The Old Slave Mart

Beez Neez
Skipper and First Mate Millard (Big Bear and Pepe)
Fri 6 Jan 2012 22:17

The Old Slave Mart



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The Old Slave Mart at 6 Chalmers Street in Charleston once housed an antebellum slave auction gallery. We paid seven dollars each to visit, should have been five for Bear as an elder but the lady must have felt kind.


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Constructed in 1859, the building is believed to be the last extant slave auction gallery in South Carolina. In 1975, the Old Slave Mart was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its role in Charleston's African-American history. Today, the building houses the Museum.

The Old Slave Mart was originally part of a large slave market known as Ryan's Mart, which covered a large enclosed lot between Chalmers and Queen Streets. The market was established in 1856 by Charleston sheriff Thomas Ryan after a citywide ban on public slave auctions made private markets necessary. Slave auctions were held at the site until the Union Army occupied Charleston and closed Ryan's Mart in 1865. The Old Slave Mart Museum has operated off and on since 1938. Now a permanent exhibition, sounding interesting off we trotted to find it.


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Design: The Old Slave Mart is a 67-foot by 19-foot brick structure with a stuccoed facade. The facade (south side) faces the cobblestone-paved Chalmers Street. The building originally measured 44 feet by 20 feet, but an extension of the building in 1922 gave it its current dimensions. The unique facade of the Old Slave Mart consists of 20-foot octagonal pillars at each end, and a central elliptical arch that provides the entrance.

The building's interior originally contained one large room with a 20-foot ceiling. In 1878, a second floor was added and the roof was overhauled. The arched entryway originally consisted of an iron gate, but was filled in and converted to simple doors in the late 1870’s. Partitions were added in subsequent decades, dividing the first floor into three rooms. An iron gate has since been restored to the archway.




The layout of Ryan's Mart, circa 1860 


History: Throughout the first half of the 19th century, slaves brought into Charleston were sold at public auctions held on the north side of the Exchange and Provost building. After Charleston prohibited public slave auctions in 1856, slave markets sprang up along Chalmers, State and Queen Streets. One such market was Ryan's Mart, established by Charleston sheriff and alderman Thomas Ryan and his business partner, James Marsh. Ryan's Mart originally consisted of a closed lot with three structures - a four-story barracoon, a kitchen and a morgue.

In 1859, an auction master named Z. B. Oakes purchased Ryan's Mart and built what is now the Old Slave Mart building for use as an auction gallery. The building's auction table was 3 feet high and 10 feet long and stood just inside the arched doorway. Along with slaves, the market also sold real estate and stock. Slave auctions at Ryan's Mart were advertised in broadsides throughout the 1850’s, some appearing as far away as Galveston, Texas. About 40 percent of the nation's enslaved blacks came through this port, with most landing at Sullivan's Island, a now-rich strip of sand that the state's current governor calls home.



An increase in market demand growing out of England's textile industry ensured favorable prices and spurred the ascension of the short-staple cotton industry. Improvements in the production and transportation of cotton and the new demand for the fibre led to a scramble for greater profits. To reap the most profits and to provide the labour needed for cotton picking, a large number of slaves were imported into South Carolina and Georgia, and slave labour became a valuable market throughout the South.

As the cotton-based economy boomed so did slavery, since slaves were needed to man the large-scale and labour-intensive plantations. Although Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808, the smuggling of slaves continued until the 1850s, and the southern slave population doubled between 1810 and 1830. Three-quarters of these slaves worked on cotton plantations, while the remainder worked a variety of skilled and unskilled jobs. The South became a veritable “Cotton Kingdom,” remaining rural and agrarian while the North became industrialised. Rich plantation owners saw little reason to spend their capital on risky industrial projects when cash crops brought in a large, steady income.  The cotton kingdom also brought more people to the South. Getting rich by raising a cotton crop where slaves did all the hard labour was attractive to many farmers. Causing great growth in the areas new slave owning states such as Texas quickly grew. Politicians quickly saw that if the south got more states they would dominate the north in the senate. When this happened, they planned to reject any law made by the north to abolish slavery, and also ban any bill that may benefit the north. As the U.S. cotton industry developed, other countries became more dependent on cotton produced in the American South. The power of cotton allowed the Confederacy to employ cotton diplomacy as its foundation for foreign relations during the Civil War; Southerners attempted to use cotton to pressure countries such as England and France into the war on behalf of the Confederacy. Southern leaders were convinced that the key to their success lay in gaining international recognition and help from European powers in breaking the blockade that the Union had thrown up around coastal areas and ports and that was increasingly effective as the war went on.




When Union forces occupied Charleston toward the end of the Civil War in February 1865, the slaves still imprisoned at Ryan's Mart were freed. In 1878, the Old Slave Mart was converted into a tenement dwelling and a second floor was added. A car dealership and showroom operated in the building in the 1920’s, necessitating the expansion of the rear of the building. In 1938, Miriam B. Wilson purchased the building and established the Old Slave Mart Museum, which initially displayed African and African-American art. The City of Charleston and the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission restored the Old Slave Mart in the late 1990’s. The museum now interprets the history of the city's slave trade. The area behind the building, which once contained the barracoon and kitchen, is now a parking lot. With the end of the Civil War on the 9th of April 1865, cotton was no longer the backbone of southern politics, but it remained the largest crop and source of income. Both prosperity and population dropped after the Civil War and continued to decline until an upsurge in the 1960’s.


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Prices for Slaves: As the practice of slavery grew, so did the price of slaves. Prices were comparative. Slaves labeled as "superior" commanded between $1000 and $1200 at auction. We saw skilled carpenters, animal breakers, crop rotation experts commanding an even higher price.

Many families were sold and separated during slave auctions. Some slaves were sold in lots others were sold individually. Slave women in good health were sold for $300 to $500. Healthy young male slaves were sold for about $100 to $1500. Children of slaves sold for $150 to $200 (Black History 2004). We have never thought of life as a sliding scale of value and this was quite something to learn – a one year old had a value of $100 whereas a sixty year old was worth $50. We listened to an audio clip of a lady who was up for auction. Her father had asked his owner to bid for his daughter so they could be reunited. The first bid had been from a cruel man with a shocking reputation as a slave owner, the lady shouted out, “Don’t you be biddin’ on me, I rather cut my own troat than work fer the likes of you”. With that her fathers’ owner put his hand down as he “wouldn’t be bidding on something so sassy”. We had no idea that you could buy in ‘payment terms’, one third down on auction day, the rest in a year or in thirds over two years, until we saw the prices in 2007 comparative rates, the total for buying several workers at on time or in bulk; was quite a hefty sum.

Nearly all of the buying and selling was done in this small section of the city. The Old Exchange Building at the foot of Broad Street was the place were thousands of Africans and slaves were displayed for prospective buyers to see the quality of their potential purchases. “Negroes were displayed individually and in groups at the front of the building as auctioneers, planters, traders and curious onlookers watched”. At the end of the 1850’s, Charleston surpassed Richmond as a selling market.


Another audio account was from former slave Elijah Green, who was born in 1843. He told his story to a writer for the Works Progress Administration in 1937. He recounts how "very seldom one of (Ryan's) slaves survived a whipping." On display were whips and shackles. One would think that owners would want to keep their workers in good condition and health, not be cruel and merciless as some were. Some slaves were branded upon capture in Africa, another brand added once they arrived at auction, or by their new owner, on show was one such implement.




Naming of Slaves: Slave masters usually gave names to their slaves. Many of the given slave names were contained on the slave auctions. Slave parents generally named their own children. Many times, this right or privilege was taken away from them. Eugene Genovese writes in Roll, Jordan, Roll that on patriarchal plantations, "oftentimes there were large numbers who were given pompous, classical or comical names". Many slave parents resisted these comical names. The slave auction lists contained these types of names less frequently.

Many of the names that seemed strange or ridiculous to whites had African origins. Many Africans would name a child after a day of the week or the month of birth. South Carolina slaves rarely gave up this practice. “For example, a slave with the name Quack - would be taken by whites unfamiliar with the name would interpret it to be in bad taste or the punishment of some slave master” (Genovese 1974, 448). The real meaning of Quack is derived from Quaco in African, which means a male child born on Wednesday. A girl named Squash probably got the name from Quashee, which means a female born on Sunday. Cuffe is common name seen in the slave auction documents.

The origins of Cuffe are African also. It means an African born on a Friday.

Over time, Africans anglicised many of the names in their own unique way. So a person unfamiliar with the naming of slaves and the origin of slave names may look at an auction list of names and conclude or assume that many of the names are nonsensical or comical but in all actuality, they are deeply rooted in African culture and tradition.




It's widely thought that first lady Michelle Obama's ancestors came through Charleston. Her great-great-grandfather worked on a rice plantation in nearby Georgetown before he was freed during the Civil War.


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Upstairs showed the “Road to Liberty”, with many of the same exhibition stands – on a smaller scale - that we had first seen in the museum in Nassau. We sat and looked through the booklet of photocopies of the auctions, many of the slave auctions included lists of qualifications and any diseases that the ‘for sale’ may have had. ‘Blind in one eye’, ‘a good midwife’, ‘can be trusted to mix and dispense medicines’, ‘child breeding’ (apparently another term for healthy), ‘prime’, ‘half prime’ and ‘skilled’ were just some of the words. Many of the slaves were stripped naked for prospective buyers to inspect for signs of diseases and scars.