The Post and Courier
Sunday, September 1, 2002
by Jason Hardin
“Walterboro museum tells of life under slavery”
“Artifacts in home offer chilling, personal view of daily human experience”
Charleston’s planned museum on the history of slavery is envisioned as a national attraction, involving an ambitious effort to create one of the largest, most comprehensive slavery museums in the country.
But it won’t be the first, not even in the Lowcountry.
For that, you need to go to Walterboro. There, in an antebellum house shaded by artifacts assembled by a New York antiques dealer, who decided that people ought to see them.
It’s a small museum that’s only open by appointment and doesn’t have extensive interpretations of its exhibits. Instead, it’s something like Charleston’s Confederate Museum, which displays letters and personal effects of soldiers and is set to reopen soon in Market Hall after being moved after Hurricane Hugo.
It’s a more personal kind of experience than a larger museum typically gives, said Danny Drain, the 37 year old New York native who moved to Walterboro a few years ago to reunite with family and set up the museum.
“We give people a chance to see and touch the actual story. History comes alive here,” he said. “People come and say ‘Wow’. They’ve never seen slave artifacts before. It’s powerful. It’s history.”
Drain, who also lives in the house along with his wife, Laura, is trying to get things rolling. He has a full-time job with the Department of Transportation and isn’t able to keep the museum open all of the time.
He’d like to hire a curator to help develop the exhibits and to keep regular hours. Visitors might pay $6 or so for a visit, he said.
Charleston’s museum, which could open as soon as 2007, could help matters, he said.
“It’ll be excellent if they can get it together,” he said. “It should complement what I’m doing.”
The museum’s collection came together gradually as Drain was working as an antiques dealer. He began collecting just because it interested him. As time went on, it occurred to him that people would like to see the artifacts and that a museum could be viable.
He moved to Walterboro because that’s where many of his family members live, and because it seemed like a natural place for a slavery museum.
The collection is spread out over much of the first floor of the house, which sits a few blocks away from Walterboro’s commercial downtown.
Items include rare books written by abolitionists, musical instruments, prints from magazines, shackles, a slave’s bed and documents such as a paper proving that a former slave had become free.
Some are chilling, such as shackles made to fit a child and advertisements for runaway slaves.
“Ran away a negro man named Henry, has left eye out, some scars from a dirk on and under his left arm, and much scarred with a whip,” states one.
Drain finds such items fascinating.
“It’s powerful, it’s touching. You try to think what went through the slave’s mind, and the owner-he was just trying to recoup his investment.”
There’s also a room made to resemble a slave’s quarters, with a fireplace, cooking utensils and work tools.
Drain takes particular pride in a collection of quilts, some of which apparently served as a kind of road map for slaves on the Underground Railroad. Different patterns, some scholars argue, encoded information designed to help runaway slaves find the path to the North-and freedom.
He hopes that visitors come away with a better understanding of the everyday lives of slaves, particularly how they still managed to carve out their own identity, even under the burdens of slavery.
“I want them to know and understand that even when the African-American population was oppressed, we still developed our culture,” Drain said. “The furniture we made, the dolls we made, the music we made o- we had all these types of talents, and we kept our culture.”
The Walterboro museum isn’t the only place to learn more about slavery. In fact, part of the goal of the planned museum in Charleston is to connect with and direct visitors to other locations in the area where they can find more of the story.
Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. said at a recent planning session that the museum would be linked to places such as the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Institute; McLeod Plantation, which could become a county park; the Aiken-Rhett house, which contains exhibits on urban slavery; and the city’s own Old Slave Mart Museum.
That museum, which has been closed for years for renovations, is almost ready to reopen, said Jeri Johnson, the city’s director of capital projects. The $^00,000 project is scheduled to wrap up during the first few months of next year, she said.
Drain said he’s not surprised by the apparent rise in interest in slavery.
“People want to see that, you know? Not just blacks, but whites, everybody wants to see that now. It’s history.”