The Old Slave Mart Museum recounts the story of Charleston’s role as an urban slave-trading center during the domestic slave trade. It also tells the stories of the African-Americans who passed through its gates and their contributions to American society and culture.
Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. said, “ The Old Slave Mart Museum tells an important story in the history of this city and the region. It has been an important site for preservation and restoration and amassing the research and artifacts has been arduous.”
While many Americans are familiar with the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the 15th and early 19th centuries, many are not aware that the United States constitution, ratified in 1780, contained a provision that led to a ban on the importation of African slaves after 1808, 53 years before the Civil War. It was this vacuum in the increasing demand for labor that the domestic slave trade, in part, filled.
This interstate trade was a hugely profitable economy organized by local and regional slave traders and dealers within the United States who, between 1789 and 1861, forcibly relocated approximately one million American-born slaves from the upper South to the lower South. During that same period, more than two million African-American slaves were sold in local, interstate and state-ordered sales combined.
The Old Slave Mart Museum focuses on the history of this particular building and site and the slave sales that occurred there. The mart was once part of a complex of buildings known as Ryan’s Mart that occupied the land between Chalmers and Queen Streets.
The complex consisted of a yard enclosed by a brick wall and contained three additional buildings: a four-story brick building partially containing a “barracoon” or slave jail, a kitchen, and a “dead house” or morgue. The Slave Mart building is the only structure remaining from this complex.
Slave auctions at the Old Slave Mart ended in November 1863. The property changed hands many times after the Civil War.
Between 1938 and 1987 the building — then known locally as “The Old Slave Mart” –housed a museum featuring African-American and African arts and crafts.
The Old Slave Mart Museum’s permanent exhibition is divided into two main areas. In the orientation area, visitors will be provided with an introduction to the domestic slave trade within the greater historical context of slavery in the United States as well an overview of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The orientation area also explains the systems as well as the mechanics of domestic slave trade operations and the major social, political, and economic impact that trade had on American antebellum society.
Exhibit elements explain how the trade became a force for modernizing South Carolina; how it strengthened Charleston’s financial, social, and political networks within the state; and how it extended the city’s influence throughout the upper South, the lower South, and the emerging West.
In the main exhibit area visitors will also get a closer look at the daily process of slave sales at Ryan’s Mart from the perspectives of a number of its historically documented buyers, traders, and enslaved African Americans. This section explains this antebellum slave market’s role within Charleston’s larger, but concentrated, slave-trading district.
The Old Slave Mart Museum’s permanent exhibit also speaks to the stories, the contributions and the legacies of those who shaped the outcome of the domestic slave trade. Various narratives are presented in different media (personal letters, oral histories, documents, audio, video and artifacts) to provide visitors a sense of the “real people” who passed through Ryan’s Mart, where they lived and how visitors can find their legacies today.
A final element in this section directs visitors to other sites in the Lowcountry where they can follow up on these stories and see the contributions of individuals whose stories are found at the Old Slave Mart Museum.
In its upstairs gallery, the Old Slave Mart Museum features a portion of Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery, an enlightening exhibition that offers an inspiring look at the cultural, political, economic and social practices enslaved Africans developed while enduring the dehumanizing conditions of slavery.
The exhibit features full-color panels that reflect the experience of slavery through topics including slave labor and slave systems in the Americas, the struggle against slavery and its abolition, and the triumph over slavery.
Both exhibitions are highlighted with artifacts from the Old Slave Mart Museum’s Rebecca R. Hollingsworth collection as well pieces from the personal collections of local sweetgrass basket artist Jeanette Gaillard-Lee and blacksmith Phillip Simmons.