McLeod Plantation - opening this week - tackles slavery, freedom

The McLeod Plantation house and 37-acres on James Island, was bought and refurbished by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission and will be open to the public starting Tuesday.

A quarter century after Willie McLeod died and left his former James Island plantation to a local preservationist group, the 37-acre property — complete with a main house, riverfront access and an iconic row of former slave cabins — is opening its gates.

Now a Charleston County Parks and Recreation site, McLeod welcomes its first visitors at 9 a.m. Tuesday and will hold a grand opening for the public on Saturday.

Visitors will see an antebellum sea island cotton plantation that evolved into a Civil War headquarters for both Union and Confederate troops, a Freedman’s Bureau site and eventually a truck farm in the 20th century.

Most recently, the Parks and Recreation Commission spent about $8.4 million to acquire the property, stabilize and restore many of its historic buildings and build two new structures, including a visitors center, parking areas and an events pavilion near the Wappoo Cut.

The interpretation focuses on the period of McLeod’s ownership, from the mid 19th century until 1990, and its central theme is the transition from slavery to freedom, said Shawn Halifax, the recreation commission’s interpretation coordinator.

“The story of McLeod Plantation is a tale of tragedy and transcendence,” a sign greeting visitors says. “Through generations of enslavement, a brutal war and the challenges of building lives amidst institutional inequality and oppression, African-Americans asserted their humanity while white plantation owners struggled to maintain power and wealth.”

Commission director Tom O’Rourke said the commission is not concerned about the plantation’s message in a city where the Civil War remains subject to different interpretations.

“This agency has never hidden from controversy,” he said. “I’m certain the stories here may not be to everybody’s liking. That’s OK. ... I think we can be an instrument of healing, but it’s not going to happen by not being real.”

The main house, which dates from 1855, has been renovated, and its four main rooms are largely unfurnished except for signs that explain a different era of its history.

The series of cabins have similar signs, and it has been named “transition row,” reflecting the reality that the cabins housed freed African Americans longer than they housed slaves, Halifax said. One building even housed a religious mission in recent years.

“It’s not just a slave row,” he said. “It’s so much more than that.”

Visitors will park in a new lot near the new visitors center, then they can take either guided tours or self-guided tours — including those done with a new app for iPads and iPhones.

The property will be available for rent after 4 p.m. for weddings and other special events, income from which will help the Parks and Recreation Commission maintain the site.

Halifax said the research on McLeod’s history will be ongoing, and its interpretation could change as a result. Public feedback also could shape how McLeod evolves, O’Rourke said. For instance, the property’s empty field off Folly Road could be planted, and its unrestored outbuildings could get new attention.

The greatest challenge in McLeod’s transformation was simply getting it started — and choosing the team of consultants who helped the agency write its master plan, O’Rourke said.

Previous attempts to renovate the property for use as a campus for the American College of the Building Arts and then for the College of Charleston derailed amid public concerns about changes to the historic site.

The Parks and Recreation Commission was able to buy the property from the Historic Charleston Foundation after those schools’ plans faded.

While McLeod’s doors open this week, the big event will be Saturday. While McLeod has only about 100 parking spaces on either side of Country Club Drive, the county plans to run shuttles Saturday between the site and the James Island County Park.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.