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This building is one of three behind the historic Aiken-Rhett house in Charleston, South Carolina, home to a wealthy rice planter and his family in the mid-1800s. The first floor provided space for horses and carriages. The upper floor was the living quarters of some of the 700 to 800 enslaved people owned by William Aiken and later his son-in-law. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
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Charleston mansion provides fuller picture of slave life

There’s a lot to think about as I, my husband and our Charleston hosts tour the home and grounds of the Aiken-Rhett House near the city’s downtown.

This significant home has been preserved by the Historic Charleston Foundation, which means we are looking at unrestored furniture, light fixtures, wallpaper, woodwork and artwork from the 19th-century South.

Most of these artifacts are in fine condition, and the mansion remains as it was when the foundation purchased it in 1995. Since then, the emphasis has been on preservation, a formidable task in humid, hurricane-prone South Carolina.

Still, there is still plenty of “grandioseness” about it — enough that we can somewhat imagine the day-to-day life of the Aiken and Rhett families in the mid- to late 1800s. 

Life for them and other wealthy businessmen and planters was one of leisure and luxury that included a continuous social scene, expensive European clothing, sumptuous, multi-course meals, and a “grand tour of Europe” that garnered some of the artwork on the aged walls.

The Aiken family was headed by William Aiken Jr., a wealthy businessman, rice planter, politician, governor of South Carolina (1844-1846) and owner of 700 to 800 enslaved people.

Enslaved families that belonged to the Aiken and Rhett families were allotted one room, regardless of the size of the family. The only windows were in a narrow hallway. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

In 1862, Aiken’s daughter, Henrietta, married Andrew Burnett Rhett. The house was in the family for 142 years until it was sold to The Charleston Museum and eventually purchased by the foundation.

The conversation around the Aiken-Rhett dinner table in the grand dining room must have been awkward at times. Though a slaveowner, Aiken didn’t believe that South Carolina should secede from the Union. His son-in-law, a Confederate Army officer, did.

There was agreement, however, on the morality of owning other human beings and how they should be treated. The Aiken-Rhett property exemplifies the common pre-Civil War extremes in living conditions between masters and slaves.

The Aiken-Rhett high-maintenance lifestyle was made possible by human chattel who lived in poverty and dependency in spare, primitive quarters on the house’s back lot. Other enslaved people worked the rice fields.

From the 1720s to the 1860s, “no other commodity was remotely as important (as rice) to the region,” according to an article in S.C. Sea Grant Consortium magazine. “Indigo, cotton, forest products, and manufacturing never came close to matching the riches that planters drew from their rice estates.”

In addition to the three-story house, which reflects both Greek Revival and Victorian styles, the grounds include several outbuildings — stable, carriage house and kitchen building, a privy (outhouse) and slave quarters. Enslaved families were allotted one room, regardless of family size.

The Aiken-Rhett house in Charleston, South Carolina, is a pre-Civil War home (built about 1820) that has been preserved by the Historic Charleston Foundation. Preserving a building means that it is maintained in as-is condition, as opposed to restoring it to its original condition. Courtesy photo

The buildings are much as they were in 1858. An elaborate call-bell system that went from outside the home to inside allowed the family to summon a slave to a designated room.

Slaves carried food and hot water from the first-floor kitchen building to the second-floor dining room and bathroom. They also had to keep a continuous fire in the stove despite Charleston’s heavy heat and humidity, just in case their owners wanted an impromptu meal.

A few decades ago, tours of the South’s plantations and antebellum homes rarely included slave dwellings or even a mention of the people who inhabited them. Many of the slave dwellings throughout the South have been destroyed, either through human action or that of nature, but there is a national movement to find, recover and rebuild these dwellings.

The Charleston Foundation has done much to revive the study and research of enslaved people in its city, as well as advocate strongly for preserving and gathering Charleston’s archeological evidence before more sites are destroyed by development.

The slave quarters at the Aiken-Rhett House are a prime example of what can be saved and learned if the willingness is there.

For more, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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