By Damon Fordham
South Carolina’s Lowcountry holds a major place of importance in African-American history for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly as a port of entry for people of African descent. According to several historians, anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the Africans who were brought to America during the slave trade entered through ports in the Lowcountry. This has given the Lowcountry the designation among some as the “Ellis Island for African Americans,” although some dispute this term, as the Ellis Island immigrants arrived voluntarily as opposed to the Africans who were captured in the Atlantic slave trade.
According to Peter Wood in his book “Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 to the Stono Rebellion,” the successful cultivation of rice in the Lowcountry in the 1600s was a major factor in the importation of African labor. Sir Jonathan Atkins was quoted in 1680 as saying, “Since people have found out the convenience and cheapness of slave labor they no longer keep white men, who formerly did the work on the Plantations.” Joseph Corry, an Englishman who spent some time in what is now the West African nation of Sierra Leone, noted, “Rice forms the chief part of the African’s sustenance.”
When further observation noted the skill of Africans in this region in cultivating rice, Africans from the vicinity of Sierra Leone and Ghana became especially sought-after by slave owners in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The demand for Africans in the rice-growing regions was such that, “By the time the (South Carolina) colony’s Proprietors gave way to a royal government in 1720, Africans had outnumbered Europeans for more than a decade.”
According to Elaine Nichols of the South Carolina State Museum, Sullivan’s Island, an island near Charleston, was a major port of entry for enslaved Africans. Her paper “Sullivan’s Island Pest Houses: Beginning an Archeological Investigation” (1989), detailed the phenomenon of “Pest Houses,” that were used to quarantine Africans upon their arrival, for fear that the Africans would have contagious diseases. The Africans would often remain confined from 10 to 40 days and 200-300 at a time would sometimes remain in isolation in the “pest houses.” By 1793, residents of Sullivan’s Island demanded that the pest houses be removed from the vicinity. Three years later, the houses were sold and new ones were built on nearby James Island.
According to an undated pamphlet regarding Charleston’s Old Slave Mart, one such market existed at the workhouse on Magazine Street, but was shut down in the 1850s. The sight of slave sales (if not the institution of slavery itself) proved to be offensive to many Charlestonians, and several ordinances forbade “the promiscuous selling” of enslaved Africans in public view. In 1859, the market at 6 Chalmers St. began to be used for the sale of enslaved Africans until the end of slavery, and it is this building that is referred to in Charleston as “The Old Slave Mart.”
For many years, both blacks and whites in Charleston preferred to ignore this city’s role in the slave trade. However, in 1999, John Leigh, Sierra Leone’s ambassador to the United States, took part with local dignitaries in a ceremony commemorating Sullivan’s Island’s role as a major port of entry for enslaved Africans. A marker was erected near the site of the pest houses, and remembrance ceremonies are held during the month of June to commemorate the memory of the enslaved Africans at Sullivan’s Island.
At least three names of the many enslaved Africans who entered through the Lowcountry are known today. One was Denmark Vesey, who was brought from St. Thomas after he was purchased by Capt. Joseph Vesey in the late 18th century. Denmark Vesey is best remembered as the planner of the unsuccessful Charleston Slave Rebellion of 1822, which led to the establishment of a military garrison to contain future slave rebellions.
This garrison later became a military college known as The Citadel. Omar Ibn Said, a Senegalese Muslim captured into slavery, was also noted to have arrived in Charleston in 1807. Ajar, who was also captured from West Africa, was sold in Charleston in 1815. Ajar’s son Tony, who was purchased by a man named Allen Little, was the great-grandfather of Malcolm Little, who is better known today as the African-American freedom fighter Malcolm X.