No one is quite sure how Celia Mann gained her freedom. Born into slavery near Charleston  in 1799, she somehow escaped servitude and made her way to Columbia  to serve as a midwife (legend says she walked the entire way). By 1844, she was living in the Mann-Simon Cottage (1403 Richland St., 803/252-7742, www.historiccolumbia.org , Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Sun. 1–5 p.m., $6 adults, $3 children, under 6 free), one of a precious handful of antebellum homes in South Carolina owned by free blacks.
Intriguingly, the house was actually acquired by Celia’s husband, Ben DeLane, also a free African American from Charleston. He either bought or constructed the house sometime before her arrival in town. Perhaps even more intriguingly, the 1850 census describes Celia as a “mulatto” who owned a 77-year-old slave herself! While the phenomenon of free blacks owning slaves did occur in the South, it’s likely that the elderly woman in the census was a relative of Celia’s—perhaps even her mother.
Celia—described in a chronicle of the time as a “respected colored nurse”—helped found what would become the First Calvary Baptist Church of Columbia, which began meeting in the basement of the cottage after splitting off from the First Baptist Church  when that edifice hosted the first Confederate Secession Convention in 1860. (Contrary to popular opinion, before the Civil War the races often worshiped together in the South, albeit in separate seating sections. It was only after the war that the strict physical segregation of the Jim Crow era became commonplace.)
When you’re here, take note of how subsequent generations of the Mann and Simons families, all Celia’s descendants, added onto the house. Much more than a museum, this is a living chronicle of one remarkable family’s history. The cottage stayed in the Mann family all the way into the 1960s, and a grassroots conservation effort in 1970 saved the historic structure from demolition.
Inside you’ll find an exhibit on Celia and her descendants as well as one on the archaeology of the site. The collections within represent the typical pursuits of freed persons of color at the time: bakers, tailors, musicians, and (after Reconstruction) educators.
Get admission tickets at the Robert Mills House . You can also buy a combo ticket (803/252-7742, $15 adults, $8 children, under 6 free) at the Mills House for all the Foundation’s house museums (including the Hampton-Preston Mansion  and the Robert Mills House). The last tour at each house begins at 3 p.m. Tuesdays–Saturdays and at 4 p.m. on Sundays.