Three centuries worth of South Carolina artifacts play a central role in telling African-American history in the capital’s newest national museum.
Visitors to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens to the public on Saturday, will see more than 55 artifacts from the Palmetto State.
“South Carolina is just so rich in African-American history, it may be the richest in the country,” said Valinda Littlefield, who directs the African American Studies program at the University of South Carolina. “The amount in the collection doesn’t surprise me. ... South Carolinians are really big on history. People have kept a lot of things and they treasure them and pass them down generation through generation.”
Thinking about African-American history, it’s hard to start anywhere other than South Carolina.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
The very design of the building has South Carolina influence. The bronze latticework is inspired by the ornate ironwork of the enslaved workers in Charleston and New Orleans. Inside the museum, most objects from the state are from the 19th Century, including slave badges from Charleston, wooden drums from the Sea Islands and a reconstructed slave cabin from Edisto Island.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who previewed the museum last week, said that emphasis on the state’s dark early history makes sense.
“Thinking about African-American history, it’s hard to start anywhere other than South Carolina,” he said.
During the transatlantic slave trade, about 40 percent of enslaved Africans entered through Charleston Harbor.
“That number alone makes South Carolina a very important piece when you think about African-American history,” Littlefield said.
“And when you think about the amount of wealth that South Carolina amassed, especially through rice harvesting, that sets it apart from many other states because it depended on the knowledge that African-Americans brought to cultivation,” she said.
The museum will be dedicated Saturday at a ceremony attended by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. When it opens to the general public, it will own close to 37,000 objects.
Here are 10 must-see artifacts from South Carolina:
1. Cabin from Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island
One of the most haunting displays in the museum is a creaky antebellum slave cabin from Point of Pines plantation on Edisto Island. Taken apart plank by plank and reconstructed at the museum, the cabin is one of the only remaining structures of what used to be a village of similar cabins to house field workers at the plantation.
Black families lived in the wooden cabins on the island, without heating or electricity until the 1980s. Visitors can walk around the 160-year-old structure and see it from several angles.
Sen. Scott says, for him, the cabin is the most powerful display in the new museum.
“It’s hard to take a look at the slave cabin from Edisto Island and not be moved, not to be frozen in time and journey back to what life must have been like for folks who were forced to leave their homeland, forced to separate from their loved ones and forced to work,” he said in an interview. “All day every day, sunup and sundown, oftentimes beaten.”
2. Ashley’s Sack
This rough cloth sack belonged to an enslaved woman named Rose at Middleton Place Plantation in Charleston. When her 9-year-old daughter Ashley was sold away, Rose placed a tattered dress, a few pecans and a lock of her hair in the bag. She never saw her daughter again.
In 1921, Ashley’s granddaughter, Ruth Middleton, embroidered that story onto the sack. It is currently on loan from the Middleton Place Foundation in Charleston.
“It’s unique because of the family connections it illustrates,” said Middleton Place Foundation vice president Tracey Todd. “I’m sure 100 years from now it will touch parents the same way it touches parents today.”
3. Charleston slave badges
The three badges displayed together at the museum were issued by the city of Charleston in the early 1800s to identify men and women whose masters allowed them to work for hire. Learning a trade as a mechanic, fisherman or porter was one of the only ways for slaves to earn money for themselves and gain a measure of freedom.
4. The museum’s latticework exterior
The unique, bronze-colored lattice that wraps around the museum’s exterior is meant to pay homage to the intricate ironwork made by slaves in Charleston and New Orleans. The ornamental filigree looks solid from far away, but inside the building it lets in sunlight and glimpses of the Washington Monument and the National Mall. The design will help the building become the first Smithsonian museum to achieve LEED Gold certification – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
5. Desks from the Hope School in Pomaria, S.C.
Several wooden school desks and a wood-burning stove are set up to recreate the Hope School in Pomaria, which served African-American children in rural areas from 1925 to 1954. It was one of more than 5,000 schools supported by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which funded the construction of schools for black students in the rural South. In the early 20th Century children were required to attend racially segregated schools, and public education for African-Americans was chronically underfunded.
6. Wrought iron gate created by Philip Simmons
Charleston artisan Philip Simmons, whose career in hand-forging iron spanned 78 years, is celebrated for turning the craft into an art. A wrought iron gate he made during the 1970s is on display at the museum, and a video on African-American artisans features him prominently.
7. Wooden drum used on the Sea Islands
Enslaved Africans in the Lowcountry along South Carolina’s coastline used drums for cultural practices and communication across distances. They also used them for rebellion. As a result of the Stono Rebellion in 1739, where drums were used as a call to arms, they were banned in the South Carolina Slave Code of 1740. The 19th Century drum displayed as part of the Lowcountry collection is made out of wood, leather, hide and metal.
8. Mahogany sofa from home of Robert Smalls
The museum displays several items owned by Robert Smalls, who was born into slavery in Beaufort. During the Civil War he freed himself and other enslaved crewmen by taking over a Confederate transport ship and sailing it out of Charleston harbor. Once they had cleared Confederate-controlled waters, he and his crew raised a white flag and surrendered the ship to a blockading Union fleet. Smalls later became a politician, founded the Republican Party of South Carolina and served in the U.S. House of Representatives. The display includes a mahogany sofa, a glass oil lamp, walnut armchairs and marble top tables from his home.
9. Lowcountry plantation exhibit
The history galleries include an exhibit dedicated to the Lowcountry, rice cultivation and the lives of enslaved plantation workers. A rice plantation map on loan from the South Carolina Historical Society marks the fields, swamps and slave quarters. Several tools used to cultivate rice are on display. In large letters, a quote on the glass around the exhibit says “Carolina looks more like negro country than a country settled by whites.” They are the words of a Swiss traveler, Samuel Dyssli, in 1737.
10. Barber shop, photograph by Leonard Freed
Photographs around the museum show everyday 20th Century scenes in South Carolina’s African-American communities. Among scenes of churches, family gatherings and holidays is a photograph by Leonard Freed of a Charleston barber shop in 1965.