McLeod Plantation Historic Site. Unveiling Freedom’s Story
The McLeod Plantation Historic Site sits on James Island in Charleston, tucked among oak trees drooping with Spanish moss; its beauty but a veil covering a meaningful and important story. The story of this Sea Island cotton plantation is not just of its owners, the McLeod family, but of others who occupied the place, too. People such as the Dawson family, whom the McLeods enslaved. And George Smothers, a black US soldier, who helped liberate four million people. In contrast to other plantations open to the public, McLeod Plantation Historic Site centers its stories on African-Americans who made up a majority of its population from 1850 through 1990 and their resilience: a 140-year quest for freedom, equality, and justice.
America’s wealthy depended on slavery to drive the country’s growth. Throughout the South cash crops cultivated by enslaved labor endowed the planter class with wealth and power. Tobacco grew in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina; rice thrived along the South Carolina and Georgia coast; sugarcane fields dominated southeastern Louisiana. Each region experienced success; however, a plant bearing fluffy, white fibers changed everything.
Referred to as “King Cotton” due to its lucrative returns, this crop made the Cotton Belt that formed from Texas to Virginia. As cotton expanded, so did the exploitation of forced human labor and the removal of native peoples. But the plantations of coastal of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida were unique. McLeod Plantation and others produced a long-fiber species called Sea Island cotton. At certain points, it was more than ten times as valuable as its short-fiber cousin grown elsewhere in the belt.
In 1851 William Wallace McLeod acquired the plantation of nearly 1,700 acres. That year, nearly a decade before South Carolina finally seceded, he advocated for secession, declaring the issue of slavery as the primary reason. In 1859 he led Charleston’s efforts to reopen the trans-Atlantic slave trade. On the eve of the American Civil War the nearly one hundred men, women, and children he enslaved produced more Sea Island cotton—described as the finest cotton ever cultivated—than any other plantation on James Island. In 1862 McLeod enlisted as a forty-two-year-old private in the Confederate war effort.
That spring, the US military captured and occupied neighboring Folly Island. In response, the Confederates ordered an evacuation of all civilians on James Island. However, rather than evacuate with the McLeod family, ten enslaved people successfully claimed freedom, navigating enemy Confederate lines and finding sanctuary on Folly Island. One of them, young William Dawson, enlisted in the US Navy as a cabin boy. A year later, following President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Dawson reenlisted as one of the first black US Marines. For the first time in his life, he earned a wage and legally bore arms to fight for his freedom.Following James Island’s evacuation, the Confederate Army occupied McLeod Plantation. The house was military headquarters, and the grounds held commissaries, ordnance depots, and a regimental hospital.
By the winter of 1865, the Confederacy was crumbling. Fearful of General Sherman reaching General Grant in Virginia, Confederate troops fled Charleston and James Island. In March 1865 the Massachusetts 55th Volunteer Infantry, a black regiment, made McLeod Plantation its headquarters. Private George Smothers proudly left his signature on the third floor of the McLeod home. Smothers, born enslaved in Virginia, escaped to Indiana with his family on the Underground Railroad. Responding to Frederick Douglass’s 1863 call to arms and for free blacks to enlist, Smothers joined the army to help free his enslaved brothers and sisters.
Smothers was here on that March day in 1865 when fellow combatant William Dawson returned to McLeod Plantation and laid claim to forty acres. Earlier, General Sherman had declared that abandoned plantations along portions of the coast from South Carolina to Florida were to be distributed among freed people, up to forty acres per person. It is not known whether Smothers and Dawson met, but it is likely. In less than three years Dawson went from enslaved man to land owner. By 1870 Dawson and his family were among the most successful Sea Island cotton growers on James Island, even outproducing what they had cultivated when enslaved by William McLeod ten years earlier.From 1865 to 1868, McLeod Plantation was the James Island Field Office for the Freedman’s Bureau.
The bureau was established to assist four million freed slaves transition out of enslavement. However, on James Island, bureau agents were also tasked with convincing those like Dawson to voluntarily release their forty acres to the previous owners and enslavers. On James Island former landowners were quite successful in reobtaining their plantations, aided by a smallpox epidemic that killed thousands of freed people. By 1870 the McLeods again made the plantation their home. So began 125 years of history at McLeod Plantation that illustrates the fits and starts African-Americans experienced in their struggle for freedom, equality, and justice.Generations of African-Americans, caught in the vicious cycle of poverty, discrimination, and violence of the Jim Crow South, lived at McLeod Plantation in terrible conditions.
Despite that, their love, family, and faith helped them persevere. In 1990 the last McLeod left the plantation to the Historic Charleston Foundation. By 2015 Charleston County Parks purchased and opened it to the public. Through award-winning interpretation, Charleston County Parks removes the veil through which so many plantations filter their history. The historic site is presented for what it really was: a private, for-profit, slave-labor camp whose legacy of racism impacts so many. A visit promises not to be typical of plantation museums, but an honest remembrance and acknowledgment of America’s past and a place where healing might begin.
Plantations and Historic Homes of South Carolina
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