Making Walls Talk
By Dana Rasmussen
There were once hundreds of plantations dotting the landscape of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Today, few survive and even fewer provide the public with an opportunity to experience and learn about the complexity of life in the old South.
In April, Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission opened a window to the past when McLeod Plantation Historic Site located on James Island was unveiled to the public for the first time.
But before delving into how that came about, it’s important to provide a brief glimpse into the history of the plantation.
The History Of McLeod
Before it was the site of a plantation, the land was already historic because Native Americans occupied it. Some historians believe it was the location of the short-lived James Towne, the second English town built in South Carolina, in 1671. From the 1680s through the 1840s, the property exchanged hands several times. During the American Revolution’s British siege of Charleston, its fields were headquarters for British General Charles Cornwallis.
In 1851, the McLeod family acquired the 1,693-acre tract. When William W. McLeod purchased the sea island cotton plantation, he could not predict that cotton production would be halted by war in 1862. By war’s end, his family’s ownership was in question. Following the family’s evacuation, the plantation served as headquarters for Confederate and Union troops, including the African American Massachusetts 55th Volunteer Infantry.
Within a month of Charleston’s surrender in February 1865, the property, under Union General William T. Sherman’s orders, was divided into 40-acre lots and granted to 38 freedmen, some of whom were once enslaved there. However, an abrupt policy change returned most freedmen’s land to the previous owners. To help enforce this policy shift, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands opened a field office at McLeod Plantation.
Eventually, the McLeod children regained ownership of the property. William E. McLeod, the last family member to live on the plantation, died in 1990 at the age of 104. He left the property to the Historic Charleston Foundation, which sold it to the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission (CCPRC) in 2011.
The history of McLeod’s ownership, however, tells but a sliver of the plantation’s story. When CCPRC obtained the site, a broader story was to be told—that of the hundreds of African Americans who once called McLeod Plantation home. Rather than tell the well-known, manicured story of the grand old South and its plantations, the site boldly gives voice to all of the plantation’s inhabitants, during and after slavery, and their efforts to realize freedom, justice, and equality within a culture that denied them those rights and unsuccessfully sought to eliminate their humanity. With deeper meaning than found at many other plantation sites, these stories reflect transcendence, disappointment, hope, terror, and joy. McLeod Plantation presents an emblematic story of how American society strives, but has yet to fully understand and come to grips with its past.
Prepping The Plantation For The Public
To get McLeod Plantation ready for public access, CCPRC created a new approach and driveway off Country Club Drive. Within the confines of the site are a welcome center, an open-air pavilion, and a viewing deck overlooking the nearby Stono River. Updates to the existing infrastructure, repairs to the interior of the main house and two slave houses (which will be accessible to the public), exterior work on the gin house and garage, new paths, and several exterior interpretive signs were also made.
To make this project come to life, CCPRC worked with the Historic Charleston Foundation, The Friends of McLeod, the National Park Service, and numerous historical, agricultural, and preservation organizations along with local, state, and federal government agencies. These agencies and individuals also helped with the extensive inventory and analysis of the property, and stabilizations projects to secure and seal the historic buildings.
According to Cynthia Montague, Assistant Director of Capital Projects for CCPRC, this undertaking was different from other projects handled by the agency. As a historic site, protecting the existing features of the land and structures was extremely important and included precise planning, which included ordering a paint analysis to determine the original colors of the structures, archaeological monitoring to avoid disturbing existing artifacts, and dealing with asbestos abatement.
Dealing with necessary permits and permissions was another major component to begin the project. Montague said any agency considering a project of this magnitude should be aware that costs are higher than those of typical construction or renovation park projects due to the need to provide appropriate materials and a highly qualified workforce trained for work on historic sites.
“This project required a great deal of cooperation, coordination, public relations, sensitive design, a skilled workforce, and adequate funds,” Montague said. “Having a great team was paramount to producing what will be a first-rate historical site when it opens to the public this spring and that we believe will excite, inspire, and educate its visitors.”
Montague said anyone working with an organization considering a similar project should consider the following:
- Maintain tight controls over change orders to keep costs under control
- Dedicate one staff member to the project to oversee financials
- Keep communication flowing internally and externally
- Hire a local consultant when possible to visit the site and assess issues that might arise.
Visiting The Site
At the site, guests are able to walk through the main house to see where the McLeods and those they enslaved as personal attendants lived and worked. Visitors will see where Confederate officers debated tactics, where African American soldiers celebrated emancipation, where freedmen’s families lived without whites present for a time, and where one of the last sea island cotton planters lived and died.
The homes of Transition Row reveal a glimpse into the lives of enslaved inhabitants, emancipated people, and their descendants as they strove to overcome inequality in the 20th century. One home, converted into a worship place for a non-denominational mission in the 1980s, explores the importance of community, religion, and spirituality to Lowcountry African American Gullah people.
Visitors to the site are encouraged to take advantage of both guided tours and self-guided opportunities. For a more in-depth look during a site visit, or as a preview, guests are encouraged to download the McLeod Plantation Historic Site app for free at the Apple App Store to see images and hear the voices of those who lived there.
Dana Rasmussen is a freelance writer for the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission. For more information on McLeod Plantation, visit CharlestonCountyParks.com.