Calling Them by Name: The Story of McLeod Slaves’ Transition to Freedom

Farm equipment at McLeod Plantation
Farm equipment at McLeod Plantation.

by Shawn Halifax

The blistering sun and thick humid air hung over the sea island cotton fields as Pompey worked through the back breaking and tedious process of cultivating crops. The physical discomfort did little to discourage him. For the first time he was growing his own cotton, on his own land.

People like Pompey Dawson, who became one of the leading cultivators of sea island cotton on James Island, and Isabella Pinckney, who became an entrepreneur, transitioned from property of William Wallace McLeod to citizen following emancipation.

Right after the Civil War, African Americans were given opportunity to rent land, sharecrop or work for wages. These contracts were often not fair to the freed person, and some were written to be nearly as restrictive as slavery.

Outbuilding at McLeod Plantation
Outbuilding at McLeod Plantation.

About 44 people received up to 40 acres of land at McLeod Plantation. Shortly after, the law was retracted and the land was returned to the original owner.

Calling Them by Name

These stories of the struggle for freedom are front and center at McLeod Plantation Historic Site on James Island, owned by the Charleston County Parks & Recreation Commission. The site stands out in such a historic city by telling an inclusive story and helping visitors gain a different perspective from which to consider southern plantations. It is history – not plantation or African American history, but our collective history.

The institution of slavery sought to diminish the humanity and dignity of enslaved people. However, many endured the depraved conditions and lived life in ways difficult to imagine. Millions today are nameless, fewer are named with little idea of who they were beyond a price or listed skill. Many seem faceless.

Slave cabins at McLeod Plantation
Slave cabins at McLeod Plantation.

However, when the details are viewed through a new lens, a more complete person comes into focus. For example, Charles is revealed, in documents haggling over his value in death and written by owner William Wallace McLeod, to be a man of pride, responsibility and courage – not just a woodcutter for whom McLeod wants $2000 in compensation.

These were real people

Charles never did experience being a freed man, He was simply thought of as livestock and his owners were compensated $2,000 for the loss of his life. His story was like so many long forgotten and never recognized for their extraordinary contributions, resilience and courage.

“We try to emphasize these were real people, human beings who were victims of the inhumane practice of slavery,” says Gina Ellis-Strother, director of marketing at Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission. “We talk about them with names and real stories that show the human side of this inhumane practice. Our hope is that by emphasizing their humanity we can grow to understand some of the difficulties that we experience today in terms of race relations.”

Slave cabin at McLeod Plantation
Slave cabin at McLeod Plantation.

To assist with the transition and help the freed people become self-sufficient, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established with an office at McLeod Plantation. The bureau was tasked with assisting people in getting marriage licenses, reuniting families and providing education.

Upcoming Programs and Events at McLeod

“We expanded the discussion beyond slavery and into what happened after the emancipation,” says Ellis-Strother. “The realization that you are actually a free person is probably something we will never truly understand in our lifetime.”

On February 25 McLeod Plantation Historic Site will host another in its series of Unveiling McLeod tours exploring the architecture of the plantation’s buildings and the messages they convey.

Main house at McLeod Plantation
Main house at McLeod Plantation.

On March 4, 11, and 18 the Unveiling McLeod series explores spirituality on rice and Sea Island cotton plantations, where West African beliefs mixed with Christian ones to produce distinctive Gullah religious and spiritual practices.

On April 8, 15 and 22 the Unveiling McLeod series shifts its focus to the women of McLeod, white and black, free and enslaved.

Arts and music take center stage

Arts take center stage at McLeod this spring too, beginning with an art exhibition on March 4 and 5, featuring Gullah artist Sonja Griffin and her American Gullah collection. The collection communicates the Gullah people’s culture, brings to life their stories, and provokes a yearning to learn and visit places that encompass its history and spirituality. The exhibition is free with admission.

Main house at McLeod Plantation
Road leading to main house at McLeod Plantation

Finally, highlighting the program schedule for the spring is a concert performance on April 23 by the Lowcountry Voices. Take a journey of song highlighting the musical tapestry of the Lowcountry. Nathan Nelson directs this diverse choral group performing music from African traditions to the hymns, spirituals, and gospel music of the Lowcountry.

Come visit McLeod Plantation

McLeod Plantation Historic Site opened to the public in 2015. Experience the site through guided and self-guided tours that detail the struggles for freedom and justice by the people who lived and worked on the property.

Logo for Charleston County Parks and RecreationTo learn more about McLeod Plantation Historic Site, visit CharlestonCountyParks.com. The site is located at 325 Country Club Drive, Charleston, SC 29412 and is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.

Tours are at 10:00, 11:30, 1:30, and 3:00

Shawn Halifax is the Cultural History Interpretation Coordinator for Charleston County Parks.

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