The Ellis Island for African Americans

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That term is often used to describe Charleston, South Carolina, the major port of entry for most U.S. slaves during the 18th century. Starting in 1852, a depressingly large number of humans were auctioned at the Old Slave Mart:

Here’s more from Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, two history professors at California State University in Fresno, who emailed via hello@:

As authors of a forthcoming book on the memory of slavery in Charleston, South Carolina, we found both your documentary on the Whitney Plantation and your note about it, “How Many Museums Are Devoted to Slavery?,” fascinating. Since you invited readers who know of other good examples of slavery museums to write in, we thought we would clarify the history of the Old Slave Mart Museum, in Charleston.

The unofficial website you quote inaccurately reports that the Old Slave Mart Museum (OSMM) has operated sporadically since 1938. In truth, the OSMM is not only the first slavery museum in the United States, it has operated for the better part of the past century.

The OSMM was founded in 1938 by Miriam B. Wilson, a white Ohio transplant who had moved to the city a couple decades earlier. She opened the museum in a building that was once a part of a slave-trading complex in Charleston. For the next two decades, Wilson ran the OSMM on her own—with little support from locals—gradually building a collection of materials related to slavery, or made by the enslaved. Although Wilson often closed up shop during the humid summer months, she reopened the OSMM each fall until she died in 1959.  

One year later, Wilson’s good friend Louise Alston Graves and her sister Judith Wragg Chase—both white transplants like Wilson—revived the OSMM.  They operated it from 1960 until 1987, when they closed the OSMM’s doors because the by-then elderly sisters could no longer afford to keep it going. One year later, the city of Charleston purchased the OSMM, though not the collection Wilson, Graves, and Chase had put together.

The city took nearly two decades to open the third iteration of the Old Slave Mart Museum, which debuted in 2007.  It is now an established tourist site in Charleston. So, for roughly 57 of the past 78 years, Charleston had a museum to slavery.

To be fair, under Wilson, then Graves and Chase, the OSMM was something very different than the recently opened Whitney Plantation (at least according to the myriad reviews we’ve read). Although Wilson, Graves, and Chase did not ignore the experiences of the enslaved, as was—and frequently still is—the case at plantation museums across the American South, they tended to downplay whips and chains and other unsavory sides of slavery.

But the most recent version of the museum, which is run by the city of Charleston, broke with this pattern. Focusing on America’s domestic slave trade, the museum offers an unvarnished picture of human bondage and trafficking. Like the Whitney Plantation, it is a first step toward a full acknowledgement of the horrific realities of slavery—this nation’s original sin.

Update from a reader who flags an additional museum, this one in Alabama:

Another museum you all don't mention in your piece on slavery museums in the U.S. is an important one in Selma, Ala., called the "Ancient African Enslavement and Civil War Museum.”