Sullivan’s Island Was the African-American Ellis Island

The African Passages exhibit opens March 22 at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island. NPS photo.

Charleston, South Carolina, was North America’s main port of entry for African slaves, and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who endured the Middle Passage and ended up at the slave markets were first quarantined on Sullivan’s Island. On March 22, Fort Moultrie National Monument will begin telling this painful story with its new “African Passage” exhibit.

Through most of the 1700s – between about 1707 and 1799, to put a finer point on it – the slave ships and other ships arriving in Charleston harbor with diseased passengers or crew members were subjected to strict rules of quarantine. This was because of the severe hazard posed to the general populace by virulently infectious diseases like cholera, smallpox, and measles.

The new arrivals were either quarantined aboard ship or in “pest houses” on Sullivan’s Island, a barrier island on the north side of the harbor. Being quarantined at Sullivan’s Island was the “welcome to America” experience for thousands upon thousands of incoming slaves, making the place a sort of macabre “Ellis Island.”

About 40 percent of African-Americans alive today can trace their ancestral roots to West Africa through the Sullivan’s Island/Charleston gateway. This is, oddly enough, about the same percentage of white Americans whose ancestors were processed through Ellis Island.

Incomplete records suggest that not less than 200,000 African men, women and children who endured the Middle Passage – and perhaps almost twice that many – entered Charleston harbor on slave ships, were processed through quarantine and the slave markets, and ended up at various locations throughout the South (most famously on the rice and cotton plantations).

Fort Moultrie National Monument, an NPS property administered by Fort Sumter National Monument, is situated at the southern end of Sullivan’s Island. Famous for its roles in the Revolutionary War (first defeat of attacking British warships) and the Civil War (first shots fired on Fort Sumter), Fort Moultrie is well situated in space and time to tell the story of the Middle Passage, the Sullivan’s Island/Charleston gateway, and slavery in the Sea Island region. It will soon be doing this with a dramatic new museum exhibit called “African Passage.”

The African Passage exhibit will have many facets, including Middle Passage charcoal drawings by Thomas Feelings, Gullah art by Jonathan Green, and various artifacts such as West African objects, leg shackles, and a slave identification badge.

Thanks to dogged research by historians Ed Ball and Joseph Oplala, African Passage is able to tell the amazing-but-true story of a slave named Priscilla and her 7th generation granddaughter’s return to her ancestral home in the West African country of Sierra Leone. Priscilla came to America by way of Sullivan’s Island. As NPS exhibit planner Krista Kovach-Hindsley explains, Priscilla’s story “puts a face on those oppressed by slavery.”

While the NPS is providing the venue, it was the private sector that made this exhibit possible. The Committee of Descendants, a foundation that historian Ed Ball and his family established, put up the seed money for the project five years ago. Another local NGO, the Remembrance Committee of Charleston, also played a key role.

African Passage will be opened for public viewing on Sunday, March 22. A program beginning at 3:00 p.m. will celebrate the occasion with music, drumming, and light refreshments.

For more information, call the park at (843) 883-3123. In case of inclement weather, the kickoff celebration will be moved inside to the auditorium.

Postscript: Savannah-born historian/author Edward “Ed” Ball, co-founder of The Committee of Descendants foundation and a main driving force behind the African Passage exhibit, is an interesting guy with a remarkable family story. Ball’s forebears include five generations of slave-holding plantation owners, and Ball has visited Sierra Leone where many of the nearly 4,000 slaves his family owned were born. Unlike many southerners who quite understandably find the subject of black-and-white sex on the plantations too sensitive to talk about, Ball has researched the matter in some considerable detail. He has calculated that many of the 75,000 to 100,000 African-Americans who are descended from slaves held in bondage on various Ball plantations in South Carolina are, in fact, his blood relatives. If you’re interested in the details, read Ball’s first book Slaves in the Family, which earned him the 1998 National Book Award. You might also like to read his new (2007) book The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History through DNA.

Traveler trivia, no extra charge
: Fort Moultrie is the only NPS-administered property at which visitors can trace the entire history of America’s seacoast defense from 1776 to 1947.

Comments

The use of the term Ellis Island to describe slave entry ports is both inaccurate and highly offensive. Please change it!

Karen, I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree!

Karen and Tasha, I understand where you are coming from on this, but I must take exception to your comments. You have objected to my use of a term "Ellis Island" without giving due attention to the adjectival qualifier that preceded it. It changes the meaning dramatically.

The sentence in which the term is first used reads thusly:

Being quarantined at Sullivan’s Island was the “welcome to America”
experience for thousands upon thousands of incoming slaves, making the
place a sort of macabre “Ellis Island." [italics mine]

Macabre means gruesome, or associated with horror and death. It seems very appropriate in this context. We are going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

Like many Americans I am trying to follow my roots back to our country of orgin. It has been a story in our family as long as I can remember back that our family came from Ireland around the potatoe famine era.

The story was that 3-to-5 Endsley brothers came here to South Carolina port of entry in the 1700's, I was born in 1941 so one thing is for sure I never knew for sure. I was raised in The Van Buren, Indiana area of Grant county. Many of our family made their homes in Huntington Co. Indiana.

The person we believe that our family line is tied to would be Andrew Endsley born in 1741 who was as the story goes the father of 5 sons. One of which was named John 3-15-1801-till-9-21-1890 who was father of Abraham 1-12-1824-till-2-7-1897 who was the father of William Oscar Endsley 6-28-1862-till-1-26-1885 who was the father of Jesse Granville 11-23-1891 till 11-16-1967 who was the father of my dad Lester born March-14-1920 and still lives! Iwas born in 1941.

If you do not have this information could you send this info to the people that could help me out if this is a possibility??

Thanks in Advance

Hi Larry,

I'm not sure if you have seen this or know who posted it, but this *may* help, or at least help get the ball rolling on new developments. Hopefully it will. :)

http://www.tribalpages.com/tribe/familytree?uid=jautrey9&surname=ENDSLEY

Mr. Janiskee, what is the information regarding slaves who arrived at this location from Barbados and other places throughout the Caribbean?