Slavery

Charleston, South Carolina, was a loud and busy place in the 1850s. People selling and trading filled the city’s cobblestone streets. Walking around, you might hear an enslaved woman selling produce or see an enslaved man making furniture. Looking closer, you would notice they wore badges, reading “fruiterer” and “mechanic.” In the city of Charleston, where enslaved people outnumbered whites, the government created a hiring-out system to control the local enslaved population.

If you ventured over to Chalmers Street, you might see the slave auction advertisements of Louis DeSaussure or Alonzo White. These men sold people at Ryan’s Mart, a slave auction house. Thousands of enslaved people, being bought and sold, passed through Charleston on their way to places throughout the South.

Valued, Sold, and Controlled

In Charleston, slavery was big business and a part of everyday life. Jane, age 12. Mitchel, age 15. Clarinda, age 13. Auctioneers at Ryan’s Mart sold these three and thousands of others during the mid-1800s. Slave auction house advertisements often highlighted the skills of those for sale and placed a monetary value on each person. 

Charleston slave owners could rent out their slaves to work as servants, street peddlers, porters, and mechanics. The city required slave owners to register their slaves for hire. Each registered slave wore a tax badge, usually on a string or chain, and had to show it to any white person who asked to see it. Each badge number represented the order in which the person was registered in a particular year and job category. Some white workers resented this system as unfair competition. White workers demanded much higher wages, making slave labor attractive to employers. But owners often permitted enslaved people to keep a small portion of their earnings, giving them a little independence within the harsh system of slavery.

Resistance, Escape, and Punishment

Some enslaved people resisted slavery by working slowly. A few others fought slavery through armed uprisings. Still others tried to escape, risking their lives to be free. In an effort to capture runaway slaves, owners frequently put up posters, providing physical descriptions of the runaways and offering monetary rewards for their return.

Runaway slaves, if caught, suffered brutal punishments. Some were forced to wear a heavy iron neck collar, that made it almost impossible to escape again by restricting mobility and making the person instantly identifiable as a runaway. 

The Fight to End Slavery

Europeans first forced people from Africa to come to North America in the late 1600s to be slaves. Slavery spread throughout America, but by the mid-1800s, most enslaved people in the United States lived in the South.

When it was created in 1787, the Constitution described enslaved people as property—a policy that clearly violated American freedom ideals. Some Americans believed that slavery was wrong and that it should be abolished, or ended. Known as abolitionists, they fought slavery by organizing, holding meetings, and writing articles in newspapers and books. Ultimately, it took the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and a constitutional amendment to end slavery in 1865, more than two hundred years after it started.

Explore the Slavery collection.