Drayton Hall looks back at history with lecture series

Drayton Hall

The memories are long, passed from generation to generation.

And on Thursday, descendants of the Drayton and Bowens families, along with others, will remember together what life on the old plantation was like, for slave owners and for slaves.

Drayton Hall’s Distinguished Speakers Series begins its second season this week with a program called “Memories and Meanings: Reflections on Drayton Hall by Charles H. Drayton III and Other Descendants.”

Charles Drayton III is the 96-year-old family patriarch. The Bowens family members were slaves. Drayton will be joined by nephew Frank Drayton, three of his grandchildren and Bowens descendants Catherine Braxton and Rebecca Campbell, who are sisters. Annie Meyers, another Bowens family descendant, also will be there.

“I think the great thing about a program like this is that it brings descendants together,” Charles Drayton said. “Drayton Hall means a lot to all of us. It’s a large piece of local history, and we’re all a part of it.”

George W. McDaniel, president and executive director of the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust, will moderate the discussion about family history and how the past can be safeguarded for generations to come.

In 1975, Charles Drayton III and his brother, Frank B. Drayton, who had inherited the vast property holdings along the Ashley River from their aunt Charlotte, decided to sell Drayton Hall after seven generations of ownership to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The brothers didn’t want the valuable tract converted into a golf course or otherwise developed.

“I hated to see the property go,” said Frank Drayton Jr. “My parents, too. But just the upkeep was intimidating, and preservation was essential. ... What the National Trust has done has just been amazing.”

It has conducted extensive research, provided necessary maintenance and made the Palladian-style house “an architectural showpiece,” Frank Drayton said.

“I’m still learning things,” he said. “Every year I learn something new, a little tidbit.”

And now, the National Trust will partner with the recently formed Drayton Hall Preservation Trust, governed by a local board.

“I think we’re going to take off,” Frank Drayton said. Perhaps Drayton Hall can find a way to better display its extensive holding of historic objects on the grounds.

Catherine Braxton, 77, of Jacksonboro, said her Bowens family ancestors came to Drayton Hall from Barbados.

They accompanied the Drayton family because of their knowledge of rice cultivation.

Braxton’s maternal grandmother, whose lifespan straddled the turn of the 20th century, once worked in the Jacksonboro rice fields near Walterboro in Colleton county.

Braxton’s grandfather was born a free man at Drayton Hall and was raised there. Her grandfather’s cousin, Richmond Bowens, also was born on the plantation, but moved to Chicago. For years he vacationed in the Lowcountry, and after retirement he returned to stay. Richmond Bowens was especially knowledgeable about the history of the property and the people connected to it, helping others create a written and an oral record, Braxton said.

After emancipation, many former slaves remained at the plantation, she said.

“Many did not leave immediately because they had no place to go — no jobs, no money,” she said. “So they stayed on the plantations and worked.”

Braxton’s sister, 79-year-old Rebecca Campbell, remembers how Richmond Bowens told her parents and uncles all about Drayton Hall, and when she was older, Bowens invited her to visit the property.

“He was interested in telling the story about restoring it to the way it was,” Campbell said. He remembered all of the avenues, the way the flowers were arranged, the layout of the gardens and grounds.

“He told me the story, and I got interested in it,” Campbell said.

“He showed me the burial grounds, and I connected strongly to that because of its spiritual aspect.”

The spirit was strong, connecting past and present, absorbing Campbell.

“When I approach the Sacred Place, I feel my ancestors present and the role they played there,” she said. “And I have a part there.”

The iron archway at the entrance to the burial grounds was designed by the famous Charleston blacksmith Phillip Simmons just before he died.

It is an ever-open portal through which all — the living and the dead — may pass unhindered.

The now-memorialized dead are free in their resting places, free to do as they please, Campbell said.

“They became free at last when they left this Earth.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.