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This year's Charleston home show will showcase slaves' role in prolific architecture

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Miles Brewton House

The historic Miles Brewton House on King Street, built sometime between 1765 and 1769, is one of the most comprehensive examples of Georgian architecture in the South. Brad Nettles/Staff

Charleston's prolific historic buildings are praised for their vibrant pastel colors, symmetrical pre-Civil War architecture and their timeless Southern elegance. 

But little, if any, credit is given to the enslaved Africans who painstakingly constructed the Holy City's most coveted homes that made it a tourist destination. 

"For most visitors to Charleston, unless it's pointed out ... it can be lost that enslaved people built pretty much everything prior to the Civil War," said Katherine Pemberton, manager of research and education at Historic Charleston Foundation. "That has to change." 

The 2020 Charleston Home + Design Show later this month is aiming to change that mindset this year and is hosting a lecture about the city's master builders and the enslaved artisans who made some of Charleston's most iconic estates. 

Christina Butler, a professor at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, is hosting the discussion. She said the vast majority of Charleston's pre-Civil War buildings were constructed with slave labor. But locating evidence documenting their work is more difficult, she said.  

Magazine Street fingerprint (copy)

Paul Garbarini, president of Uniquely Charleston Tours, shows where a finger imprint was left during production of this brick. It can be found on a brick wall on Magazine Street in downtown Charleston. Brad Nettles/Staff

"The construction industry in Charleston was certainly heavily populated by slaves," Butler said. "There's not a lot of information out there, and it takes a lot of time to dig those papers up."

Most of the records that estate builders had were private. And even if they managed to survive floods, hurricanes and the heat of battle during the Civil War, names of slaves may have not even been recorded on project documents. 

But Butler said it has become a national trend in architecture studies to try and find as much of those documents as possible, so that tourists understand some of the city's most famous properties in their proper historic context. 

"The focus has traditionally been on describing Charleston's buildings as high-style," Butler said. "But we're not focusing on who built them and why." 

Butler said jobs sites were often integrated and slave labor ranged from brutal manual labor such as shoveling and hauling lumber to more intricate tasks such as brick laying and metalwork. 

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If there isn't paper documents that have logged a slave's service, there is sometimes a physical receipt left on the homes. 

Captured in the brickwork of Old City Jail and the City Market are the fingerprints of former enslaved children which linger as reminders of a painful history. 

In her lecture, Butler will highlight roughly five properties that wouldn't be as prolific if it wasn't for slave labor. 

One of them is the Miles Brewton House on King Street. Built sometime between 1765 and 1769, it is one of the most comprehensive examples of Georgian architecture in the American South. 

By tracking down primary source documents from the family as well as cross referencing city records and newspaper clippings, she was able to find evidence of slave labor. 

35 Chapel

The single house at 35 Chapel St. is on this year's "Beyond the Big House" tour, which highlights Charleston's historic kitchen buildings, slave quarters and carriage houses. file/Robert Behre/Staff

Lectures have been a part of the Home + Design Show in the past. But Tim Barkley, the publisher of the Charleston Home + Design and the chief organizer of the event, said there hasn't been anything that tackled slavery. 

“I’ve really wanted to do a lecture like this,” Barkley said. “My staff sort of suggested I stay away from controversial topics, but I think it’s possible to educate (attendees) and enlighten them without it being a negative experience.” 

Barkley's perspective changed when he accompanied his 11-year-old daughter to the “Beyond the Big House” tour, which showcased outbuildings used as slave quarters around Charleston's most historic homes. Typically those structures didn't get much attention, forced to be left in the shadows of a dark history. 

"We have to be deliberate, and we have to be intentional," said Pemberton, with the Historic Charleston Foundation. "If we don't mention it, it's a disservice." 

Charleston Home + Design Show is Jan. 24-26 at the Gaillard Center. Butler's lecture is Sunday, Jan. 24 at 3 p.m. 

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

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