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Foundation Matters

Insight into Lives of the Enslaved at ARH

Posted: August 25, 2017

Archaeology at the Aiken-Rhett House is providing insight into the lives of the enslaved at the property. Prior to the Civil War, the Aiken-Rhett House was maintained by a population of highly skilled enslaved African Americans who worked to sustain the Aikens’ high standards for elegant living and entertaining. Occupations within the household included carriage drivers, cooks, footmen, gardeners, laundresses, nursemaids and seamstresses. A post-Civil War document reveals the names of 14 slaves that lived at the Aiken-Rhett House and attended the family: Tom and Ann Greggs, and their son, Henry; Dorcas and Sambo Richardson and their children, Charles, Rachel, Victoria, Elizabeth, and Julia; Charles Jackson, Anthony Barnwell, and two carpenters, Will and Jacob. Many of these individuals remained in Charleston following Emancipation, and Jacob Gaillard and Henry Greggs lived and worked at the Aiken-Rhett House until their deaths in 1896 and 1908.

The back lot of the Aiken-Rhett House is where the slaves worked and lived, and they probably took their meals communally in the kitchen. A unique site, the Aiken-Rhett House retains both original outbuildings. One is the kitchen and laundry and the other a carriage and stable house with sleeping quarters above.

In 2015, HCF undertook an extensive archaeological dig in the former laundry room at the Aiken-Rhett House. According to local archaeologists, the dig at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum yielded more archaeological artifacts per square foot than any other dig in downtown Charleston, with the recovered artifacts numbering over 10,000. 

Items recovered include what one might expect to find in a laundry: buttons, straight pins and stays.  However, other items such as egg shells, fish scales, bottles, pottery and ceramic fragments were also unearthed.  The building, circa 1835, was constructed on a work yard, and it’s likely that several of the recovered items were discarded in a trash pile that was later used as in-fill.

Andrew Agha and Nicole Isenbarger of the non-profit Archaeological Research Collective led the excavation. “This has been a particularly interesting project for us,” explains Agha, “as we don’t often have the opportunity to learn about the everyday domestic lives of Charleston’s elite and their enslaved household members.”

Plans are underway to build a viewing platform in the laundry facility and to exhibit many of the objects that were uncovered. The exhibit is expected to open in the fall of 2017.

2 responses to “Insight into Lives of the Enslaved at ARH”

  1. Carol J Remter says:

    We just viewed the Aiken Rhett house. My question is where did the slaves bathe?

    • Liza Holian says:

      Thanks for the question! An answer from our staff: “There was a bathtub in one of the upstairs rooms in the enslaved sleeping quarters, if they were able to go up there and see. Given the opportunity, enslaved people would have carried buckets of water to warm on the hearth, and then to pour into bathtubs in their sleeping quarters to bathe. Bath water was likely shared among a family, and potentially refreshed with new warmer water, depending on how much access to water/how much water was available. Eventually the tub would be emptied – not sure where it would have been stored, or how many tubs there would have been to be shared among the enslaved families at the Aiken-Rhett House.”

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