South Carolina Picture Project
South Carolina Picture Project

Old Slave Mart Museum — Charleston, South Carolina

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Old Slave Mart Museum

When the United States banished its participation in the international slave trade in 1808, the domestic slave business flourished, and Charleston became a hub for buyers of human flesh. Slaves in the Holy City were sold outside of the Old Exchange Building in a public open-air market. However, in 1856 a city ordinance passed that prohibited the selling of slaves at the busy intersection of Broad and East Bay Streets, citing traffic problems. Beginning that year, slaves auctions were to be conducted away from the street and public view.

Old Slave Mart

John Diskes of Summerville, 2008 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

As a result, indoor marts or even yards behind buildings became the places where people shopped for enslaved human labor. Interested buyers came to the city from all over the southeast, and for owners of slave auction houses, the business was lucrative. One of the better-known slave marts was Ryan’s Mart on Chalmers Street, owned by alderman and former sheriff Thomas Ryan. The property extended from State Street to Queen Street and included a converted four-story tenement building that served as a “baracoon” or slave jail, a kitchen, and a “dead house” or morgue. Slaves primarily were sold in the slave yard behind the buildings and away from street view.

Old Slave Mart Museum

John Diskes of Summerville, 2011 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

In 1859 Z.B. Oakes purchased the slave mart and added a “shed” with a wide arch and an imposing iron gate flanked by octagonal pillars. The shed contained a roof trussed to the building next door at 8 Chalmers Street, the German Fire Company, as seen in the picture at the top of the page. Once the shed was completed, slaves were sold inside its walls, forced to stand on auction tables for the viewing of prospective buyers. They were usually disrobed so their features could be scrutinized. Buyers looked for a variety of clues to tell them about the slaves, including scars from past whippings that indicated whether a slave was subservient or disobedient.

Slaves continued to be sold here until November 1863, and all slave auction houses closed after Emancipation. The property changed hands a few times following the Civil War and eventually became a tenement house for African Americans, with a second floor added to the shed in 1878. It also served later as an auto repair shop. In 1938 the property was purchased by Miriam B. Wilson, who converted it into a museum of African American art, history, and culture. In 1964 Judith Wragg Chase and Louise Wragg Graves acquired the property and maintained the museum until its closing in 1987. The City of Charleston then acquired the property in 1988 and reopened it as a slave museum in 2007.

The Old Slave Mart is the only existing slave auction building in South Carolina. The museum is a popular destination for visitors and locals alike, accurately depicting the tragic story of slavery in Charleston.

The Old Slave Mart Museum is listed in the National Register:

(Ryan’s Mart) The Old Slave Mart was originally a commercial building used for slave trading and other transactions from 1853 until the Civil War. The stuccoed building with its rounded arch entrance is a visual reminder of commercial activities of antebellum South Carolina. The building is probably the only extant building used as a slave auction gallery in antebellum South Carolina. The building, built in 1853, has elements of Gothic and Romanesque Revival architecture with its massive octagonal pillars and arched entrance. Built for former Charleston sheriff and alderman Thomas Ryan, the Mart was also used by other principal brokers (auctioneers) of the time.

Alterations include extension of the rear of the building about 22 feet in 1922. In 1937 a wooden façade was inserted within the arch, a second floor added below the original roof, and the tile roof replaced with a tin roof. Following the Civil War, the building was used as a tenement house and about 1922 was converted into an automobile salesroom. Old Slave Mart Museum was established in 1937. The Mart originally included two additional lots and three additional buildings, a jail or “Barracoon” to house slaves prior to sale, a kitchen, and a morgue. The back two lots were cut off in 1875 and the jail, kitchen, and morgue were demolished in the 20th century.

Old Slave Mart Museum Info

Address: 6 Chalmers Street, Charleston, SC 29401
GPS Coordinates: 32.777838,-79.928379

Old Slave Mart Museum Map

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5 Comments about Old Slave Mart Museum

SC Picture Project says:
September 30th, 2018 at 12:56 pm

The new International African American Museum, scheduled to be built in Charleston, has a fantastic family resource center, called the Center for Family History, already operating. We highly recommend reaching out to them about specific plantations and they can guide you as the records are not all in one place.

Marz says:
September 30th, 2018 at 2:30 am

Where would slave bill of sales, slave schedules and names of slaves working on certain plantation be and how can I retrieve these historical papers?

Cindy says:
September 27th, 2016 at 1:08 pm

I was on a tour of the Charleston area, was a little separated from my group when I heard the sounds of rattling chains which sounded like it was coming from the middle of the street. When I caught up to my group and asked if anyone heard the sound of chains and if they knew where it came from, no-one else had heard it except myself. I had “missed” the Slave Market, but when I walked back realized this was when I started to hear the rattling chains up until I reached my group. I was never afraid, it was just a little eerie.

Mary Jordan says:
December 15th, 2014 at 4:25 pm

I just wanted to mention my experience as a young school girl. Upon entering this building during school field trips I used to here the slave chains rattling. I found it to be very eerie but was never afraid. I always loved the history of Charleston. Growing up in Charleston for me makes it so fascinating. It's like going back in time and finding out about things that happened before I was born. I could never forget the sound of those rattling chains.

Courtney Cook says:
March 18th, 2014 at 7:05 pm

Hello, I am doing a history project for school. I am very interested in this building and would love to interview some people closely related to it. There is lots of historical ties and meaning that goes with this building and I would like to go deeper than the textbooks and bring my report to life. If anyone knows who I could contact to interview that would be greatly appreciated, thanks 🙂


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