Built in 1859, the Old Slave Mart was actually constructed due to a tightening of slavery laws that led to the creation of no-less-horrible private auctions.
Although Congress banned participation in the international slave trade in 1808, it did not outlaw the domestic trade in enslaved people of African descent until 1865. During the height of the American slave trade, as many as 35-40 percent of enslaved people passed through Charleston while being forced into labor at plantations across the American South. Traditionally the auctioning of enslaved people took place in public displays along the city’s north side, but in 1856, the city put a stop to the public sale of enslaved people.
This did not stop the practice, it simply prompted the creation of private auction houses like the Old Slave Mart. The auction front was built on Chalmers Street and soon became a bazaar of teeming private auction businesses. In addition to enslaved people, the mart also auctioned livestock and farmland. The cruel and inhumane industry came to an end when the Union army occupied Charleston, and over the years all of the auction houses except for the Old Slave Mart were dismantled.
In the years following the city’s initial emancipation efforts, the historic building was used as a tenement, a museum, and a car dealership. Today the site hosts a museum devoted to remembering the history of slavery in Charleston. The museum is even staffed by some members who have traced their heritage to enslaved people who were auctioned off in the very building.
While similar markets and locations around the country have been repurposed as historic buildings with little to no acknowledgment of their past, the Old Slave Mart faces its relationship to the horrific history of American slavery head on.
Know Before You Go
Known to locals as “The Market.” Don’t be that tourist asking where the “Slave Market” can be found. It's embarrassing to us and frowned upon by locals.Ask for “The Market”