Sullivan’s Island Was the African-American Ellis Island
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.