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O My America: The Slave Market

December 23, 2014

by Lawrence Bush

To read two earlier installments of this series on the American South, click here.

Slave_Auction_AdI’M A TERRIBLE TOURIST, in general, self-conscious, reluctant to plan, intimidated by the unknown, vaguely agoraphobic — and, at all times, a political critic.

So when we took a one-hour horse-drawn carriage tour of Charleston this morning, and the tour guide/horse driver — a woman named Gay who I took to be, in fact, gay, and therefore expected to be sensitive to issues of discrimination and marginalization — spent all sixty minutes describing the architecture (all brick buildings, with stucco facades that are etched to look like stone), and the fabulous wealth represented by those buildings, and the many conflagrations (by fire, by war, by earthquake, by hurricane) that have shaped and reshaped them, I waited and waited and waited for her at least once to make reference to the slave labor that had built it all. Finally, as Gay mentioned for the fifth time South Carolina’s rice plantations without using the word “slavery,” I piped up and asked her where in Charleston the slaves once lived. She replied, “Oh, in the back of the houses themselves, or in the outbuildings.” That was that.

We had just toured Munich without mentioning Dachau, Dachau without mentioning Jews.

SO AFTER A COFFEE BREAK, we visited the Old Slave Market Museum, where we learned the following heretofore unknown (to me) facts:

    • Of the 500,000 slaves imported to the U.S. before the slave trade was abolished, 40 percent came to the port of Charleston. And of the (only) fifteen Americans who owned more than 500 slaves, eight lived in Charleston. The majority of white Southerners, in fact, owned no slaves at all.
    • Of a total of 12 million Africans who survived the Atlantic Passage, only 500,000 came to the U.S. Brazil, by contrast, imported nearly 5 million and did not abolish slavery until 1888.
    • At the start of the Civil War, more than half of Charleston’s population was enslaved.
    • Most slaveowners preferred not to whip their slaves, because scars greatly lessened their resale value.
    • Slaves, because they had sale value and knew it, could sometimes influence the outcomes of auctions by downplaying or advertising their skills or their health, depending on who they surmised the buyers to be. (A 20-year-old male slave could sell for as much as $40,000 in today’s dollars.)
    • More than 50,000 slaves ran away from their owners every year, with more than 95 percent returning on their own or being captured.
    • More than 250 slave insurrections took place in South Carolina alone.

I sat a while contemplating all the acts of Jewish resistance against Nazism that I’ve learned about and written about in the course of conducting JEWDAYO, my blog, for the past five years — and how shaming the “sheep to slaughter” mythology is for Jews. Then I wrote in the guest book, “Without this museum, the rest of Charleston is a sham” — and we retreated to Hyman’s for an afternoon snack.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and Jewdayo.