, artists and the general public together to educate, collaborate and organize resources to save these important records and reminders of our American history.
“Now that I have the attention of the public by sleeping in extant slave dwellings,” says McGill, “it is time to wake up and deliver the message that the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history.”
(Image credit: CVB website)