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Historians find fingerprints of long-forgotten SC slaves in 200-year-old bricks

One of the bricks containing finger prints of a slave found at Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site in Union, South Carolina. Photo: Nate Johnson, park manager.
One of the bricks containing finger prints of a slave found at Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site in Union, South Carolina. Photo: Nate Johnson, park manager.

A somber reminder of slavery has been found hiding in plain sight at some of South Carolina’s historic sites: The fingerprints of slaves left by accident in bricks.

South Carolina State Parks officials revealed the little-known detail in a recent Facebook post, and included a photo of one such brick, found at Rose Hill Plantation, 65 miles northwest of Columbia.

“During the early 1800s, bricks were handmade, often by enslaved people,” says the state’s post. “Occasionally, their fingerprints were imprinted in the clay as they pulled it from the mold....A solemn, lasting reminder of the people who made their lives at Rose Hill.”

Nate Johnson, park manager at the plantation, told the Charlotte Observer several fingerprinted bricks have been found at the site, including one in a garden wall and one that was found buried. The garden wall has been dated to the 1850s, he said.

Johnson says the bricks are important at a time when state historic sites are trying to do more to talk about the lives of slaves.

“There aren’t a lot of physical resources to connect us to enslaved people here. It’s a way to put your finger in those fingerprints and and feel connected,” he told the Charlotte Observer.

“These fingerprints are really all around us, here and at several other historic sites. But a lot of people just don’t know about them.”

He says the bricks are being found across the South in chimneys, house foundations and walls, and guides in Charleston have begun including examples in historic tours.

One of the most unusual bricks found so far at Rose Hill also contains the imprint of cat paws, he said.

“That brick has captured a bit of the human experience,” Johnson said. “We see the moment a cat, or kitty, walked across the brick as it was in the mold setting. You can almost picture that brick maker trying to shoo the cat away. It’s puts you in the moment.”

Louise Miler Cohen, curator of the Gullah Museum on Hilton Head Island, says history of Mitchelville and other sites on Hilton Head must tell the story of slaves and their freedom for future generations.

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Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.

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