Of all the antebellum plantation houses that once stood along the Ashley River of Charleston, only Drayton Hall still stands. That it survived the wrath of Gen. William T. Sherman and the Civil War is remarkable enough, but it also has survived modernity.
The house has never been updated or improved-there's no refrigerator or microwave, no air conditioning, no electricity at all. There's no plumbing or running water. In fact, there are no bathrooms in the house (although the brick seven-person privy still stands, and is bound to make your kids laugh) and the center of the basement kitchen is the massive hearth on which slaves cooked all the meals.
One of the best preserved examples of 18th century architecture in US, the house was designed by the owner, John Drayton, and gives a glimpse of what the most elegant and rarefied of homes looked like back then, with heavily carved wooden walls and swirling molded plaster ceilings. A growth chart on the wall preserves the ages and heights of seven generations of Draytons who grew up here, including a few of the dogs.
But as impressive and interesting as the house is, it's really the stories of the people who lived here that make Drayton Hall an amazing place to visit, especially with school-aged kids.
Managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Drayton Hall is a place that not just preserves history; it illuminates it with its amazing tour guides. The guides explain the important architecture, but they also weave a whole world with their words, a colonial and pre-Civil War world of a few families whose great wealth was made off the backs of thousands of enslaved people who were forced to work there.
It becomes clear, as modern families walk from room to room, that the over-the-top luxury of the old house was only possible because of the economic, social and political systems of slave labor. At Drayton Hall, the lives of those enslaved people are understood to be every bit as important as the lives of the powerful Drayton family.
Drayton Hall does a particularly good job of bringing their stories to life. It's not as easy as it sounds, because written records, accounts or diaries of the enslaved are rare. The tour guides glean every detail they can about the past enslaved residents of Drayton Hall from the records kept by Charles Drayton and from the physical artifacts found by archaeologists on the site. They then tell the stories of the people they have researched, bringing them to life.
Standing in the dark basement kitchen, with no air conditioning or electric light, you can imagine the cooks who toiled over the fireplace here in the heat of the summer. Be sure to attend the Connections: From Africa to America presentation after your tour of the house for an even more in-depth exploration of the African-American culture and history of Drayton Hall and the Lowcountry.
While the grand, enormous house might draw your attention first, the most important place on the plantation might actually be the most unassuming and modest: the African-American burial ground deep in the woods. One of the oldest such cemeteries in the US, this sacred place is an integral part of any visit to Drayton Hall.
Unlike other places that might ignore or even sugarcoat the history of slavery in the antebellum South, Drayton Hall celebrates and illuminates the lives of the enslaved people who quite literally built the house, planted the gardens and created the great wealth on display in the ornate ballrooms and parlors. Don't miss their stories, and the poignant scene of their peaceful burial ground in the forest.