Charleston Sights

Old Slave Mart Museum

  • 6 Chalmers St. Map It
  • Market
  • Fodor's Choice

Published 10/28/2015

Fodor's Review

This is thought to be the state's only existing building that was used for slave auctioning, a practice that ended here in 1863. It was once part of a complex called Ryan's Mart, which also contained a slave jail, kitchen, and morgue. It is now a museum that shares the history of Charleston's role in the slave trade, an unpleasant story but one that is vital to understand. Charleston was a commercial center for the South's plantation economy, and slaves were the primary source of labor both within the city and on the surrounding plantations. Galleries are outfitted with interactive exhibits, including push buttons that allow you to hear voices relating stories from the age of slavery. The museum sits on one of the few remaining cobblestone streets in town.

Sight Information

Address:

6 Chalmers St., Charleston, South Carolina, 29401, United States

Map It

Phone:

843-958–6467

Sight Details:

  • $7
  • Mon.–Sat. 9–5

Published 10/28/2015

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Feb 5, 2017

An Important Piece of History

My spouse and I visited the Old Slave Mart Museum on a Saturday afternoon in mid-November 2016. The museum is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm on Mondays through Saturdays (closed on Sundays). Allow an hour to for a self-guided tour that explores this museum. Admission costs $7 per adult. The City of Charleston opened the Old Slave Mart Museum in 2007, over 150 years after Abraham Lincoln officially abolished slavery. Previously, the building served

as a museum for African-American arts and crafts, an auto repair shop, and as a tenement (an overcrowded apartment house). However, the reason that the buildings holds a place on the National Register of Historic Places is its earliest history – it is the only known surviving building in South Carolina that was formerly used as a slave auction gallery. Located on a quiet cobblestone street in the Historic District, the building operated as the actual showroom where traders sold and buyers purchased Americans born into slavery. In 1807, Congress forbade the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the domestic inter-state slave trade remained important. In the 700 years between the drafting of the US Constitution and the Civil War, more than one million American-born slaves were sold away from plantations in the upper South to work the rapidly expanding cotton and sugar plantations in the lower South. Charleston was one of the main colonial ports of the 18th century, dealing in rice, indigo, and slaves. In Charleston, slaves were originally sold outdoors, near the Old Exchange Building. In 1856, the city banned outdoor slave sales because they attracted unwanted crowds, so sales rooms, yards, and marts opened indoors. Originally, the Old Slave Mart was part of a complex of buildings known as “Ryan's Mart” (owned by Thomas Ryan, a government official and former sheriff) that occupied the land between Chalmers and Queen Streets. The development consisted of a yard enclosed by a brick wall and a four-story brick building that contained a "barracoon" (which means “slave jail” in Portuguese), a kitchen, and a "dead house" (morgue). When the main building (now the museum) was first constructed in 1859, the open-ended space was referred to as a “shed”. The interior consisted of one large room with a 20-foot ceiling; the front facade contained a high arch, octagonal pillars, and a large iron gate. Slaves stood on auction tables (three feet high and ten feet long) placed lengthwise so that slave owners could pass by and examine them during the auction. The most valuable workers sold for nearly $40,000 in 2007 dollars. Hundreds of slaves could be worth more than the plantation they worked on. Although most white Southerners did not own slaves, slavery’s presence was widely accepted. The museum does not present a history of slavery or an account of its abolition; it simply chronicles the domestic trade via mounted wall panels that cover two floors. (Mobility impaired guests can use a lift to move between the two floors.) A great deal of reading is required to move through this museum; the introduction of a few multi-media features might break the monotony, because visitors want to absorb all the important information without the repetitiveness. We felt an obligation to visit this museum to learn more about this unsavory aspect of American history (much like we felt past obligations to visit the National 9-11 Museum in NYC and concentration camps in Germany), and we gained a better understanding of the Southern slave trade when we departed.

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