Exhibit paints picture of city’s harsh past

Edwin Breeden talks about the new display at the Old Exchange Building on East Bay Street that will inform visitors about slave auctions that took place around the historic building.

It’s the most detailed image ever believed made of a Charleston slave auction, but it’s been largely lost to history.

Eyre Crowe, a British artist, painted the canvas shortly after he witnessed a slave auction near Broad and East Bay streets on March 10, 1853.

He also did a black-and-white sketch and a color etching of the same sale, part of a series of images he created during his tour of the South with author William Thackeray.

A reproduction is now displayed inside the Old Exchange Building, which is shown in the painting’s background. It’s part of the Exchange’s extensive new interpretation of slavery and the slave auctions that occurred in and around its premises.

The new panels reflect a larger trend of Charleston’s historic sites growing more comfortable with interpreting the history of slavery. The city and former Mayor Joe Riley hope that trend continues with construction of a new International African-American Museum — planned on the site of a city wharf where many African slaves were imported.

The Exchange’s new panels discuss the history of slave importation and trading in the city, with an emphasis on slave auctions that took place nearby — auctions that even continued throughout the Revolutionary War.

The reproduction of Crowe’s canvas is also featured. It depicts an animated white auctioneer clutching a pamphlet and standing on a platform in the middle of dozens of African-Americans, including women and children. In a corner, a male slave is shown slipping a book into a satchel, next to one of the city’s most famous palmetto trees.

Tony Youmans, director of the Old Exchange Building, said he was pleased that the building’s curators — a group of city and state officials and members of the Daughters of the American Revolution — agreed to present a more difficult aspect of the building’s history.

The new panels, which will be placed on all three floors of the building, were made possible by a S.C. Humanities Council grant.

“This is huge for us — to be able to interpret this,” Youmans said. “We wanted to start this year with a much more representative sampling of the building’s history, and this is part of it.”

Slave auctions occurred all over Charleston’s wharves and streets from the 18th century until 1856, when a city ordinance required them moved indoors, partly in response to concern from merchants’ complaints that large auction crowds blocked off storefronts.

Edwin Breeden, a project manager at the Old Exchange Building, helped create the Exchange’s new slavery panels. His research found slave auctions occurred even inside the building, despite a 1767 law that originally forbade slave sales there.

“It was clear that law was amended or revoked,” he said.

Still, most auctions took place on the city’s streets, including one in 1854 where 224 slaves from Florida were sold in a few hours for $97,000 — about $3 million in today’s dollars.

One of the biggest surprises was learning about the existence of Crowe’s painting.

That happened largely due to author Maurie McInnis, a vice provost at the University of Virginia, who wrote a book about abolitionist art five years ago. Her book, “Slaves Waiting for Sale,” featured another of Crowe’s slave paintings on the cover.

McInnis said she read that Crowe had exhibited a painting based on a Charleston auction in the 1850s, but her research could not uncover any further mention of it. But a few years after her 2011 book was published, one of her former students visited Cuba and returned with a catalog from Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

The student sent McInnis an image, “and I knew immediately that it had to be the painting by Eyre Crowe.” The painting had the same coloring and feel of Crowe’s other works.

“All the pieces added up for me,” she said, adding that it’s one of only three oil-on-canvas works by Crowe depicting such auctions, and McInnis said she plans to go to Cuba this spring to see it firsthand.

Crowe later wrote about what he saw in Charleston, and his words are on one of the exhibit’s new panels: “Throw in the old Exchange walls as a background, the tall masts of the cotton-laden liners in the distance, and the no inharmonious dresses of the slaves, and you have a picture, painful as it is true ... of bygone slavery times.”

McInnis said Crowe’s paintings were designed to carry a message to Britain — that while Britain had ended slavery in its colonies, its trade with America essentially supported the institution here.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.