South Carolina – Day 4: Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Brittany Swanson   December 22, 2015   Comments Off on South Carolina – Day 4: Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

I spent my last day in South Carolina at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. I almost didn’t go because it made me uncomfortable that the plantation is still owned and operated by the same family who had slaves before the Civil War. It felt wrong to contribute to an enterprise founded on slavery. In the end I reasoned that the educational benefits might outweigh the moral dilemma I was having and if the educational aspect of the plantation didn’t come through then I could discuss that in the blog.

I double checked their website before I went to see how much it would cost. It was $15 for the general admission and someone recommended I do the Nature Train to see all the grounds which was an additional $8, then it was $8 more for the Slavery to Freedom tour. $31 was pretty steep, but on the website they said they were doing a canned food drive so general tickets were buy one get one free with a canned food donation. I figured I could either find another single person and split the cost of a ticket with them or bring two cans of food and tag along with a group of three, getting one of them and myself in for free.

When I got to the parking lot, the first couple I asked had pre-purchased tickets already, so they were a bust. I started walking toward another couple when I noticed a odd-numbered group of people with a bag of food. I quickly counted that there were five of them and approached and asked if I could tag along as their sixth person, saying I had my own can. They agreed and apparently my second can got a discounted price for the Nature Train. The group I was with paid together and when I asked how much I owed them for my Nature Train ticket they said not to worry about it. Score! So, I spent $2.41 on two cans of food for a food bank instead of $23 to the plantation owned by a family of former slave owners. Thank you universe for assuaging my guilt.

I started my visit by watching a movie presentation explaining the history of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. In the video I learned that Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has been in the Drayton family since 1676. Currently, it belongs to the twelfth generation of Draytons. Before the Civil War the plantation had about 45 slaves. After the Civil War the main plantation house was burned to the ground by Union forces and about 3/4 of the plantation grounds were sold, partly because without slaves it would be hard to maintain and partly to get the funds to rebuild the plantation house.

After the video I had just enough time to use the restroom before the Nature Train ride began. The weather was beyond beautiful. It was sunny and around seventy degrees. There was a light breeze and the air smelled both sweet and tart. We rode around the plantation grounds on the Nature Train stopping occasionally to view wildlife. We saw at least a dozen alligators sunning in the ponds as we drove along.

Alligator...Just sunnin', Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

Alligator…Just sunnin’, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

On the Nature Train ride I learned that the Sable Palmetto Tree is the state tree of South Carolina and, in turn, that Palmetto is the official name of the palm tree. Who knew? I also learned that the beautiful trees I’d, in the last hour or so, come to love so much were called Virginia Live Oaks and, as I suspected, they were covered in Spanish Moss.

I love Live Oak Trees with some Spanish Moss, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

I love Live Oak Trees with some Spanish Moss, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

The Magnolia Gardens started as just a formal English garden in 1685 and now encompass over 70 acres of land. The Magnolia Gardens are one of the oldest gardens in the United States and in 1870 they were opened for the first time to the public. One hundred years later, in 1970, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens began to be open year round after flowers that bloomed in every season were incorporated into the gardens’ design.

As soon as I finished the Nature Train ride I went to see about the next Slavery to Freedom tour. This was the part of the plantation I was most interested in and, like the Slave Mart Museum, it was a bit of a letdown. The Slavery to Freedom tour, it turned out, was also called the Cabin tour. Rather than giving an account of what life was like for slaves on the plantation, the tour guide gave us a general history of the South prior to the Civil War, focusing on South Carolina and Charleston. The cabins were then used to illustrate how the slaves once lived, but not much was said of their actual experience on the plantation.

That being said, I did learn some interesting facts and statistics. For instance, throughout the slave trade approximately 15 million slaves were stolen from western and central Africa and sold into slavery. South Carolina was a hub for slavery with 40% of slaves in America coming through Charleston. I also learned that South Carolina provided 80% of America’s rice production and that the rice plantations operated under a different system than most plantations. The rice plantations used a task system. In the task based system, the overseer would assign each slave a task based on their ability. Once the task was complete the slaves were allowed free time. The catch was if they didn’t finish by the end of the day, they had to stay and work until their task was completed.

But back to the cabin tour, four of the eleven cabins originally used to house slaves remain intact at Magnolia Plantations and Gardens. Each of the former slave cabins has been restored to a specific time period. The first one we visited on the tour was restored in 1969 and reflected the original cabins built in 1850. It was basically four walls and a roof. The guide said the slaves slept on straw mats that they rolled up and stored in the loft during the day. The cabin was a duplex; there was one family on each side of the building and they shared a fireplace that vented to both sides.

The next three cabins were restored in 1992. One reflected life at Magnolia in the 1870s after the Civil War liberated slaves and they became freedmen. After slavery ended Reverend Drayton allowed former slaves and their descendants to live in the cabins rent free. Many former Magnolia slaves took Drayton up on this offer since outside the plantation they had very limited opportunities. The former slaves became employees of Magnolia and worked as gardeners and tour guides. In the 1870s the cabins became a house for only one family. A doorway was created out of one wall and then the family had two rooms to themselves. As freedmen, they were able to acquire or build simple furniture to furnish their home. Prior to their liberation, the slaves were considered property and property wasn’t allowed to have its own property.

Former slave cabin restored to circa 1920s workers house, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

Former slave cabin restored to circa 1920s workers house, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

The cabin from the 1920s sported a lowered ceiling and walls covered in newspaper in an attempt to insulate the cabin. There was more furniture and it generally looked and felt more homey. The cabins continued to house Magnolia employees until the early 1990s. It was not clear if only black employees lived in the former slave quarters or if white employees also lived there. Since the Slavery to Freedom tour focused on the experiences of black people at the plantation, it is not unsurprising that any white worker stories were left untold, however, it still made me wonder.

The final cabin, restored to what it looked like in the 1950s-60s, was occupied by a man named Johnny Leech (sp?), a master gardener at Magnolia. He raised his children in that cabin, built an addition on to it, and made it his home. Living in the segregated South, on a plantation in former slave cabins no less, was not without its difficulties. In 1963 Leech’s son Isaac integrated Springfield Elementary School. Another of Leech’s sons was in the army. When the son returned home he wanted to work at the post office, but wasn’t allowed to because of the Jim Crow Era’s racism, so he came back to Magnolia Plantation and worked alongside his father instead. Today Jackson Leech, Johnny’s grandson, is 25. He also works at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.

After the Civil War put an end to slavery, freedmen continued to work at Magnolia because they didn’t really have any other options. Jim Crow laws and policies kept Johnny’s son from following his dreams and instead kept him at Magnolia. Now Jackson Leech, in 2015, is the fifth generation of his family to work at Magnolia. So, tell me institutionalized racism isn’t a thing. Tell me that if the Federal government had enforced Reconstruction longer, and if Jim Crow had been wiped out sooner, and if this family had been allowed different opportunities they’d still be where they are today. Maybe they would. I’m not saying the Leech’s aren’t happy, nor that they couldn’t leave Magnolia and do something else. I’m asking how so many people today can ignore that the past directly influences the present in very real ways. While in 2015 white people may not be actively participating in segregation, the policies of the past have ensured that segregation continues to exist today and if we continue to ignore institutionalized racism and pretend it isn’t true then our society will continue to be broken and we will all continue to suffer.

After the Slavery to Freedom tour I spent about two hours walking around the gardens themselves and reflecting on the history of the place. The scenery was so beautiful, magical even, though I knew it was tainted with an abysmal past. I came upon this spot when wandering and I knew I wanted to write a story based on it someday:

This scene just screams "Write a story about me!", Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

This scene just screams “Write a story about me!”, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

The gardens were quite picturesque. A little later, when I found this scene I knew I wanted to paint it:

Just magical. A scene that demands to be recreated in paint. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

Just magical. A scene that demands to be recreated in paint. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

I could not get over how magical everything looked and how happy I felt to be standing there, surrounded by such beauty. Minus the crazy amount of mosquitoes and the torrid past a wedding here would be amazing. In fact, there was a wedding ceremony or a reception taking place as I was left later.

Before I left I decided to check out the petting zoo because, why not? I walked in and had gone maybe three steps when a little deer ran up to me. To be honest, it was a little alarming and I’d kind of forgotten I was in a petting zoo and freaked out a little that the deer was so close to me. Then I remembered where I was and tentatively reached out my hand to pet it and it started sniffing around my pockets looking for food. There were feeding dispensers outside, but I hadn’t gotten anything. I did have an apple in my backpack though, and I was mildly concerned that the deer was going to smell it and try to steal it out of my bag.

However, before I had time to worry about the deer stealing my apple he had taken hold of my phone charging cable. I had a portable charger in my pocket and the cable was connecting it to my phone, which I’d taken out to take a picture of the deer. Before I knew what happened the deer had the cable in its mouth and I was like, oh, crap. I didn’t want the deer biting through the cable, because a. I didn’t have another working one and b. I wasn’t sure how the deer would react to getting electrocuted in the mouth.

I looked at the deer and firmly said, “No. Drop it.” and tried to wiggle the cord out of its mouth. Fun fact: deer are not dogs. Even domesticated deer. The deer did not heed my commands, and I wasn’t too keen to shove my fingers into the deer’s mouth to pry the cable out. Eventually, after probably a ninety second or so struggle the deer opened its jaw slightly and I was able to rescue my cable. The cable survived with only the slightest of bite marks.

Personal space my friend. Personal space...Petting Zoo, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

Personal space my friend. Personal space…Petting Zoo, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston, SC.

My life is really weird sometimes. “Remember that time in Charleston, when a deer tried to eat your phone cable?” Why yes, yes I do remember that. Weird!

I continued walking around the petting zoo. I saw ducks and peacocks, goats and pigs, snakes and birds, even a fox and an owl. After the deer, I wasn’t too eager to pet any of the animals or even get too close to them, but it was nice walking around and looking at all of them.