Charleston's African-American Heritage
The Lowcountry Sweetgrass Basket
The art of coiled basket making was introduced to the Lowcountry in the 17th century by Africans taken from the present day Mano River Region, Senegambia and Angola-Congolesse regions of West Africa. Brought by white planters to cultivate rice, enslaved Africans brought basket making skills as well.
The early history of basket making parallels the rise of rice cultivation on the Southeastern coast of the United States. Enslaved Africans, usually men, made baskets for use on the plantation and for sale. On some plantations, basket making was a seasonal chore. On other plantations, enslaved Africans who were no longer able to work in the fields made baskets. Work baskets used in plantation households and in rice cultivation were made by men out of bulrush (or rush).
The Civil War and Emancipation brought a transformation in sweetgrass basket making. Women began making smaller baskets from sweetgrass for storing and serving food to be used in their own households as well as on plantations. Basket making evolved from an agricultural craft to an artform produced for sale. The Mt. Pleasant (East of the Cooper) Community, just north of Charleston, where landed Black families began mass producing and selling show baskets made of sweetgrass, was central to this evolution. By the 20th century, basket makers were sewing for mail order catalogues and gift shops owned by white businessmen, many of whom were from the Northeast. Merchants and middlemen modified the basketmaking tradition by buying baskets attractive to tourists and other consumers.
Today, basketmaking is centered in the Mt. Pleasant community. Basket stands along Highway 17 North allow basket makers to compete with retail markets, establish a direct contact between themselves and their patrons, and develop new shapes from traditional baskets forms and ordinary objects. Basket makers can also be found in downtown Charleston, along Market, Broad, and Meeting streets.
Basket making has become an art form practiced and controlled by women who no longer perform domestic and other work outside of their homes. The economic independence the basket making allows professional basket makers to work in their homes and make baskets. Men remain the primary gatherers of sweetgrass and the other materials for basket making. Although the economic prosperity of tourism has been good for basket making, changes in ownership and use of land threaten the natural resources and human communities.