Downtown Charleston is filled with historical markers, cobblestones, and homes with more history than many parts of the United States. I listened to what these historic structures told me. The data tells a story so let’s start with the figures.
The end of slavery crashed the global economy. So many early industries were based upon slave labor. Banks held the money from natural resources cultivated by the enslaved, and the money from the sales of enslaved humans is the foundation of Wall Street wealth. Many insurance companies still in business to this day began by insuring human cargo. According to the New York Times, in 1846, an insurance agent traveled from New York City to Richmond, Virginia, selling more than 30 policies in one day to assist planters “to protect their most precious commodity: their slaves.” From the ships constructed in Rhode Island to the British goods made from the crops cultivated by the enslaved, American chattel slavery was a global enterprise that benefitted all except those doing the work. The New York Times article also states, “Alive, slaves were among a white man’s most prized assets. Dead, they were considered virtually worthless. Life insurance changed that calculus, allowing slave owners to recoup three-quarters of a slave’s value in the event of an untimely death.”
Let’s unpack more data. I was floored to learn overseers made on average $1,000 a month. This is remarkable. They often received free housing and put their work off on the slaves. On more than one occasion, I’ve read that slaves were forced to beat each other at the direction of a tired or lazy overseer. Tired, filthy, and often sick enslaved Africans sold for anywhere from $50 for a child to $30,000 for a skilled laborer. These unpaid laborers were issued two sets of clothing per year. One tour guide described the state of affairs as, “Slavery is the use of a man’s labor against his will. A system that benefits few through many and continues to do so, as the roots of American society.”
Our travels took us to Heyward-Washington House, which demonstrates what urban slavery looked like. There is a false narrative about chattel slavery in cities and in the north. Cities held the enslaved in similar bondage as plantations, and the north has blood on their hands as well. Urban slavery and slavery in the northern states were just a brutal and traumatizing as plantation life. Same script, different cast. Historian Joanne Pope Melish has articulated in the north the enslaved would eat and live among their owners however, that was a matter of space and resources. Not all planters enjoyed the elaborate wealth of Henry Middleton or Thomas Jefferson. The relationship of a slave to the owner was a reflection of the owner’s financial capabilities.
The Heyward – Washington House, Georgian in style was built in 1772, and opened in 1930, as Charleston’s first historical house museum. It is a breathtaking symmetrical structure with fine local furnishings like a wine cellarette, a spinet (a harp-styled piano), and ornate Thomas Elfe furniture designs.
The balance and symmetry reflect the time period and design. The library bookcase is priceless and as our guide stated “without equal.”
John Milner, a revolutionary war soldier and gunsmith, was the first owner of the property at 87 Church Street. The Great Fire of 1740, destroyed his family home, business, and more than 300 other dwellings in the area known at the time as “Charles Town” in honor of the King of England. What physically remains of Milner’s ownership is the brick kitchen house and carriage house.
Thomas Heyward acquired the property in the early 1770s and completed construction on the Heyward-Washington house in 1772. Heyward, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, spared no expense; this three-story home is exquisite in style and design. So much so that, in 1791, President George Washington stayed in the home during his Charleston visit. While in Charleston, Washington gifted the town two cannons and spent time entertaining in the glamorous drawing-room. It is rumored that Washington was entertaining local women, these women were not Martha Washington … let’s keep moving forward.
In 1794, Heyward sold the property to Revolutionary War officer John F. Grimke. His daughters Sarah and Angeline grew to become abolitionists and suffragettes. The home survived an earthquake in 1886. The Heyward-Washington House evolved into a boarding house and later a bakery before being acquired by Charleston.
My most memorable moment in the home was the view from the second story landing. As the group explored the two bedrooms and the “Washington drawing room” as well as the “Bookcase drawing room” our guide shared a fact that struck me. She instructed us to look out the window.
The direct-view was of the doorway to the “slave quarters.” By slave quarters, I mean a kitchen and the laundry on the first floor, and a loft upstairs that all the enslaved shared. The guide then informed us that the hallway we were standing in was the sleeping spot for the enslaved that waited on the family. The enslaved slept in the hallway by the second-story stair landing, so they could remain at the beck and call of their master, mistress, and the children.
I learned so much as we toured this home and city. It is hard to conceive of a self-described ‘genteel citizenry’ participating in such brutal and longstanding immoral behavior for personal profit.
Can’t wait to show you what’s next ….
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