In a serendipitous bit of good fortune, archaeologists probing the site of a planned $75 million International African American Museum in Charleston believe they have found evidence of the old wharf where tens of thousands of enslaved blacks first set foot in North America.
Researchers working with Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting have found timbers and bricks thought to have been part of a waterfront wharf and warehouse, uncovered during a preliminary study of the site.
The artifacts are thought to have been part of a wharf built in the 1760s by Revolutionary War patriot Christopher Gadsden using slave labor.
The wharf, the largest in North America, was built to service the rice trade, once a staple of South Carolina’s economy, according to research by Robert Macdonald, a consultant for the International African American Museum.
In time, however, the wharf “morphed into an entry point for more than 100,000 slaves during its lifetime,” according to the Charleston Post and Courier. “It could hold six ships at a time, and included an 840-foot quay and warehouses. Enslaved people were held there in crowded conditions as they awaited the auction block or transport to the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.”
Charleston was the nation’s capital of the slave trade, the place where many of those who were enslaved first landed in the New World.
During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, about 40 percent of enslaved Africans brought into the country passed through Charleston Harbor. While many of these were sold around the South, a significant number remained in South Carolina.
By 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the United States, and 400,000 of them – 10 percent – lived in South Carolina. Blacks, both enslaved and free, made up nearly 60 percent of the state’s population.
It’s estimated that as many as 40 percent of African slaves brought to the United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries walked across Gadsden’s wharf.
A draft of the results of the initial study at the museum site, released last week, described how archaeologists dug three trenches at the site. They found bricks from the wall of a warehouse and fragments of timbers thought to come from the framing of the historic wharf.
“We believe these are actual elements of Gadsden’s Wharf. It’s huge for a preliminary first dig,” said Felicia Easterlin, the museum’s program manager.
Remnants of the wharf or the warehouse were found in all three trenches, she added.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has said he hopes the money will be in place by early 2016 so construction of the museum can begin. If that schedule holds, the museum should open in 2018.
(Top: View of Antebellum Charleston looking toward Gadsden Wharf. Source: The International African American Museum.)