I am the unlikely public relations and marketing manager at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Selling a Southern garden to the press and public was not a career goal when I was growing up in Charleston.
But when I saw the White Bridge, Magnolia's iconic symbol, for the first time three years ago, inhaled the aroma of Magnolia's flora and listened to passionate memories of these gardens, I knew this was a place for me.
Gardens and the life that grow in them were not my childhood fantasies when I lived in the Ansonborough housing projects. I had no concept of a large-scale garden, except I knew of a place called Magnolia even though I'd never seen it. At that time, social barriers might have kept me away, but the picture of Magnolia's White Bridge on the phone book's cover is as much a part of my childhood memories as fireflies flickering at nightfall.
As a child, I was aware of the ubiquitous azalea that splashed color across Charleston each spring. But I was not aware of Magnolia's azaleas that give it international fame.
Public relations and marketing is an unlikely profession for me. In college, I studied it as visions of Colgate accounts danced in my head. Instead, events steered me to newsrooms, where for 32 years I wrote and edited at five Southern dailies.
Gardens didn't interest me. Instead, medicine, law and crime were my beats, with a side interest in history. That's why Magnolia is a good fit for me. History. Magnolia is steeped it in. Magnolia is America's oldest garden and Charleston's first tourist attraction. Rice was once a Magnolia staple before azaleas and camellias became centerpieces.
Magnolia's history is also tied to slavery. Considering that former plantation sites give some black folks the heebie-jeebies,
I am an unlikely Magnolia marketeer. I can't ignore that history or its stain, and Magnolia doesn't try to hide it. Daily, Magnolia opens its gates to present the contributions that enslaved people made in the building of Magnolia and Lowcountry culture. That offering is part of an award-winning "Slavery to Freedom" program centered at restored cabins that were once the homes of enslaved people.
After Emancipation, the cabins became home to the Leach family and other black families. Four generations of Leaches have worked at Magnolia. Isaac Leach speaks eloquently and passionately about growing up at Magnolia during racial segregation. He adds more meaning to his words when he says he felt safer at Magnolia at a time in the 1960s when laws would not have protected his rights beyond the garden gates.
In the gardens are stories, yes, of slavery, but also of tribute during a time of bondage. Adam Bennett was enslaved at Magnolia and stayed after he was freed to work as garden superintendent. He and other black people were more than just hands in the soil. They were technicians in the propagation of the plants. Historians give the Rev. John Grimké Drayton the credit for opening the gardens to the public after the Civil War, but he couldn't have done it alone.
There are the stories of John Bennett, Adam Bennett's son, and Tina Gilliard and Willie Leach, three people of African descent, who have camellias at Magnolia named in their honor.
When the gardens were opened to tourists in 1872, people of African descent were Magnolia's gatekeepers and guides.
If they were alive, they'd be pleased that Magnolia is seeking older varieties of azaleas to replenish the inventory with pre-1900 plants. Magnolia also led a national effort two summers ago to save cold-hardy azaleas hybridized by Ben Morrison at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., that were slated for destruction. The DNA of some of those plants, nurtured by Morrison, a friend of the Hastie family that owns Magnolia, lives on in a Magnolia greenhouse for future generations to enjoy.
So, like those before me, I am witnessing Magnolia's evolution in the early part of the 21st century. With care, Magnolia and its azaleas will survive three hundred more years.
At that time the job of selling its beauty would have long since passed to another likely or unlikely marketeer.
Herb Frazier is the marketing and public relations manager at Magnolia. He is a former reporter and features writer at The Post and Courier and author of "Behind God's Back," published by Evening Post Books.