In a recent op-ed column, Rev. Joe Darby proclaims that “slave artisans and craftsmen built most of Charleston’s historic buildings.”
This is not factual, and it ignores the major contribution of skilled European artisans in the building of historic Charleston.
Records show more than 500 European artisans were plying their trade in Charleston during the 18th century alone, and colonial newspapers are filled with notices by craftsmen advertising themselves as “just from London” in getting into the booming building trade.
Perhaps the most thorough account of historic artisan work is in George Walton Williams’ history of St. Michael’s Church. Dr. Williams used detailed manuscripts and ledgers that list every nail, screw, hook and hinge used in construction of the 18th century church.
The master builder, then called an “undertaker,” was Irishman Samuel Cardy, who did much of the work with his own hands, setting frames and trusses and building forms and hoists. Detailed tiling, carving, gilding and glazing was done exclusively by European artisans such as Pierre Godderoy, Thomas Elfe, Humphrey Sommers, John Stephenson, Jeremiah Theus, Anthony Forehand and Frederick Stroble. And the hauling, laying and other simpler tasks were largely done by French Acadian immigrant laborers.
Slave laborers and artisans were commonly used in historic building projects, but documentation proves that they did not do most of the building in the city as Rev. Darby suggests. That fact is meticulously documented in “Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World” by Dr. Emma Hart, who writes that slave labor “did not encroach on the market for white skilled workers” in historic Charleston.
With so much being said about requiring tour guides to get their facts correct, the same standard should apply to those who distort our history in newspaper columns.
Oak Park Drive