Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Stop Nine on Charleston's Museum Mile

Charleston has a wonderful creature they call Museum Mile. It is as the name implies: a one-mile section that contains a series of buildings filled with history as rich as the food on a Lowcountry plate. I'm a little embarrassed to admit we'd yet to step into one of these treasuries—the haint blue roof we prefer to stay under is generally the sky. But we abandoned that policy on our last visit to check out a place I learned about in 2004, but couldn't enter because it was closed to the public. It recently opened, so my husband and I drove south on Meeting Street, then traversed the uneven cobblestones on Chalmers to reach what was once a showcase of human flesh. No, not a closed strip joint. Charleston's Old Slave Mart.*

If you're like my husband, discomfort just crawled up your spine. Though I'm what my daughter calls whiter-than-bright-white-copy-paper, I'd passed that stage long ago while doing research for my first and, unfortunately, badly written novel—you have to start somewhere—about a young woman subjected to a life of forced labor and personal rejection by virtue of her birth. Part of the story takes place in Charleston, and one scene occurs in the Slave Mart. Though I have no plans to revise the story (you can't fix broke) I had to get inside, to see if reality matched what I'd envisioned, and to learn about the auctions that once took place there.

"Come on," you might say. "Of all the neat places in Charleston, why focus on that one? It's not even an attractive building. Are you just trying to be politically correct?"

The only PC I like is my laptop. But like so many places around the world, Charleston and slavery are inextricably linked, and while we went in expecting major condemnation, we found a sorrowful, but surprisingly evenhanded and informative look at the history of slavery, and the old mart's role in it.

We weren't permitted to take photos inside, so I can't give you a glimpse of the narrow interior (basically the width of the facade you see in the photo) that was once part of a four-building complex widely known as Ryan's Mart. The building on Chalmers, pictured above, served as the "showroom", not the caged holding area I wrote it to be. On display there now are placards and relics that taught us how the mart was run, how the slaves were brought in, and about the people involved on all ends including the "free blacks" who purchased slaves of their own. They even offer near-ancient audio recordings of interviews with former slaves. It was the beginning of the broader scope presented, and though the admission price is $7.00/adult at this writing, (but we are talking Charleston's Historic District), I highly recommend this stop, as well as the remainder of Museum Mile, for all who long to know Charleston more intimately.

For more information on the Old Slave Mart, go to
www.nps.gov/nr/travel/charleston/osm.htm

For more information on Charleston's Museum Mile, go to
www.charlestonsmuseummile.org/Home.html

And since I mentioned it, I should include the Slave Mart scene that I originally wrote. And I will, as soon as I figure out where I hid the file.

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*Not to be confused with the covered vendor area known as the Slave Market on the corner of Market and Meeting.

Copyright 2009. All Rights Reserved. Do not use or distribute

2 comments:

Julie said...

Hi, Kimberli! That definitely would make a person stop in her tracks and think. I just visited my first plantation. I had never even seen one from a distance. I swear, there were voices in the woods. What a sobering experience.

I think it's important to learn the history, no matter how ugly. It doesn't seem PC to me to learn. I just read an interesting article about how even many museums don't like to use the word "slavery." I don't understand why. It's not like anybody who is alive today did it, so I've never understood the hesitance to talk about it.

Interesting post, Kimberli. You always get me going...ha! I'm glad you got to go to Charleston. It's one of my favorite places.

Kimberli said...

Thanks, Julie. Displays like this really do expand knowledge and change perceptions formed from both cultures. I had the advantage of walking in with a year's worth of research behind me, and from writing a novel from perspectives that included slaves (people dislike the word slave? What do they prefer, solicited labor?)

While no research can help anyone in this day and age fully understand what they went through, writing from Antoinette and her mother, Mar'Tia's, points of view put me in the cabin, on the floors, in the workhouses, and on the receiving end of verbal and emotional thrashings that had to be left unchallenged. But I didn't write one side as saintly and the other pure sinner. To be fully dimensional, I gaged intent, understanding, reaction, etc from both sides to give the story a more realistic edge. In my opinion, for the most part, that's what the Old Slave Mart museum presentations strives to do. It's worth a visit, for sure.

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