Charleston is well documented as a gateway for the transatlantic slave trade. Now, thanks to recent College of Charleston graduate student Lauren Davila ’21 (M.A. ’23) and a passionate team of researchers, the extent of Charleston’s involvement in the domestic slave trade is coming to the forefront with new research and a new class at the College.
Davila, during a recent graduate assistantship with the College’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston (CSSC), uncovered the largest known U.S. auction of enslaved people, which had taken place in Charleston. The revelation made national news and is the genesis for the new course, Slavery and the Slave Trade, which Davila will teach at the College during the 2023–24 academic year.
Needle in a Haystack
It all came down to patience and support.
“What I found could easily have been missed,” says Davila, who earned both her B.A. and M.A. in history at the College.
Lauren Davila (Photo by Catie Cleveland)
Margaret Seidler, a Charleston native who has done extensive research into her family’s role in the slave trade, provided Davila with a list of known slave traders she’d found during her research.
Armed with that list, Davila began the arduous task of counting the number of enslaved people advertised in newspapers. She spent hours upon hours scrolling through the Charleston County Public Library’s digitized copies of local newspapers published between 1808 and 1845.
“There were more than 10 auctions in the newspapers every day that included the sale of 10 to 50 enslaved people,” says Davila. “Most of the auctions took place on the north side of the Exchange Building located on the corner of East Bay and Broad Street in downtown Charleston.”
One morning as she scrolled through the digitized copy of the Feb. 24, 1835, issue of the Charleston Courier, Davila discovered an ad for Jervey, Waring and White that read, “This day, the 24th instant, and the day following, at the North Side of the Custom-House, at 11 o’clock, will be sold, a very valuable GANG OF NEGROES, accustomed to the culture of rice; consisting of SIX HUNDRED.”
Shocked, Davila grabbed her copy of Anne Caroline Bailey’s The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History, which chronicles the largest known auction of enslaved people in the U.S. She checked the number: 436. She looked back at the words on her screen: SIX HUNDRED.
Davila contacted Seidler and Bernard Powers, CSSC director and professor emeritus of history at the College. Neither had ever heard of an auction of that magnitude.
“Lauren’s research has deepened our understanding of the domestic slave trade in our city and is foundational to the center’s efforts to identify, demarcate and further analyze the areas where this execrable human commerce occurred,” says Powers.
Connecting the Dots
Margaret Seidler and Lauren Davila (Photo by Catie Cleveland)
There were so many avenues to take with this discovery – trace where the enslaved people originated and where they were sold, profile the slave traders or profile the original slave owners. Powers and Davila agreed that for her master’s thesis, she should focus on the slave traders – specifically, the firm Jervey, Waring and White, owned by James Jervey ’42, Morton A. Waring and Alonzo J. White, who served on the College’s Board of Trustees.
In addition to CSSC funding through a gift from Seidler and her husband, Bob, Davila received the Karen Chambers Fellowship from the College’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture to continue her research. As part of the fellowship, she shared her findings at an Avery Research Center luncheon in the spring of 2023 and wrote a synopsis of her thesis.
“Dr. Powers gave me a lot of freedom,” says Davila. “He always explained the significance of my findings and helped me determine my path.”
Seidler, realizing the scope of the project, reached out to ProPublica reporter, Jennifer Berry Hawes, who quickly found the name of the original owner of the 600 enslaved people that went up for auction: John Ball Jr. Through her research, Hawes was able to provide context to the auction and a detailed account of the family from its years as slaveholders (1698–1865) to present day. Her story, including research by Seidler about Ann Simons, John Ball Jr.’s wife, can be found on the ProPublica website.
Then, through research at the Charleston County Register of Deeds, Davila determined the addresses of the slave-trading firms and pinpointed where they would be today. For example, she found that Jervey, Blake and Waring (renamed Jervey, Waring and White after Blake died in 1833) opened its offices in 1828 at 20 Broad Street, which today is 24 Broad Street.
Shining a Light on History
As she delved into the lives of the slave traders, Davila learned that, while the auctions enriched their bank accounts and social standing, their involvement in the slave trade was seldom mentioned. If their business was mentioned, it was as an auctioneer, factor or broker.
The CSSC sponsored a plaque at 34 Broad Street that indicates the site as a site of the domestic slave trade.
“These slave traders were prominent men in Charleston society,” explains Davila. “In addition to their slave-trading firms, they held positions in banks, the courts and city government. They also served as active leaders in the city’s benevolent societies. In some cases, they were even chairmen of their church vestry.”
Realizing that the history of the domestic slave trade in Charleston had been largely obscured from public view, Davila laid out a walking tour detailing sites of the slave trade in Charleston’s business district. The online tour highlights nine locations in downtown Charleston that were at the center of the city’s slave trade (including 24 Broad St.), focusing on the history of the sites and profiles of the slave traders.
“I wanted to see what the domestic slave trade district looked like; it had never been defined,” says Seidler. “Thanks to Lauren’s work, we have taken a giant step forward.”
Davila hopes to continue the momentum and inspire more students to take up similar research through her new class at the College.
“What’s really needed is more graduate assistants to scour newspaper pages and other documents to find the many slave auctions that have not been omitted from the historic record,” she says. “The center needs the research funding to lay the groundwork for the full picture of the domestic slave trade in Charleston.”