Not every overnight stay fits the mold of the original intent of the Slave Dwelling Project. That intent was to bring much needed attention to extant slave dwellings and to that end, the project has been quite successful. There are some buildings that are clearly not slave dwellings but can be used to interpret the presence of our enslaved Ancestors. The Old Charleston Jail in Charleston, South Carolina is a great example of that and I have spent three nights there because men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry who were portrayed in the movie Glory were imprisoned there. Those overnight stays in the jail were quite appropriate because I am a Civil War reenactor. Eliza’s Cottage at Middleton Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina was a cottage lived in by a recently freed enslaved person and I have spent a night there. That overnight stay in Eliza’s cottage was an opportunity to interpret the lives of those, mostly elderly, who chose to stay on the plantation where they were once enslaved.
So where am I going with this? My coworker and doctoral candidate, Edwin Breeden, approached me with some information about an opportunity for an overnight stay in the Old Exchange Building in Charleston, SC., a prominent building but one of which I rarely interact. This request was based on research that Edwin is currently conducting on the African American presence in that building. Of course I said yes to his proposition. Here was a man who was willing to go against the grain, buck the status quo, get people out of their comfort zones. You get the picture and you can see why I was so enamored by his research because these are the things that I am doing with the Slave Dwelling Project.
This stay was also major because the owner of the building is the Daughters of the American Revolution. My limited knowledge of the group was of them in 1939 denying Mariam Anderson the opportunity to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC because she was African American. I had no interest in delving into the details of how Edwin’s research was approved and how he obtained permission for us to spend a night in the building. I do recall that a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution did join me and others in an overnight stay in the slave cabin at Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Viginia. She travelled all the way from Texas to make that happen. I also recall that when I attended an event late last year in the Old Exchange building, I sat at a table with members of the Daughters of the American Revolution. With them, the Slave Dwelling Project was part of the discussion, but spending a night in their building was not even conceived at that time. I also interact often with my coworker at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens who is a new member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Three days prior to the stay, Edwin and I participated in a presentation about his research and the Slave Dwelling Project. The standing room only crowd received the presentation well. Profound because most of the participants were licensed tour guides. They have great influence on the stories that are told to the tourists seeking to know more about Charleston’s history.
When I met Edwin in the back of the building for the sleepover, there was a ghost tour that was debriefing. I have my opinion about these type tours but I will keep that to myself. Edwin and I made ourselves comfortable in a part of the building that would not interfere with the ghost tours that would be happening until 11:00 pm. This isolation allowed both of us to work on our computers and we both got a great deal of writing done.
When the security guard alerted us that the ghost tours were done, we then occupied the basement and staked out the places where we would sleep. Because of the alarm system, our movement in the building was restricted. A great deal of the night was spent by both of us looking for finger imprints in the bricks. Regrettably, none were found.
We were disturbed by a series of reveling people outside of the building knocking on the building and trying to arouse ghosts. Our instincts were to respond, but we resisted. As I laid there on my sleeping bag, I engaged in an unusual amount of facebook traffic on my phone. Most people that I made aware of my impending overnight stay in the Old Exchange Building seemed to be obsessed by ghosts. Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts and fortunately, there were no such sightings. Despite that, mosquitoes had no problem finding us in the space.
The next morning, because of the active alarm system, we had to wait for an employee to get there to let us out of the building.
That stay in the Old Exchange Building was a clear reminder that not all preserved buildings that can help tell the stories of the enslaved Ancestors are the meager extant slave dwellings. If we were to revise and include the stories of African Americans for some of the nominations that made historic buildings eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, we would clearly see that African Americans factored heavily in building this nation.
For the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Joe McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project to plan an overnight stay in Charleston’s Old Exchange Building, a place that isn’t what most people imagine when they hear the phrase “slave dwelling.” Built in 1771 as a British customs house and commercial exchange, it’s a stately three-story Georgian building that was originally the jewel of the Charleston harbor (landfill has since pushed the city’s waterfront several blocks away). Today, it’s a museum/historic site owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution and operated by the City of Charleston.
For decades, visitors to the building and city have learned how the Exchange was the political center of Revolutionary South Carolina. Patriot leaders met in the building, stored boycotted tea in its cellar, and, in March 1776, came to the Exchange to first publicly proclaim South Carolina’s independence from Britain. Twelve years later, state leaders met in the building’s top floor to debate and eventually ratify the U. S. Constitution. Back in 1780 through 1782, some of those same men were imprisoned two stories down when the British, who had sieged control of Charleston, converted the building’s bottom floor into a prison (“provost”).
Given that history, the Exchange is in many ways more fortunate than places Joe usually stays: people have long recognized that it is a place that “matters.” But as impressive as the above history is, it’s also very incomplete. What’s been needed is a better, fuller understanding of why this place matters, especially its significance to the lives of the enslaved.
To that end, I’ve worked at the Exchange since November 2014 trying to answer a simple question with a big, complicated answer: how are the histories of the Exchange and enslaved and free African Americans in Charleston tied together? Although the details of that answer are still evolving, what’s clear is the Exchange has a history that captures, at a single site, the contradictory yet interconnected relationship between slavery and freedom in American history.
Most of the local elites who promoted and oversaw the building’s construction from 1767 to 1771 had arrived at their position by exploiting enslaved laborers—some by working them on plantations, and some, like Henry Laurens, by trading in them.
When you walk through the brick archways that make up the original cellar and feel the rough, uneven bricks under your feet, it’s not just a place where patriots were imprisoned. Enslaved women and men were there too, suffering along with the rest, some of whom were themselves “enslavers.” This unconventional sort of “dwelling” provided the historical basis for Joe, a descendant of the enslaved, and me, a descendant of those who enslaved others, to spend the night of June 6 on the same bricks where enslaved and free slept over 230 years ago.
However, the lives of the free and enslaved were intertwined at the Exchange in many, many more ways. When you come to the building’s top floor, you’re not just walking where South Carolina ratified the Constitution. You’re also where the city of Charleston distributed work badges to enslaved and free blacks hired to work in the city. You might even be walking the path of former slave Denmark Vesey, who may have come to the city treasurer’s office in the Exchange to collect the lottery winnings that allowed him to purchase his freedom in 1799. And when you walk up the building’s front portico, you’re not just walking in the footsteps of George Washington, who stood there and greeted the city during his 1791 visit to Charleston. You’re also where people sometimes stood to watch the slave auctions that became a fixture at the building until 1856. Indeed, some of those upstairs debating the Constitution in 1788 might have looked out a window on May 15 to watch one such auction of fifty or sixty people occurring near the building. Though always identified with the Exchange in advertisements and personal accounts, the vast majority of these auctions occurred outside of the building, especially on its northern side. But as you walk through the building today, admiring the architecture and descriptions of its history, at some point you might pass over the spot where, in 1835, nine people as young as two years old were auctioned off somewhere inside.
In these ways and more, the Exchange is not just where liberty came to Charleston. It is also where enslavement came, and did so with tragic regularity.
This is the story we’re working to tell, one that acknowledges the significance of the enslaved as people and of slavery as an institution to the site’s history. It’s as necessary as it is often uncomfortable. I hope that our work with Joe and the Slave Dwelling Project will encourage people not only to engage that story, but to consider its place within a larger American and human story to which we each have connections, however different they may be.