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Foundation Matters

New Archaeology Exhibit at the Aiken-Rhett House Highlights Lives of the Enslaved

Posted: April 27, 2018

The Aiken-Rhett House is unique. The main house – a grand Charleston residence – would be significant enough to warrant attention, yet what elevates the property from merely interesting to exceptional is the survival of its dependencies. In a city where the dependencies – spaces largely occupied by enslaved domestic servants – have been converted, demolished or otherwise hopelessly compromised, the dependencies at the Aiken-Rhett House have survived largely unchanged from the antebellum period. However, this survival is not relegated to the surviving structures above ground. The ground beneath the former laundry room floor was excavated in 2015 as part of a larger interpretive project. This relatively small area yielded a staggering 10,000+ artifacts and provided dozens of new stories for our staff to research and interpret. The artifacts uncovered ranged from pencils to porcelain to hundreds of buttons, all objects which would have been handled and used by African Americans in the back lot of the Aiken-Rhett House both before and after the Civil War.

The focus of the Aiken-Rhett House is to tell the story of all of those who lived on the property. A handful of these stories have been included in the new archaeological exhibit recently installed in the laundry space. Designed by Charleston architect Simons Young, a cantilevered walkway floats over the site, allowing visitors to peer down at the features uncovered during the dig. Five artifact cases illuminate artifacts specific to the women who labored here in the 19th century, and directional light illuminates the architectural features associated with the laundry room itself, including the location of the kettles and fireplaces. Even in a city as immaculately documented as Charleston there are still many questions about daily life, especially for the enslaved population. Archaeology shines new light on the lives and labors of the African Americans upon whose tireless work the Aiken-Rhett lifestyle depended.

The new exhibit “floats” above the site of the archaeological dig.
Photo: The Post and Courier

7 responses to “New Archaeology Exhibit at the Aiken-Rhett House Highlights Lives of the Enslaved”

  1. Mary Miller says:

    Of all the beautiful homes and buildings I was afforded the chance to see during my two visits to Charleston, I would have to say that the most breathtaking site was the Aiken-Rhett House. I love the fact that HCF stepped in and chose not to restore it, but to preserve it “as is.” My imagination went wild! Wallpaper that was hung over 150 years ago and still on the wall; light fixtures original to the house; furniture that, for all intents and purposes, was used by Jefferson Davis or Henry Clay during one of the many balls held at the mansion. And that glorious life-size painting of Harriet Lowndes Aiken – mesmerizing! Not to mention that beautiful mirror in the ballroom. What a remarkable treasure this house is, and I am so delighted it did not fall to the wrecking ball, as so many other beautiful buildings did before the HCS stepped in and saved them. The Aiken-Rhett house is indeed a treasure, and one not to be missed when in this beautiful city by the sea.

  2. Joseph Gootenberg says:

    Why is Ms. Miller’s comment included herein the section describing “New Archaeology Exhibit at the Aiken-Rhett House Highlights Lives of the Enslaved” ?
    The comment completely ignores the topic of the enslaved people whose forced toil made the wealth of the house’s white slave owning family and each of the “grand” visitors such as noted slave owners and treasonous politicians “Jefferson Davis or Henry Clay during one of the many balls held at the mansion”.
    I suggest you remove this affront, and continue to elevate your good works of showing the pain and destruction of the human slavery without which this lavish lifestyle would not have been possible. Can you find historical documents such as bills of sale of slaves, and histories of families torn asunder to add to your exhibit? Were none of these slaves ever whipped, beaten or “sold South” to plantations as punishment? Was there resistance to enslavement by the enslaved inhabitants of the House? Some written record must exist.

    • Holland Williams says:

      Dear Mr. Gootenberg,
      Thank you for your comments. The archaeology exhibit features artifacts from the archaeological study of the kitchen house site and contextualizes how the artifacts were used and the harsh conditions under which the enslaved worked. Unfortunately, we have scant information on the family histories of those enslaved on the property, but the information we DO have is included in the audio guide and discussed not just at the kitchen house, but throughout the tour narrative. As to your question on whether any of the slaves were ever beaten, whipped or sold, we know those punishments were practiced in Charleston and the surrounding area, but despite thorough archival research, we have not yet found a reference to those practices taking place at the Aiken-Rhett House nor Jehossee Plantation, which was owned by the family. We continue to research those enslaved by the family and those enslaved by the Russell family at the Nathaniel Russell House, our other museum property. This recent New York Times article discussing Historic Charleston Foundation’s commitment to telling EVERYONE’S story may be of interest to you: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/26/travel/house-tours-charleston-savannah.html

  3. Thank you so very much for such an enlightened interpretation. I’m researching spaces of memory and how African-Americans manage in those spaces where trauma/violence has occurred, comparing plantations to other buildings of Jim Crow era in particular. In just this comment section I can extract a sense of validation being ignored. The “what else” the space speaks too and what comes to the surface resonates to my core. And must be dealt with as your site unfolds itself to a possibility of telling the full stories.

    Thank you for including the article as well as attempting to contextualize an obvious layered life. It’s so difficult to imagine but imagine we must, until we are able to admit that beautiful people with beautiful lifestyles are terrorist to others. Slavery, human chattel is terrorism, extremism. A dependent relationship of human bondage we cannot escape but grappling with it, we must.

    I believe we must show and continue to explore the humanity of those enslaved. We sometimes interpret the slave owners and their slaves as though all were the only people in this world. In this story we are missing the everyday life of the slave owners white counterparts, common whites; where were they and what was there life plight and life trajectory as they look through this prism of color with disdain and envy?

    How did the Aikens-Rhett family treat white’s beneath them? What did they do for/with the common white man? Where would the common whites have lived and how did they interact with these slaves who were property and thereby more valuable than a common white? I believe this gets at the genesis of an urban issue being an entitlement understanding/issue projected onto African-Americans that they are the taken care of group. And thru the lens of common/everyday whites that a slave has value compared to how common whites were treated. Even though programs of true entitlement were created to assist common whites plight. But enslaved humans worked for a living, no one took care of them. They were kept under extreme conditions of control and violence.

    The other point is to say the enslaved were African-Americans which for me denotes citizenship. When did enslaved people get there citizenship in South Carolina? There needs to be included in your interpretation an adjustment, if we are to understand people within the context and framework of their world not ours today; so then we can begin to understand and fully see a Governor’s lifestyle and life in all its complexities. Ownership does not equate or cross over to citizenship until the Civil War.

    So what does it say about and thru whose lens we are being given this prospective and why we as an American society can not fully take in what was left for us to unpack. Thank you for the opportunity and the exploration as opposed to an experience. The archeological aspect put people in front of us with their items. It humanized them in a way that reaches an experience of our humanity. I continue on my research and hope to fold this into my research. I wish you well on your site. And yes the whole site is beautiful, it allows us to see the cross section and interdependence of human beings. All complex by nature.

  4. Janice L Liddell says:

    I can add nothing more to Ms Adams-Harris thoughtful and poignant remarks except to say they are so on target. Thank you for this insightful article on the archeological finds at the Aitken-Rhett property and to those, especially Ms Adams Harris, who have responded so passionately. I am fortunate to be with a tour group who will visit the House tomorrow. I will visit and view it now with echoes of these perspectives and perceptions ringing in my ears. Again thank you for this discussion.

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