You are here

Artifacts of the slave trade were designed to convey messages of power, ownership, and even refinement

The Slave Mart Museum building in Charleston, South Carolina doesn’t draw much attention from passersby. The stone, two-story building with an unassuming entry-way certainly doesn’t give any clues about the building’s pivotal role as a slave auction house. But to Rhonda Goodman’s trained eye the building has a lot to teach us about how ante-bellum Americans felt about the especially de-humanizing but integral facet of the slave trade; the slave auction. Goodman, a Stanford Art History Ph.D. candidate has conducted much of the fieldwork for her dissertation in Charleston. While there and in other locations along the Atlantic seaboard she has spent weeks investigating slave culture artifacts including art, architecture and objects from the period. Her research has shed light on the largely unexplored topic of the visual interpretations of art and architecture of slave auctions in the southern United States.

Goodman, currently a Geballe Dissertation Prize Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, specializes in American art and architecture, with a focus on African-American culture and art.  Her dissertation research involves the examination and interpretation of a range of structures and artifacts of American slavery, including paintings, buildings, documents and shackles. Of her research Goodman said, “The visual culture of the auctions was the one aspect that impacted everyone within the sphere of influence, so it’s important to know not only what are people saw, but how they interacted with the objects.”

An in-depth analysis of the items Goodman chose raised intriguing questions about the prevailing culture of the time. Inspired by these questions, Goodman focused her thesis on the ways in which the visual culture and objects surrounding slavery impacted societal structure and perceptions of social hierarchy in America before the Civil War; in other words, what the art, architecture and objects of slavery say about white slave owners and the pervasive atmosphere of control they imposed over their slaves.

Goodman separated her research into three areas: the spaces and architecture relating to slave culture, and how changes in social climate affect those places; material culture, like slave advertisements, shackles, badges, and bills of sales, and what these items convey about property and ownership and lastly, the painting and sculptures of anti-slavery artists and why they chose slavery as the subject of their art. When asked how she became interested in the topic, Goodman relates her experience as an educator at Woodlawn, an early 19th-century plantation, owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  She noted that since the slave quarters had been torn down, the challenge was to interpret the slave presence in the mansion itself.  She said the staff focused on the Dining Room.  “By stacking the plates, tablecloths, and utensils on the table rather then showing a set table, we were able to ask the question, ‘Who is in the room now?  Is the family eating or are the slaves preparing for the family’s mealtime?’” she said.  “At that point, we could talk about the slave’s duties.”

While at Stanford, Goodman’s interests shifted to the public aspects of slavery.  In the course of her visual art research, she was surprised to discover a number of paintings depicting scenes of the slave trade. “I wondered, who was painting these, and moreover, who was buying this artwork?” she says, referencing a painting of an outdoor slave auction by American artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble. Goodman discovered that many of the works were painted by artists with anti-slavery leanings who wanted to capture the reality of slave auctions as they broke families apart. Typically the works were not sold, but kept in the artists’ private collection until decades later, when they became valuable cultural artifacts.

In her chapter on art, Goodman concludes that because the family unit becomes the social focal point for white Americans in the nineteenth century, artists like Noble, Eyre Crowe, and sculptor John Rodgers began to render slaves in a manner that they could relate to; women safeguarding their children, while the men look on, defiant and even angry. “The paintings were attempts to garner sympathy for the slaves,” she said. “The artists also placed slaves in a setting – an auction – that observers could easily understand. Americans understood that slave families usually did not remain intact.”

Charleston’s Slave Mart was built in 1859 after a nearly 20-year debate among the city’s residents as to whether a structure to conceal the auctions was necessary. In the eighteenth century, slave auctions in Charleston were primarily outdoor affairs that took place in front of public buildings along major thoroughfares. The auctions were staged spectacles, and as Goodman noted, repeated viewings of these public performances were important moments in the social hierarchy that helped to define how some white Americans saw blacks as animals to be bought and sold.

In the decades leading to the Civil War, Charlestonians’ desire for refinement – cleaning the city of all things noisy and unsightly, not to mention outside pressure from Anti-slavery groups, were key reasons why some citizens felt an enclised slave market space away from the main street was a necessity. Ultimately, residents decided to build a slave market structure on a side street near the shopping district.  Goodman explained that the residents didn’t want to abolish slavery, but that some people definitely did not want to see auctions every time they came to town, “They wanted easy accessibility, but they wanted it hidden.” She added,  “However, some Charlestonians did not want the auctions off the major streets. They saw any change as a threat to their established way of life.”

While studying slave trade objects Goodman identified a similar shift. She explained that articles of bondage originally looked like barbaric torture devices; elaborate face masks and unnecessarily heavy and thick shackles, “The exaggerated design of 18th century constraint devices helped to cement the ‘we’re in control’ message that slave owners wanted to send. But by the mid 1800’s these objects, though they still served the same function, had become smaller and less conspicuous.” Like the idea to move slave auctions indoors, this transition was in-line with white Americans’ desire to appear more sophisticated while still continuing to buy and sell slaves.

Goodman said her research into the artifacts of slave culture is important to understanding how some Americans struggled for power and control in the mid-nineteenth century. She added, “How nineteenth-century Americans experienced what they observed made a big difference in how they saw themselves.”