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Under scrutiny, historic Lowcountry plantations consider their role in dialogue on race

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A row of slave cabins at McLeod Plantation Historic Site in Charleston. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Cairy Lester, a 55-year-old African American resident of Charlotte, has a cousin who won’t step foot on a historic plantation site.

“No way,” his cousin says. “Never.” It doesn’t matter how well the management team incorporates the terrible history of slavery; her aversion runs too deep.

Lester’s cousin is far from alone. But Lester himself has visited several of Charleston’s antebellum plantation sites, and his experiences have provoked mixed feelings, he said.

Recently, he was sitting on his couch late one evening thinking about Middleton Place and its beauty. It bothered him that people could get married there — at a place where Black people suffered and died in bondage.

“If it’s not appropriate to have a wedding at a former Nazi concentration camp, it’s really not appropriate to have a wedding at a plantation,” he said. “There’s a lot of pain associated with this place.”

So Lester wrote a note to Middleton Place staffers expressing his concerns. What he wanted was, in a word, transparency, he said.

The next day, Jeff Neale, director of preservation and interpretation, called Lester — not to defend or justify Middleton Place’s programming, but to listen.

“I have to admit I was impressed,” Lester said. “I really shared my thoughts. ... He said, ‘Why don’t you come down to our Juneteenth program?’ My wife and I went.”

Neale also sent a link to the historic site’s documentary called “Beyond the Fields: Slavery at Middleton Place,” released in 2017.

It turned out that Middleton Place would cancel its Juneteenth program, at which several public figures had been scheduled to recite the names of around 3,000 enslaved people. The staff had received too many threats and, concerned for the safety of patrons and colleagues, felt compelled to shut it all down.

Drayton Hall, another historic plantation site along Ashley River Road, also has been receiving threats and recently boosted its onsite security, despite budgetary concerns during a period when the coronavirus pandemic has decimated revenues and limited programming.

These and other plantation sites are under scrutiny by critics demanding accountability and a better approach to interpreting history, one that eschews the Romanticism of the past in favor of a harsh reckoning long overdue. Managers at these historic sites say they are ready for the challenge.

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Eliza's House at Middleton Place, a freeman's cabin, is the site of an exhibition about slavery at the former plantation. File/Brad Nettles/staff

Positive change

Many historic antebellum sites, damaged during the Civil War, were brought back to life in the first part of the 1900s as private hunting grounds or retreats used by family descendants or new owners investing in property down South. In time, some of these sites became public spaces, sharing their gardens, majestic live oaks, river views and old houses with paying customers. A combination of park and museum, they tended to emphasize the aesthetic beauty of the landscape over the yet-to-be-excavated history of slavery.

A few properties were developed into multiuse public spaces by private owners. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, a sprawling site along the Ashley River, offers visitors opportunities to enjoy the grounds, learn about its history, or hold on-site events. Lowndes Grove on the Charleston peninsula is primarily an event venue operated by Patrick Properties. Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant offers history tours, hosts events and operates a working farm.

Other sites were transformed into nonprofit organizations or foundations increasingly dedicated to sharing their histories. By the 1970s, Middleton Place and Drayton Hall were nonprofits committed to historic preservation and interpretation. Patrons could admire the collection of objects in the house, stroll through a manicured landscape, interact with farm animals, watch demonstrations on blacksmithing, or learn about rice cultivation, the agricultural expertise of enslaved West Africans, and the brutality of bondage.

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Visitors at Drayton Hall learn about the historic site. Provided

In recent decades, more and more has been presented at these sites to pay tribute to those whose forced labor enabled white planters to accumulate enormous wealth. Some white visitors reluctant to confront the realities of slavery pushed back. But now, as the country grapples with persistent police violence and entrenched discrimination against African Americans, many wonder whether historic plantation sites are doing enough, or whether they continue to hold tightly to old thinking and old practices that prioritize tourism income over a long-overdue national reckoning.

Administrators at local nonprofit sites say they welcome the reckoning as well as opportunities to be part of the solution.

“Middleton Place Foundation connects people to the past, inspiring a deeper understanding of ourselves and American history,” President and CEO Tracey Todd said of the mission. “That’s positive change if that could happen.”

Carter Hudgins, president and CEO of Drayton Hall, said the key word is “reverence.”

“How do we establish appropriate reverence for the history of a given site?” he asked. “We take much more of an archaeological approach ... in the sense that we are studying and interpreting the remains of past human activity. So the house can be looked at as an archaeological artifact. We want to know how things were made, how they were used, who made them.”

It’s about acknowledging the total history of the site, not giving preference to one group over others, he said.

Both leaders added that, to properly appreciate the institution of slavery, one must develop an understanding of the slavers and the way they lived, and vice versa. The lives of white planters and the lives of those they enslaved are inextricably intertwined.

McLeod Plantation, a relatively modest property that’s part of the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, takes a different approach. Located in a densely populated suburban environment, the former Sea Island cotton plantation has little but a row of preserved slave cabins, an avenue of oaks and a small exhibit in the old plantation house. Recently, it became a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

As a county park site, it receives about half of its annual budgeted income from government sources, and it caters to locals, according to Shawn Halifax, cultural history interpretation coordinator for the park commission.

“The theme is focused on how enslaved people and their descendants experienced the transition to freedom,” Halifax said. “(We are) trying to make (an) effort to collaborate with descendant communities to work with them to program the site.”

The historical emphasis, in other words, is entirely on the African and African American experience.

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Shawn Halifax, cultural history interpretation coordinator for Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission, stands in front of a row of slave cabins at McLeod Plantation Historic Site last year. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Wanting the truth

McLeod was operated by middle-class white farmers. Drayton Hall and Middleton Place, instead, were seats of power for influential families that included political leaders, prominent religious figures, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and others with proven historical bona fides.

Todd said much work has been done at Middleton Place over the years to uncover and record aspects of the Black experience at the main plantation and several others owned by the Middleton family. That work is perhaps underappreciated by critics focused only on slavery and its horrors.

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M. Tracey Todd is president and CEO of the Middleton Place Foundation. Provided

“Part of that might be our own fault,” Todd mused. “Is there an appetite to listen? A lot of people are looking for villains these days.”

But the ancient magnolia tree, nurtured by generations of enslaved people, also is part of the history of this place, he noted.

“We’ve got to keep doing what we do, but better and more thoughtfully,” Todd said.

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That could mean more family reunions that include African Americans descendants of enslaved laborers at Middleton Place, more exhibits, new video testimonies, artistic interpretations of slavery, more research, more articles and documentaries or more public outreach and engagement.

"Middleton Place is, if you think about it, a monument to West African people," Todd said, for it was Africans who created it. "It's probably the most enduring monument to West African people that exists in this country."

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Middleton Place features beautifully sculpted gardens. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Colin Quashie, an African American artist based in Charleston whose work often examines entrenched racism, said displaying the opulence enjoyed by white people in the antebellum period does not bother him, but such splendor must be put into context.

“The biggest issue I have with (plantations) is the focus,” Quashie said. “It should be a much more sobering response, instead of this celebratory response.”

It’s wrong to emphasize the majesty of the big house and the beauty of the gardens over the source of all that wealth.

“I just don’t understand the difficulty in telling the truth and putting things in perspective,” he said. “I don’t understand why it’s such a moral dilemma to say the horrors on the outside paid for the opulence on the inside. Make the contrast clearer.”

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Artist Colin Quashie at work on a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. Colin Quashie/Provided

And, yeah, do away with the weddings.

“Would Germans allow people to have a wedding at Auschwitz?”

Quashie said he appreciates that these sites require money to operate and interpret history, but surely there are other sources of income besides weddings and parties. For example, the community might support a new tourism tax, or a new real estate impact fee earmarked for a cultural preservation fund.

“See how swiftly they moved to take Calhoun down?” Quashie said, referring to the removal of the John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square on June 24. Plantation sites should move just as fast, and set the standard for other institutions to follow, he said. “There is a groundswell of people wanting the truth.”

Hudgins said Drayton Hall, which is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and operated by the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust, hasn’t hosted a wedding for almost 10 years. The topic of on-site weddings came up last year, and the staff considered the need for new revenues, but decided against reintroducing such events. They were accustomed to the absence of wedding revenue, and chose to emphasize “authentic interpretation and stewardship” instead.

“As stewards of these sites, we need to do a better job at acknowledging the contributions of enslaved African Americans,” he said. “That’s why the archaeology is so important, because you can grasp the tangible and intangible stories of everybody who worked at Drayton Hall. ... What’s so important to understand is the work we're doing is not preserving white supremacy; we’re preserving the collective history of the Lowcountry to better understand ourselves.”

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Middleton Place offers guided Camellia Walks in January. Provided

More of the story

Some who are engaged in the debate about the value and purpose of historic plantations have cited the example of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which opened in late 2014.

“Whitney Plantation Museum is the only museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people,” its website states. “During your visit, you will learn about the history of slavery on a southern Louisiana sugarcane plantation by visiting memorials built to honor enslaved people; as well as original slave cabins, a freedmen’s church, detached kitchen, and a 1790 owner’s house.”

“The Whitney is a large exhibit,” noted Todd. An old plantation was transformed into a big memorial. “Middleton Place is a real 18th-century landscape created by African Americans. It’s different. ... Middleton Place is trying to tell more of the story.”

Lester said he appreciates the effort.

“Could they do more? Probably. But are they sweeping that under the rug? By no means, and I saw that,” he said.

The docents and interpreters didn’t avoid the subject of slavery; they explained freely what life was like for Black people at Middleton Place, according to Lester.

“I wasn’t getting a skewed version,” he said.

A decade ago, during a visit to the site, Lester and his family were the only African Americans on the slavery tour during which the guide spoke about how, during Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s advance, Union troops burned the main house and north flanker.

“Someone in the group said that was so tragic,” Lester recalled. “The docent winked at my wife and I and said there were other tragic things that happened here. I have to tip my hat to that.”

Preserving history

About a year ago, Lester was at Drayton Hall for a tour when the guide talked about how slaves have existed for thousands of years, seeming to belittle the “peculiar institution” of American slavery. He spoke up, asking that from now on the guide be certain to distinguish between ancient servitude, which often was part of a class system, and the transatlantic slave trade, a uniquely cruel episode in history that purposefully transformed Black people into property and excluded them from participating in social and economic systems.

Cairy Lester

Cairy Lester, 55, was born in Queens, New York, lived on the West Coast, and settled in Charlotte with his family. He is a consultant for a bank. His grandparents hailed from Florida and were part of the Great Migration north. Provided

“I have two daughters,” he said. “I just wanted them to know their history. When I think of people who are my heroes, it’s slaves, people who survived.”

Though much progress has been made improving the presentation of history at former plantation sites, there’s still a little “Gone with the Wind” nostalgia that permeates these places, Lester added. It’s past time to extinguish the nostalgia.

“Tell a more transparent story,” he reiterated. “That, I’d say, is the ask.”

To do so, it would help to have more African Americans on staff, doing the research and sharing history with the public, he said.

“Why can’t African Americans give tours? Are you going to HBCUs? There are people you can groom,” he said. 

Another improvement would entail making bifurcated tours obsolete. Visitors should not be able to choose between, say, the House Tour and the Slavery Tour, Lester said. Every tour should include a full discussion of slavery.

Generally, though, these sites are striving to do better. Their importance is unquestionable, Lester said.

“There is, I think, a place for them,” Lester said. “If for some reason they didn’t exist, there’s a lot of history that African Americans want to know that would disappear.”

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

Adam Parker has covered many beats and topics for The Post and Courier, including race in America, religion, and the arts. He is the author of "Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.," published by Hub City Press.

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