Tales of plantation life in the Old South often focus on the romanticized image of the wealthy gentleman planter and the Southern belle. But living alongside these high-society aristocrats were African slaves, struggling simply to survive and preserve their cultural identity.
McLeod Plantation on James Island tells their story, etched in the buildings where they lived, worked and prayed. The 37-acre historic site, once part of a 1,700-acre sea island cotton plantation, includes the main house, six slave cabins, the kitchen and dairy, a carriage house, an assortment of agricultural outbuildings and the gin house, where slaves undertook the arduous task of preparing the long-staple cotton for sale.
The McLeod family home, a two-story Georgian-style mansion built in 1854, stands in stark contrast to the one-room clapboard cabins that served as home to generations of African-Americans beginning in the late 1700s for almost 200 years. Visitors can walk through the first floor of the "big house" and view the large living areas with their elegant molding and chandeliers, then peek inside the rustic cabins of the enslaved who lived just steps away.
In later years, the small wooden structures housed soldiers, freed people and their Gullah descendants. Despite a lack of modern conveniences, the cabins remained occupied until 1990 (yes, 1990).
Four 45-minute guided tours are offered each day, focusing on various themes, including sea island cotton cultivation and processing, the Gullah/Geechee culture and a timeline of its many occupants over the years. These engaging presentations offer fascinating details of daily life on the plantation and the history of the buildings.
The gin house, for instance, is a 19th century building supported by 18th century bricks, handmade during the colonial era in brickyards located in the Wando River basin northeast of Charleston. In one of the tours, the guide will point out fingerprints on a brick created by a small child assigned to turn the clay blocks during the drying process.
You'll also learn about the four-seat privy used by the McLeod family and the wings that were added to either side of a farm storage building in the 20th century to house Model T Fords.
While the plantation was a working farm with sheep, cattle and hogs, the money crop was sea island cotton, highly valued for its long fibers. The Civil War brought production to a stop in 1862. For a time, the plantation served as headquarters for Confederate and Union troops, including the African-American Massachusetts 55th Volunteer Infantry.
The welcome center features a number of exhibits, chronicling the history of the plantation. Here, you can also sign up for one of the guided tours offered several times a day. In addition to the tours, the free app, "McLeod Plantation: Transition to Freedom," is available for download on Apple devices.
Special educational programs also are presented each quarter, offering history buffs the chance to learn more about the plantation, from the role it played during the Civil War to the medicine used at the time.
McLeod Plantation is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $15 for guests ages 13 and older, $6 for kids 3 to 12. Find more information at the plantation's website or by calling 843.795.4386.