Avery Research Center | Project Discovery

Charleston, South Carolina, is a city rich in African American culture. Sullivan’s Island, once an entry port from Africa for the slave trade, was considered the gateway to the United States. The transatlantic voyage was difficult for the captured Africans, who, at the time, were considered commodities for their labor on the plantations and their specialized skills.

Ships carrying slaves were quarantined to prevent the spread of disease. The Africans were housed in lazarettos for 10 days prior to a sale. The new arrival of slaves was advertised in papers. A marker is located on the island to indicate the importance of what happened there.

Some buildings in downtown Charleston were used specifically to auction and broker slaves. Ryan’s Mart was one of these locations. Conditions in the auction houses were not pleasant. Slaves were purchased and taken to nearby plantations or sent to other states. Other slaves stayed in the city if they had a valuable craft, such as blacksmithing or basketry.

The Aiken-Thread House was an urban plantation. From 1830 to 1850, 18 to 24 slaves worked in the house and on the house grounds. One hundred additional slaves worked in the city or on different properties. These workers consisted primarily of coopers or brick masons. Slave quarters at the Aiken-Thread House were private and well cared for. Paint was found in the rooms, which would have been very expensive at the time. In the city, more freedoms were given to slaves so they could run errands and visit family. When they left the property, they carried papers distinguishing them as slaves.

Plantations were developed to create cash crops, such as rice. Africans from places like the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone were prized because of their skills in cultivating rice and being watermen.

Blacksmithing was another prized skill performed by slaves. Philip Simmons is a present-day artist whose ironwork is a legacy of this skill.

The Avery Research Center was organized in 1865 to support educational institutions in the south. Avery was a private school with a liberal arts curriculum. The cost of tuition often separated the students from majority. Students formed a cooperative to defray the cost of tuition. In 1954 Avery was converted to a public high school. The Avery Research Center is now part of the College of Charleston. The center’s mission is to collect and document the African American experience.

More in this Series