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Looking 'Beyond The Big House' And Into The Lives Of Slaves

Sep 13, 2017
Originally published on September 13, 2017 6:49 pm

Anne Blessing grew up in a classic antebellum house with double-decker porches and gorgeous brickwork, just steps from Charleston Harbor. For years, the home in Charleston, S.C., had been a stop on a popular historic home tour.

"Normally, people want to see the fancier parts of the house," Blessing said. "You know, where in Colonial times they would have taken people upstairs to the nicer parlor; the dining room, of course, with the beautiful wood and all the molding."

This weekend, for the first time, visitors will skip the formal areas and go straight to the kitchen. What was once the kitchen house has been connected to the main house. With its wooden beams and massive hearth, it's a favorite hangout spot for the family. But as Blessing has learned, it's also where enslaved people once spent most of their lives, toiling over hot fires.

"If you were the cook, you probably just slept on a pallet in this room — and maybe with your whole family as well," she said.

The tour is called "Beyond the Big House." Its organizers — the Slave Dwelling Project and the Historic Charleston Foundation — hope to raise awareness among visitors and residents of Charleston that many former slave quarters have been hidden, and forgotten, among the city's majestic homes.

"I want them to know that behind all that they can witness from the street is the rest of the story," Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, said. "The story of those who were enslaved, those whose labor provided the wealth for those nice, beautiful places that they see."

The tour comes at a time when the question of how to remember the ugliest parts of U.S. history continues to divide the country — as the recent violence over the fate of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Va., where a woman was killed after a white nationalist rally, again reminded us. Charleston is a city with its own painful racial history dating to the slave trade.

The places where enslaved people lived and worked were concealed by design, says Lauren Northup, director of museums for the Historic Charleston Foundation. At the Nathaniel Russell House Museum, another stop on the tour, a tall fence once divided the formal gardens in front from the work areas in back, where slaves grew vegetables and raised livestock, Northup said.

"So in the back, we have all of this work going on, and then in the front, we have these very beautiful formal gardens," she said. "The only way that you could really even see from the front into the back was if you looked out just one side of the house and then over that fence, to see the labor that was going on in the back."

Past tours have discussed some former slave quarters, but they've never been the focus of a tour before — even though the city was central to the slave trade.

The goal is to tell the full story of the city, said Kitty Robinson, Historic Charleston Foundation president and CEO.

That story, she says, is "only complete when everyone's story is told."

Historians estimate some 40 percent of enslaved Africans passed through Charleston's port.

Their labor has left literal marks on the city, including Blessing's home. She said she has always loved the bricks that make up some of her walls.

"They change colors in different light and they kind of contract and expand with the weather," Blessing said. "I've always thought of them as a work of art, and of course, I always knew that they were handmade, but I had never thought about the details."

What she didn't realize until she met McGill was that some of the indentations in the bricks are the fingerprints of the slaves who made them.

"That's the evidence of the enslaved ancestors reaching out to us, saying, 'We were here. Tell our stories,' " McGill said.

"And when I go and I put my fingers in those prints, my fingers are way too big — which is an indication that there were children, enslaved children, you know, making those bricks."

McGill says it's important to preserve and remember the lives and work of enslaved people whose names have often been forgotten.

Blessing agrees, even if it means facing unpleasant truths about the history of her city and her own home.

"I think it's important that as a country, we talk about it. It's such a major part of our history; it's so much of how we've built our country," Blessing said. "And I think anything that you don't talk about for a long time is going to come out at some point."

The tour of former slave quarters in Charleston begins this year with eight properties, a number organizers hope will increase.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The question of how to remember the ugliest parts of U.S. history continues to divide the country. Last month's violence over Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Va., was the latest reminder of that. Charleston, S.C., has its own difficult racial history, which includes the murder of nine people two years ago at a black church by a white supremacist. This weekend, historians are highlighting the enslaved people who spent their lives in the shadows of Charleston's sprawling mansions. NPR's Sarah McCammon has more.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Anne Blessing grew up in a classic antebellum Charleston home with double-decker porches and gorgeous brickwork. For years, it's been a stop on a popular historic home tour hosted by the Historic Charleston Foundation.

ANNE BLESSING: Normally people want to see the fancier parts of the house.

MCCAMMON: This weekend, for the first time, visitors will skip the formal areas and go straight to the kitchen. With its wooden beams and massive hearth, it's a favorite hangout spot for the family. But as Blessing has learned, it's also where enslaved people once spent most of their lives toiling over hot fires.

BLESSING: If you were the cook, you probably just slept on a pallet in this room and maybe with your whole family as well.

MCCAMMON: Joseph McGill is with The Slave Dwelling Project, which is a partner for the tour called Beyond The Big House. He says many former slave quarters are hidden amongst Charleston's majestic homes.

JOSEPH MCGILL: So one would have to go physically beyond the front entrance. And in examining the depth of the lot, you can see the carriage houses, the kitchens.

MCCAMMON: Past tours have discussed some former slave quarters, but they've never been the focus before even though the city was central to the U.S. slave trade. Historians estimate some 40 percent of enslaved Africans passed through Charleston's port. Their labor has left literal marks on the city, including Anne Blessing's home.

BLESSING: I've always loved the bricks. They're sort of - like, they change colors in different light, and they kind of contract and expand with the weather.

MCCAMMON: What she didn't realize until she met Joseph McGill was that some of the indentations in the bricks are the fingerprints of the slaves who made them.

MCGILL: You know, that's the evidence of the enslaved ancestors reaching out to us saying, we were here; tell our stories. And when I go and I put my fingers in those prints, my fingers are way too big, which is an indication that there were children - enslaved children, you know, making those bricks.

MCCAMMON: McGill says it's important to preserve and remember the lives and work of enslaved people whose names have often been forgotten. Blessing agrees even if it means facing unpleasant truths about the history of her city and her home.

BLESSING: I think it's important that as a country we talk about it. It's such a major part of our history. It's so much of how we built our country. And I think anything that you don't talk about for a long time is going to come out at some point.

MCCAMMON: The tour of former slave quarters begins this year with eight properties, a number organizers hope will grow in years to come. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.