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Commentary: Charleston effort corrects the historical record the right way

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Margaret Seidler.jpg (copy)

Charleston native Margaret Seidler reads  copies of slave auction advertisements from William Payne’s auction house on Jan. 28 before a Broad Street building. Payne was her great-great-great grandfather and his business was on Broad Street. Seidler, who discovered in 2018 that she was related to Payne, led the effort to have a bronze plaque placed there, with help from the College of Charleston's Center for the Study of Slavery. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

“It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”

— Chinese proverb

In these angry and polarized times, San Francisco's school board, presumably consisting of seriously misguided people, banished 44 names from the public schools, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster, Paul Revere and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Apparently, each of the 44 had once done something that today is considered politically incorrect . This rage for erasing history has even reared its ugly head in Charleston, the home of historic preservation, where the College of Charleston, unaccountably, decided to erase its own founder’s name from a student award. And the City Council now has a committee working to offer us more erasures.

But in the midst of this silly season, one Charlestonian came forward to offer a better way. As reported on the front page of the Jan. 30 Post and Courier, Margaret Seidler, a native Charlestonian, discovered while researching her family history that she was descended from two slave traders, John Torrans and William Payne, her fourth great-grandfather.

Payne’s slave auction business was located at 34 Broad St. as the local slave trade centered on Broad, State and East Bay streets. (Ryan’s Slave Mart “the slave museum” is around the corner on Chalmers Street.)

Robert Rosen (copy) (copy)

Charleston attorney and historian Robert Rosen. Provided

Seidler decided to share “the whole truth” about her long-gone ancestors from the 18th and 19th centuries. Doing her own research and enlisting the aid of local researchers, including historians Peg Eastman, Nic Butler of the Charleston County Library and Bernard Powers, director of the College of Charleston’s Center for the Study of Slavery, she set in motion the creation of a handsome historical marker that describes “the many buildings on Broad Street between Church and East Bay Streets” used as “private venues for the sale of human property.”

The new marker informs us that the “firm of William and Payne & Sons was likely the busiest auction house in the Lowcountry between 1803 and 1834,” telling the tragic facts of one local slave trading business in a straightforward and honest way.

Payne likely sold more than 10,000 human beings at 34 Broad St. ”While many were enslaved in town, many more worked in the surrounding countryside.”

Seidler and those who helped her, especially the College of Charleston’s Center for the Study of Slavery, which sponsored the project, have done something critically important for our community.

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First, they have made public and available, in a factual and useful way, a part of our shared history that we need to know and acknowledge. I am sure the college’s Center for the Study of Slavery has more markers in the works.

We, as a community, need to reckon with slavery, not look away.

Second, they have demonstrated how the public square can be used in a positive way to “change the narrative,” as Joseph McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project always says. The narrative is changed by adding important, if unpleasant, information in a public way.

Monuments, plaques, signs and historic names carry meaning and educate, and the role of slavery in the history of Charleston cannot be over-estimated.

In "A Short History of Charleston," Chapter 4 is titled “The Capital of Southern Slavery (1670–1865)” and says: “The institution of slavery shaped and defined Charleston as much as, if not more than, any other force in its history. ... Charleston was more committed to the institution than any other southern city.” Charleston had a higher percentage of slave owners than any other city. In 1820 and 1840, three-fourths of all heads of families owned at least one slave.

Margaret Seidler and The Center for the Study of Slavery have given us a new, intelligent and appropriate approach to history in the public square of Charleston: Add critical historical facts to increase our common knowledge and empathy for tragic aspects of our history. Remember and educate. Don't erase.

Robert Rosen is a local attorney and author of “A Short History of Charleston.” A revised and expanded edition will be published by USC Press in the spring.

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