McLeod an enduring gift

A row of former slave cabins at McLeod Plantation can be seen through the windows of the plantation house. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

It has taken more than 20 years, but McLeod Plantation has finally joined the public realm, and magnificently so.

Charleston County’s newest park has its grand opening this morning on James Island, with a full program related to its rich history — as a Sea Island cotton plantation, Civil War site, encampment for black Union troops and local headquarters of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

McLeod is a historic site of extraordinary value in a setting that captures the Lowcountry’s heritage and its beauty.

The antebellum plantation house has been carefully restored, and McLeod’s slave cabins, shaded by an oak allee, have been carefully preserved. They look out over the remaining 30 acres of farmland, transporting the visitor to another time and place.

But the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission isn’t offering magnolias and moonlight at McLeod. Instead it has chosen to focus on the experience of black people who lived there from the pre-Civil War era to the late 20th century.

As a site of African American history, McLeod is almost in a class by itself, with its outstanding collection of structures in which black people worked and lived, the fields where they labored, and the cemetery where they were buried. Its rural setting has been remarkably preserved in the midst of suburban development.

McLeod Plantation was the much-loved home of Willie McLeod, who died in 1990 at the age of 104. He left the property to the Historic Charleston Foundation, which undertook the daunting challenge of stabilizing the historic structures, while keeping the property intact. Today’s park clearly shows the importance of that valuable work.

The PRC has carefully restored historic structures on site, limiting modern-day intrusions by locating the welcome center and parking in a wooded area. Because of the limited parking, the PRC is urging visitors today to park at the James Island County Park and take a shuttle to the site.

Tom O’Rourke, executive director of the PRC, was instrumental in having the agency acquire the property and in directing McLeod’s focus as a place where black people — slave and free — lived for generations.

McLeod, he says, is of “national importance” as an African American site. Mr. O’Rourke describes his work there as the high point of his career at PRC.

The grand opening is also a happy day for those people who have long worked toward having McLeod preserved because of its historic importance.

Before the PRC obtained the property in 2011, the plantation was considered as a campus for a building arts college and then for the College of Charleston.

But public sentiment, led by the Friends of McLeod, was mounting to keep the property intact as a historic and cultural heritage site. Today’s park opening serves to reward the sustained efforts of that multicultural organization.

Mr. O’Rourke and the PRC deserve great credit for making the commitment to develop McLeod Plantation as a public park and for accomplishing the job with such skill and sensitivity.

It will become an important tourist destination, but it is also a place that every local resident should visit, for the story it tells about the Lowcountry and for its singular beauty.