Only White People Have Ghosts: Reflections on Visiting the Aiken-Rhett House Museum in Charleston

I do not know how to characterize what was felt and maybe unseen by the other visitors this day at what I thought would simply be another visit to the historic home of a former Governor from South Carolina. I did not know then, but know now that Gov. William Aiken, Jr. was one of the largest slave owners in the U.S. The Aiken-Rhett House is of course Aiken’s city house that may have had only 20 enslaved there at a time, but I have never felt that I understood so concretely the wages of slavery. In that house the spirit of the enslaved assailed me and still, a week later, won’t let me go.

There may have been roughly 20 enslaved people who served and cooked meals, cleaned, maintained the gardens, and drove the carriages and took care of the horses and white people at the house in town but I have never been so struck by the overwhelming presence of my enslaved ancestors or felt such desperation as I have standing in the quarters and the kitchen of the Aiken-Rhett House. The Jehossee Island Plantation, by contrast, was the largest plantation in the South and functioned off the backs of between 700-1200 enslaved Africans under Aiken’s ownership. I would expect to have such feelings of loss and sadness at Jehossee, where rice plantation forced labor camps meant that those working in those backbreaking conditions would have a short life expectancy. I know rice and know what it symbolized for black people who brought the technology of growing rice to this place. I thought that many of these thoughts were captured in poetry by Marjory Wentworth that was on display in the Aiken-Rhett House when I visited.

The poem “Requiem For Rice” by Marjory Wentworth was part of an “On Flight” exhibit at the Aiken-Rhett House

Everything about the history of William Aiken and his family must be put in the context of slavery. Many people would assume, as I wrongfully did, that the story that this house told about slavery would be less because it was not a plantation. However, I am struggling to explain what stepping into the “slave quarters” here made me feel. It was nothing but waves and waves of grief.

The Kitchens and the Upstairs Slave Quarters Behind the Main House

I remember at the beginning of Beloved that Morrison describes 124 Bluestone Rd as sad. The Aiken-Rhett House felt bereft and desolate. The house and those still in it seemed to want my life. Beyond walking in and through sadness, there was such a feeling there that the spirits there did not want me to leave and feared that they would be left there forgotten if I left. I was unclear when I reached the top step of the quarters if I would be able to leave this place alive. I thought of Sankofa and Kindred— afraid if I passed out I would wake up in the 18th century— becoming enslaved myself.

To be clear this is not a ghost story. This is the expression of the reality that the people who once lived here have no where to go with their pain and their stories. I am not sure how many Black visitors come here. I am from South Carolina and have been to so many historic sites and plantations but this is the first time that I have ever come here in my 50+ years of life. I am sorry because I do not know what to do with this experience. I am not sure that I would even encourage others to go. I am unsure of anything but I am reminded of Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “Invocation” and I know that I and we can never forget their names.

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