By Fanio King for The Island Connection
Step inside the kitchens, carriage houses and former work lots of Charleston’s private houses during Beyond the Big House: Tour and Storytelling on Sept. 16, presented by The Slave Dwelling Project and Historic Charleston Foundation.
These buildings have survived to tell the story of the enslaved in Charleston, their lives and labor.
“When the buildings remain on the landscape, it’s hard to deny the presence of the people who lived in them,” said Joseph McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. “From these buildings, we learn about the lives of the enslaved people who inhabited them. This event is part of a continuing effort to honor the enslaved ancestors. The history of the people who occupied these spaces should be intertwined with the stories of those who enslaved them. What started as an idea of English Purcell now has flourished into the potential for participants to explore and learn the history beyond the big house.”
English Purcell, a researcher and administrator for the popular Facebook group “Charleston History before 1945,” said the idea came to her while “zooming across the Charleston peninsula” on Google Earth. “The number of smaller buildings behind the large dwellings on the lots was astounding,” she said. “We are very grateful to the property owners who live in these special spaces and have cared for them and preserved them. The lives of the enslaved were so unbelievably different from those who occupied the ‘big houses’ that are visible from the street. Charleston was the wealthiest city in colonial North America, and that wealth was built literally and figuratively by the enslaved. We want to highlight their stories. Focusing this tour on the buildings where the enslaved worked and lived is not only interesting historically, it is critical to the telling of the complete story of Charleston.”
In addition to the tour, 2-5 p.m., of private properties seldom open to the public, the Beyond the Big House event will include professional storytelling in the back lot of the Aiken- Rhett House Museum, c.1820, from 4:30-6 p.m. The property survives as one of the best preserved collections of 19thcentury domestic buildings in the nation, and the expansive back lot includes slave quarters, kitchen and carriage block. In this setting, storytellers will further illuminate the lives of the enslaved in urban Charleston.
Joseph McGill will be on hand to discuss the mission and programs of The Slave Dwelling Project, including his planned sleepover in the Aiken-Rhett House slave quarters that evening to draw attention to the need to preserve slave dwellings across the country. He will be joined by Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin of Columbia, SC, as well as other volunteers.
“We are honored that Historic Charleston Foundation’s Aiken-Rhett House lot and outbuildings are included in this groundbreaking and meaningful educational program,” said Katharine S. “Kitty” Robinson, President and CEO of HCF. “Recent archaeological excavations in the laundry building yielded an unprecedented number of artifacts related to the daily lives of slaves on the property, discoveries that will allow us to continue to expand our interpretation of African American history at our house museums even further.”
Beyond the Big House: Tour and Storytelling tickets are $35 for adults; $10 for children 6-12; free for children under 6. To purchase tickets and for more information, visit HistoricCharleston.org/Beyond.