One of Charleston’s grandest house museums is acknowledging that it has only been telling part of its story.
For decades, visitors have heard about how Nathaniel Russell, a Rhode Island native whose northeastern contacts made him one of Charleston’s most successful businessmen, built one of the city’s premier neoclassical homes not long after the Revolutionary War.
Less mentioned were the scores of slaves whose lives also are as intertwined with the property and who made the Russell family’s lavish lifestyle possible.
That’s why the Historic Charleston Foundation recently created a new exhibit to begin telling a bit more about them.
Brandy Culp, the foundation’s curator, helped put it together with Andrew Steever of Technical Theater Solutions.
“This allows an in-depth look at slavery at the Russell House instead of a glimpse,” she says. “How could we tell the story of the house without mentioning the Russell family? How could we tell the story of the house without telling the story of the African-Americans who made life here possible?”
The new exhibit occupies a room in a rear addition to the house — a space that offers two advantages: Not only is it where visitors wait for their docent, but it’s also the former kitchen and laundry, where some of Russell’s slaves worked and lived above.
“This would have been the center of their life here,” Culp says. “It’s a space that should interpret slavery.”
The exhibit consists mostly of a series of informative panels that talk about slavery in general and Russell’s role in it, as well as the lives of a few of his slaves. It’s filled out by slave-related artifacts found on the property years ago and on loan from the Charleston Museum.
Russell not only owned slaves, he imported and sold them. In 1772 (a few decades before he built his grand house), he wrote, “There has been a Great many negroes imported here this summer and many more Expected. They continue at very Great Prices.”
The goal here isn’t to talk about the slave trade globally but its presence at 51 Meeting St.
The foundation can only document approximately 16 slaves known to have lived on the property (based on census and other historical records; there could have been many more).
But enough is known about some of them to provide a glimpse into their lives.
One panel talks about Thomas Russell, a skilled blacksmith who ran his own shop on East Bay Street and hired and possibly trained white workers there.
He was executed in 1822 after being one of 35 convicted in the Denmark Vesey slave uprising (Russell was accused of plotting to make their spears and pikes, and Sarah Russell later would get compensated $122.34 from the government for the value of his life).
Another talks about Lydia Middleton, the family’s “dearly loved nurse,” whose mid-19th century photograph holding Charlotte Helen Middleton is in the Gibbes Museum’s collection and remains one of the most iconic images of a slave and a white child.
The exhibit is small compared to the house museum, but Culp says it’s a dynamic, ongoing project that will expand as new research and other opportunities turn up.
In the bigger picture, what is happening at the Russell House has been emerging all across the Lowcountry as historical sites gain the courage and honesty to tell a story that many find uncomfortable, and understandably so.
It’s an encouraging trend. Learning about the realities of slavery is a crucial part of learning about our past and who we are.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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