Newcomers to coastal South Carolina may have heard that some housing developers and institutions are scrubbing the word “plantation” from their names, but the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage exhibitions director said she’s learned many Northern-born residents don’t fully understand why the term is so politically charged.
“We have a lot of people who are not from here, and a lot of them don’t have much of a baseline. They say, ‘We never talked about the South,’ which as a Southerner never dawned on me,” said Kayleigh Vaughn, who designed the Ridgeland museum’s newest exhibit, Beyond the Oaks: Lowcountry Plantations.
The exhibit, which debuted in May and will remain on view until April 2020, is supposed to help make up for the history lessons that visitors might have missed, either because their school curricula overlooked or misrepresented the Southern plantation system.
“I had to purge my mind of a lot of what was taught to me in my history classes,” historian Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, said in a 25-minute introductory video produced for the exhibit. At the video’s start, McLeod Plantation interpretation coordinator Shawn Halifax explains that “plantation” is now commonly considered a “euphemism for slave labor camps.”
But the Morris Center exhibit acknowledges there are an array of associations with the word, especially in a region where wealthy Northerners more than a century ago remade the sites of horrific human rights abuses as tony hunting camps.
“We’re not glossing over anything, but there are people who have different perspectives,” Vaughn said, referring to an exhibit adviser who’s descended from the owners of Roseland Plantation. For him, the family plantation is tied up with warm memories of togetherness and tradition. “We don’t want anyone to feel lesser in this conversation, but we want people to think about the conversation going forward.”
According to Vaughn, museum leaders recognized “this was going to be a sensitive topic.” In order to make discussion of it more productive, they’ve scheduled a series of tie-in events. Before the exhibit closes, the museum plans to convene a panel of scholars to address visitor reactions.
For the exhibit, Vaughn furnished the Morris Center’s small gallery with plantation artifacts, such as shackles and a branding iron, representations of plantations in popular culture, such as a thimble from Boone Hall and a Scarlett O’Hara doll and touchable objects, such as clumps of picked cotton. On their way out, visitors are asked to fill out a card with the printed prompt “What does ‘plantation’ mean to you?”
An early visitor to the exhibit responded, “A place where history happened. Some of it was not so nice.”
As Vaughn said, “The relationship of the races in this area is all impacted by the plantation.”
Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage, 10782 S. Jacob Smart Blvd., Ridgeland, SC. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00am to 5:00pm. There is no admission fee. For more information, call 843-284-9227 or visit morrisheritagecenter.org.