Looking 'Beyond The Big House' And Into The Lives Of Slaves A new house tour bypasses Charleston's antebellum mansions and takes visitors directly to the quarters where enslaved people lived and worked.
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Looking 'Beyond The Big House' And Into The Lives Of Slaves

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Looking 'Beyond The Big House' And Into The Lives Of Slaves

Looking 'Beyond The Big House' And Into The Lives Of Slaves

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The question of how to remember the ugliest parts of U.S. history continues to divide the country. Last month's violence over Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Va., was the latest reminder of that. Charleston, S.C., has its own difficult racial history, which includes the murder of nine people two years ago at a black church by a white supremacist. This weekend, historians are highlighting the enslaved people who spent their lives in the shadows of Charleston's sprawling mansions. NPR's Sarah McCammon has more.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Anne Blessing grew up in a classic antebellum Charleston home with double-decker porches and gorgeous brickwork. For years, it's been a stop on a popular historic home tour hosted by the Historic Charleston Foundation.

ANNE BLESSING: Normally people want to see the fancier parts of the house.

MCCAMMON: This weekend, for the first time, visitors will skip the formal areas and go straight to the kitchen. With its wooden beams and massive hearth, it's a favorite hangout spot for the family. But as Blessing has learned, it's also where enslaved people once spent most of their lives toiling over hot fires.

BLESSING: If you were the cook, you probably just slept on a pallet in this room and maybe with your whole family as well.

MCCAMMON: Joseph McGill is with The Slave Dwelling Project, which is a partner for the tour called Beyond The Big House. He says many former slave quarters are hidden amongst Charleston's majestic homes.

JOSEPH MCGILL: So one would have to go physically beyond the front entrance. And in examining the depth of the lot, you can see the carriage houses, the kitchens.

MCCAMMON: Past tours have discussed some former slave quarters, but they've never been the focus before even though the city was central to the U.S. slave trade. Historians estimate some 40 percent of enslaved Africans passed through Charleston's port. Their labor has left literal marks on the city, including Anne Blessing's home.

BLESSING: I've always loved the bricks. They're sort of - like, they change colors in different light, and they kind of contract and expand with the weather.

MCCAMMON: What she didn't realize until she met Joseph McGill was that some of the indentations in the bricks are the fingerprints of the slaves who made them.

MCGILL: You know, that's the evidence of the enslaved ancestors reaching out to us saying, we were here; tell our stories. And when I go and I put my fingers in those prints, my fingers are way too big, which is an indication that there were children - enslaved children, you know, making those bricks.

MCCAMMON: McGill says it's important to preserve and remember the lives and work of enslaved people whose names have often been forgotten. Blessing agrees even if it means facing unpleasant truths about the history of her city and her home.

BLESSING: I think it's important that as a country we talk about it. It's such a major part of our history. It's so much of how we built our country. And I think anything that you don't talk about for a long time is going to come out at some point.

MCCAMMON: The tour of former slave quarters begins this year with eight properties, a number organizers hope will grow in years to come. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Charleston.

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