Slave badge found in Charleston, SC named best find of 2021


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The 1853 slave badge was discovered by students and faculty at the College of Charleston in March during a campus search.

Provided by the College of Charleston

A small but deep object linked to slavery and unearthed by a team of researchers and students at the College of Charleston this spring was named one of the best finds of the year by Archeology Magazine.

Found at the site of a 19th-century kitchen, the slave badge, also known as the slave label, is a diamond-shaped medallion that served as a permit to work within the city limits of Charleston. It allowed slaves to be hired for part-time work in the urban city center by their master to do specific jobs, such as mechanic, porter, and fisherman.

The slave badge, which was discovered on what is now the Charleston College campus, was issued in 1853 to an unknown servant.

The person who wore the small metal badge, most likely around his own neck, lived in an era when his identity – and the identities of other enslaved African Americans – was etched into a piece of copper and reduced to his profession. and its badge number.

Their was 731.

The The badge itself is a rare fragment of history, and its archaeological find is as remarkable as the fossilized footprints found in New Mexico and an ancient Egyptian city discovered under the sand after thousands of years, according to the researchers. editors-in-chief of Archéologie magazine.

The best list 10 discoveries made in 2021 will appear in the January / February 2022 issue of the magazine, which hits newsstands this week.

“We thought the label should be included because it is a reminder of an individual who may have been lost in time and in the dehumanizing system of slavery,” said Marley Brown, associate editor from Archéologie magazine.

Brown continued, “Plus, the fact that the College of Charleston team recovered the object in its archaeological context provides a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the person who may have worn it before – a a real gift since many of these labels have no provenance. . “

His discovery was also a surprise.

The reason there was an excavation site at 63½ Coming Street was because there were plans to build a solar pavilion there. Because the school received federal dollars from the United States Department of Energy through the SC Department of Energy to complete the project, this meant the site required a cultural resource study before construction can begin.

Digging began in February and in March, as he was digging into the dirt below, the slave badge surfaced.

Other artifacts were also found at the site, such as pottery, animal bones, and an old ceramic soda bottle.

But the slave badge was an explicit reminder of slavery, America’s original sin.

“You felt the hurt,” said Jim Newhard, professor of classics, landscape architect and director of the College. Historic Landscapes Center. “It redoubled in my mind that not only was this artifact an expression of slavery, but the other items we collected were as well. “

Grant Gilmore, associate professor and Addlestone Chair in Historic Preservation, told the magazine that most slave badges, including those held by private collectors, have no history of origin beyond of what is stated on the badge itself.

The fact that this badge was found in a specific Charleston kitchen could provide new clues to find out more about who received this badge. Gilmore told the publication that a enslaved person living in this house “may have thrown the tag in the foyer or someone on loan from across town may have lost it. one day”.

The nearly 4-square-inch slave badge is also a physical reminder of how urban slavery works in Charleston, said Bernard Powers, director of the college’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston.

“This discovery confirms the idea that the black workforce was fully involved in shaping the contours of the land, erecting the city’s buildings and providing the human connections that made Charleston the vital center of production and trading that it has become and remains today, ”Powers said in a statement. statement after the badge was discovered earlier this year.

While other southern cities had similar provisions for hired labor for slave laborers, Charleston is the only one to have produced such labels or badges, Gillmore told the magazine.

Slave badges were dated and issued annually and became a source of tax revenue for the city. Label costs in 1865 ranged from $ 10 to $ 35.

On the day the 1853 slave badge was discovered, Newhard said he temporarily halted work on the site to help students understand the artifact and better recognize the site as a whole.

He said he wanted them to see the importance and value of the work they were doing.

“We knew we were digging a space inhabited and used by slaves. Intellectually, everything we collect was owned or used by these people, ”Newhard said. “The tag, however, puts an agent on that scene.”

Even though the badge may have enabled a enslaved person to move more freely around the cityscape and earn a small income for their family, Newhard said the badge was still an item worn as a mark of slavery.

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Caitlin Byrd covers the Charleston area as a corporate reporter for The State. She grew up in eastern North Carolina and graduated from UNC Asheville in 2011. Since moving to Charleston in 2016, Byrd has reported nationwide news, told landmark stories, and documented the nuances of a presidential primary and a high-stakes congressional race. She recently covered politics at The Post and The Courier. To date, Byrd has won over 17 awards for his journalism.


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