It was disheartening to read the recent column by R.L. Schreadley purporting to explain “Why Charleston’s slavery apology doesn’t make sense.” Additional letters to the editor and comments made at Charleston City Council begged the question, “Why apologize, I didn’t live back then and own any slaves?”
We would like to share some specifics of how slavery operated, its long-term consequences, the direct role that Charleston played in the administration of the institution of slavery, and the goals of the apology.
Cities have histories and legacies that shape their inhabitants’ lives. This is why the great writer William Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” His insight is especially true in Charleston, where the sense of place and history are palpable in every way the city portrays itself today. So the apology was not offered for any individual citizen today but by the municipality as a corporate body, which recognized the harms its historical policies caused. We see the apology as credible and incumbent upon the Charleston city government given its unique culpability with the issue of slavery.
Unlike its 12 companion British colonies where slavery eventually developed, South Carolina was the only one where provisions for “negro slaves” were integrated into its first constitution before the English settlers arrived. As the colonial capital, Charleston became the center of the Atlantic slave trade; more Africans were imported here compared to any other port in North America. It was also the last place in the United States to end the international slave trade in 1808, though the domestic trade continued through the Civil War. Slavery didn’t just exist here; Charleston was a bastion of enslavement. On the eve of the Civil War, only one quarter of Southern white families owned slaves. In Charleston, the figure was about three quarters and probably the highest percentage for any major Southern city.
The city was entwined with slavery in other ways, some of which were unique. For example, Charleston was the only city that required badges (licenses) for slaves hired out by their owners. The fees for the badges were paid to the city treasurer annually and represented a significant revenue stream for the city. In 1850, the city sold 4,668 badges and earned $15,108 from them – about $600,000 in today’s dollars. Charleston made money on slavery in other ways, too. A sales commission was payable to the city whenever slaves were sold. In addition, there was a “head tax,” or property tax, for the ownership of slaves. A significant portion of the annual city budget prior to 1865 derived from the combination of slave badges for the rental of slaves, commissions on their sale, and head taxes on their ownership. But here’s the real kicker. Slave owners who wanted to punish their slaves, but didn’t want to do it themselves, could send them to the city’s Work House and have them punished for a fee. By city ordinance, there were fees for housing, feeding, lashing, putting chains on and off, and putting the slave to hard labor on the treadmill. If an owner failed to pay the fees, city authorities could inflict additional corporal punishment on the slave, or even sell him and keep the proceeds. This was all specified in city ordinances.
Even the emancipated slave was forced to pay a capitation tax once free or risk re-enslavement for failure to pay. This was the unique cost of freedom for black people. Charleston’s dependence on slavery so impressed the British consul stationed here just before the Civil War that he described it as “The very blood of their veins.” He spoke metaphorically, but literally the life’s blood of African people helped finance the city and provided services they never received.
Mr. Schreadley and others are quick to note slavery ended in 1865, that no Charlestonian today owned slaves or is an immediate descendant of slave owners, which is obviously true. However, today we live with the consequences of a set of socioeconomic, political and cultural arrangements that emanated from slavery. Remember, once slavery ended, other mechanisms were created to control race relations as it once did. Segregation, disfranchisement and the threat of racially inspired violence resulted. Most racial disparities in the city today derive from slavery or the systems of racial oppression it spawned. To pretend that 1865 was a moment of racial metamorphosis is to ignore the obvious.
Colonial and state laws passed in 1740 and 1834 prohibited slave literacy. However, even after emancipation, the history of education in the city shows how slavery’s racist foundation continued to limit black Charlestonians’ opportunities. There was no public high school for African Americans in Charleston County until 1911, when Charleston Colored Industrial School (Burke) was founded. As late as 1936, according to R. Scott Baker’s book, “Paradoxes of Desegregation,” the white high schools were funded at three times the per-pupil rate of Burke. According to school superintendent A.B. Rhett, this was by design since Burke’s goal was “to supply cooks, maids and delivery boys”; it was only fully accredited in the early 1940s. Slavery’s legal prohibition against literacy was replaced by a new public policy designed to educate menial black laborers. The broader implications of these policies are apparent in the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative report titled, “The State of Racial Disparities in Charleston County, South Carolina 2000-15.”
Mr. Schreadley ends with a reference to Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, where he envisioned the day we would all be judged by the content of our character, rather than by the color of our skin. Let us remember: Dr. King had more profound insights, and in 1967 at New York’s Riverside Church he predicted that “America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear.” He called for a revolution in values that would produce a more compassionate society. It was not enough to merely give beggars alms, but Dr. King said we must learn that “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The first step toward more compassionate values must be embracing the truth of how we got to where we are today and acting positively on that knowledge. Remember, without truth, there can never be reconciliation; the city’s apology was a wise and overdue step toward both.
John Tecklenburg is the mayor of Charleston. Dr. Bernard E. Powers Jr. is professor emeritus of history at the College of Charleston.