During the colonial period, the Carolina economy relied on a multi-national trans-Atlantic trade system. British merchants supplied manufactured goods to acquire slaves from West and Central African ports, which they then shipped to English colonies in the Americas in exchange for cash crops exports produced primarily by enslaved African labor on plantations. Before the American Revolution, South Carolina merchants served as local factors for British merchants in Liverpool, Bristol, and London who directed most of the trade of enslaved Africans from West Africa to Carolina.
White Carolina planters and slave traders made immense profits from selling and extracting labor and skills from enslaved Africans, and became some of the most influential social, political, and military leaders in the colony, and later in the state and new nation of the United States. Slavery was central to the wealth, social structures, and political and legal systems of South Carolina. Rigid, violently enforced racial hierarchies were essential to maintaining this system.
Despite the overwhelming dominance and oppression of slavery in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Africans and African Americans continuously resisted this system in a range of a ways. In addition to armed rebellions and running away, Lowcountry African American culture and identity was also a form of resistance. The institution of slavery was designed to control black labor and reduce enslaved Africans and African Americans to the status of chattel property – but it did not succeed. Instead, enslaved people fostered distinctive traditions in their daily life practices on rural plantations or urban households and shops, of foodways, land cultivation, music, dress, language, medicine, craft, oral traditions, spirituality, and political and social organization. In the Lowcountry, these distinctive traditions still resonate today, particularly within African American Gullah Geechee communities.
This exhibition has provided an outline of how slavery developed and became entrenched in the South Carolina Lowcountry during the colonial period. As slavery persisted, the experiences, struggles, cultural continuations, and creative adaptations of enslaved Africans and their African American descendants continued to evolve over time, particularly as the Lowcountry experienced major upheavals during the American Revolution (1775-1783) and finally during the U.S. Civil War and Emancipation (1861-1865). Today, Charleston and the surrounding South Carolina Lowcountry region continue to struggle with the legacies of slavery. Greater understanding of the origins of this institution and the racial inequalities it produced is crucial to addressing ongoing inequalities in the present.