I quickly attempted to put the cuff around my ankle so I could feel the weight of the chain. I did not walk. Standing still I felt the weight of the chains as the weight of despair.
Just a couple of weeks before I booked the trip to Georgia, I had learned about the Slave Relic Historical Museum in Walterboro, South Carolina, from a Henry Louis Gates Jr. documentary broadcast on Public Television.
Setting the GPS to the address, we set out for what would be another adventure.
The day had warmed up and we shed some of the layers we wore in the cool, cloudy morning as sunshine poured through the car windows. Eventually, we pulled up to a white house trimmed in black with a sign outside proclaiming it a museum.
A reticent black woman ushered us in and we heard the emphatic voice of a man from the interior of the house.
We would learn that owner and museum curator Danny Drain had been an antiques collector from New York who decided to open a museum down South.
There were things there that I had read about. Things that I had seen pictures of. There was a replica of what a slave cabin would have looked like. Quilts. Benches, tables, baskets.
And then there were the cuffs, rusted with age.
And keys to cuffs.
Guns that had been used as payment to African slavers in trade for people.
Shackles with chains.
We could touch these, but we could not take photos.
Bigger than I imagined from the pictures, I quickly attempted to put the cuff around my ankle so I could feel the weight of the chain. I did not walk. Standing still I felt the weight of the chains as the weight of despair.
I put the shackles down. In a corner Danny showed us a ball attached to chain. These, he explained to us, were more numerous than we could imagine. He said if the balls that had dragged captives to their watery deaths were to rise to the surface there would be untold thousands of them.
I lifted the chain, so heavy in itself that swimming would have been impossible, but that ball weighed 80 pounds. I lifted it, wanting to feel that weight as well.
We were shaking our heads with grief for our forebears, getting madder by the minute and vowing to share our experience with our kindred back in California.
We were saying our goodbyes and retreating toward the front door when I looked at a beautiful saddle in a display cabinet.
My thought was that it had perhaps the saddle had belonged to a Buffalo soldier or a black cavalryman during the Civil War. But it was not. It was the saddle of a slave overseer and a whip was nearby. If it had been a snake I could not have recoiled more instinctively, could not have cried out with more revulsion. The pain of that sight hit me in the gut and took my breath for a moment and my eyes smarted with unexpected tears.
I made myself linger a minute. “Yes. I remember, “ I whispered to the blood in my body that had been their blood, “No, I won’t forget,” I said to the relics in the museum that held the knowledge of the existence of the many thousand gone.