Have you ever visited a plantation? I can say that I have visited a plantation before, but the experience I had while visiting the McLeod Plantation Historic Site in Charleston would far exceed anything I had hoped or expected. And to be quite frank and mildly sarcastic, I wasn’t there for a wedding. What I learned that day will stick with me and has forever changed my understanding, appreciation, gratitude, and hope for what is to come ahead.
Located on James Island, McLeod Plantation has a history that dates back to the 1670’s and has been beautifully preserved due to its historical and cultural significance. It is named after William Wallace McLeod who acquired the plantation in 1851 and is one of the African American Historic Places in South Carolina. The plantation is now owned by Charleston County Parks and Recreation.
In its earlier years and during times when slavery was an unfortunate but common practice (around the early 1850’s), Africans from the Gambia River region of Africa were sold/purchased as slaves and brought to this plantation to work the land to produce sea island cotton, rice, and indigo (used to make blue dye). Those enslaved persons came to be known as the Gullah/Geechee people developing their own creole culture and language.
On my one-hour tour that was narrated by Jeff, a fantastic storyteller, we relived the fight for freedom through the eyes of William Dawson who ran away in 1862 to join the United States Navy and later returned after the civil war to farm the land where he was once held captive.
Before the tour began, Jeff insisted on respect for the plantation history and the land on which we stood — it was direct and needed. As we walked from landmark to landmark, he shared photographs and stories filled with mostly facts paired with some intelligent assumptions that had the entire crowd — comprised of various backgrounds — glued to his voice and his iPad. His story did not focus on only the positives and sharing how the McLeod family came to be rich beyond measure, but of those of the enslaved who gave their lives to make this land what it was then and is today. For that I am forever appreciative.
I was able to see homes where the enslaved lived; in very small clapboard homes (known as the slave quarters) many with no glass windows or fireplace. The emotional heaviness presented itself to me almost immediately as I peeped into the only entrance. Who lived here? How many of the 74 slaves that were forced into labor here found some level of comfort in this place? My ancestor’s maybe. I may never know. It was a real moment that I could have only witnessed in that place and at that time.
Surprisingly, these homes were still lived in for many years up until around 1990. The McLeod family rented these homes to the descendants of the former enslaved people who once worked the land. Per historic records, this is one of the longest periods of time that descendants resided in the homes of their ancestors. Getting the opportunity to see these homes is something not common in tours of historic plantation sites.
No matter if you were black or white that day, you learned something new. You gained a more in-depth understanding of our country’s history and possibly a little more compassion for the pain endured. I highly recommend a visit if you are in the Charleston area. You’ll be amazed at what you take back with you from your time spent on this site. It is a most powerful experience.
I spent most of my birthday learning more about my history and visiting a place that many years ago was not a place of freedom for my ancestors. As I was overcome with emotions I was calmed by my knowledge of our progress and the vision of a positive future for my children — at least in comparison to what once was.
“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” -Robert Penn Warren