Two Charleston County sites with histories rooted in slavery have been accepted into an international coalition of places that connect the past and the present in thoughtful ways.
McLeod Plantation on James Island and the Caw Caw Interpretive Center in Ravenel, both operated by Charleston County Parks, are the first historic sites in South Carolina to be included in the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a global network of historic sites, museums and memorials.
The coalition, which is based in New York and has about 290 members worldwide, defines these sites as "places of memory" that confront their history and its lasting impacts.
Members are spread across 65 different countries, from the Apartheid Museum in South Africa to the Memorium Nuremberg Trials in Germany and the Damascus Center for Human Rights in Syria.
All Sites of Conscience draw a "connection between history and the present," said Dina Bailey, the director of methodology and practice for the coalition.
To be included in the coalition, sites have to submit an application and be approved through an internal review process. The coalition also looks out for potential sites to add, Bailey said.
"We've been watching McLeod and what they're doing," Bailey said.
The former sea island cotton plantation and Gullah-Geechee heritage site was opened to the public in 2015 with an expressed mission to tell the stories of all the people who lived and worked there, during and after slavery.
Within about a year of its opening, the park earned an award for its interpretive signs and, in 2017, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture hosted a workshop at McLeod for curators of African American history throughout the country.
The Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission's focus on African American history started more than 15 years before McLeod's opening with the Caw Caw Interpretive Center, which was once part of several rice plantations.
It's also a site of the 1739 Stono Rebellion, the largest uprising of enslaved people in the British mainland colonies. The park, which includes hiking trails and history exhibits, has been submitted to be listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Sean Halifax, the director of interpretation with the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission, said he thinks the designation of being Sites of Conscience sets some expectations for visitors.
"Just by the sake of its name, it's probably giving them a clue that this is not going to be a whitewashed version of history," Halifax said.
Though Halifax said the vast majority of visitors are interested in and engaged with the discussions around slavery that happen during McLeod's interpretive tours, there has been resistance from some visitors.
That resistance is less common than it may seem from reports, he said. The Washington Post published a story in August that featured negative reviews from visitors, including one in which a reviewer stated that they were so depressed from the tour that they "questioned why anyone would want to live in South Carolina."
But negative comments have been well outnumbered by affirmative feedback. McLeod has a nearly five-star rating on TripAdvisor based on 980 reviews. The third most-used term in reviews on Google for McLeod is "informative."
"The important thing is that our interpreters are prepared for resistance," Halifax said. "It's not about calling people out; it's calling people in."
Making sure that the staff and volunteers at McLeod have the resources they need to feel safe and supported is one of the goals of the coalition, Bailey said.
"Sites like McLeod are really working hard to have those nuanced and complicated dialogues, so that means they need to pay a particular sensitivity not only to the visitors who are coming but also to their staff members and volunteers," Bailey said.
The coalition becomes a kind of support network for members, Bailey said. Since the goals of the coalition are based on connecting history to current issues, all of the member organizations have to constantly evolve.
"It's not setting a bar and having institutions meet this set criteria," Halifax said. "It's helping institutions raise the bar for themselves, recognizing the work they're already doing and having sites share their experiences with one anther."
South Carolina has one other Site of Conscience, the Museum of Education at the University of South Carolina. It's described by the university as a "public square" for discussions about education. This year, a spring exhibit featured examples of college student activism around the world during 1968.
Other coalition members in the region include Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Virginia — an exhibit there this year marked the 400th anniversary of the 1619 arrival of the first enslaved people to what is now Virginia — the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.