In 1860 McLeod Plantation enslaved approximately 74 African Americans. Held against their will in tiny slave quarters, three or four generations would live out their lives inside the tight, wooden walls. McLeod, now a 37-acre historic site preserved by Charleston County Park and Recreation, once spanned more than 1,000 acres and, at its peak, was the most productive plantation on James Island, producing as much as 64 bags of Sea Island cotton by 1859.
For the enslaved, each day brought toil, pain, a perpetual prison of sweaty brows, hunched shoulders, and repetitive movements. But then the sun would go down. Outspoken secessionist William McLeod would be in the big house, candles lighting the windows, looking down onto the slave quarters. Plantation owners and their patrolers would stalk the grounds when it got dark, an omnipresent force that seemed to never desist. But there were brief, precious moments of reprieve. The night brought, for a moment, a sense of peace. An escape. A second of eyes-wide, deep-breath freedom.
“The concept behind it is most of us associate nighttime and darkness with fear,” says McLeod cultural history interpretive aide Barbara Brundage. “But for the enslaved, it was the reverse.” Saturday, Jan. 6, starting at 6:30 p.m. — after nightfall — Brundage will lead a tour of McLeod’s slave quarters and the surrounding area. This is not the first time McLeod has hosted such an event — last year, they led a night tour of the quarters, but focused more on the challenges the enslaved faced on the plantation at night, about the rules and expectations, recovery from punishment, and how some of the enslaved would attempt to dodge patrolers to visit family and friends. “I started to do the research for this tour,” says Brundage, “and found that’s not really how they [the enslaved] perceived it. Of course they had to be wary and careful. But for the most part it was their time, and I really want to convey that.”
Brundage plans to begin her tour up near the welcome center, passing out lanterns and walking sticks, creating a context, an atmosphere almost immediately. “I know we have so much traffic here,” Brundage says, pointing out the busy, within earshot intersection of Maybank and Folly Road. “But I want us to slip back into the sounds, to see what it was really like.” As the tour heads towards the quarters, they’ll pass the big house, lit with candles, creating that eerie ever-watchful, panopticon sensation. “It will feel like the owners are there, their presence is really omnipresent,” says Brundage.
The tour will come upon the first cabin, quarters barely large enough to fit a twin size bed. But, as Brundage explains, multiple generations would live inside. “You will feel the presence of the family, that was where culture was exchanged,” says Brundage. “That’s where the story was told.” She says that in the first cabin, she and willing members of the group will participate in an interactive story, one with a moral. “There was always a moral,” says Brundage, “it was always educational.” Brundage will explain to the group other activities that would’ve taken place in the cabin — a mother teaching a daughter how to sew, a father explaining to a son the vestiges of a religion left behind in Africa, and, always, they would have to share warnings with their children.
“One of the exchanges that would happen here would be to teach the children to watch what you say,” says Brundage. “Because anything here that was said in the cabin was transmitted to the family … everyone suffered, so there is that element of fear.” There was the freedom of being away from the master, of being with your loved ones, of sharing stories and knowledge and hopes and fears. But there was also the restraint — the enslaved could not bring this free feeling with them outside, into the light of day. Brundage says the warnings usually took.
“Another thing I found was there was a real contradiction — in the cabin, in their home, they saw the parents as leaders and protectors and then in the field on a daily basis they saw the reversal of the role. What researchers think is that this [the role of being parents in the cabin] is the role that stuck with them.”
After hours and hours of back breaking manual labor, one would imagine the night would be a time for deep slumber. Not so. At night, under the cover of darkness, the slaves, women and men and children, would dance, completely uninhibited. “When you’re exhausted from working in the fields, you’d think that more physical activity would not be appealing but this is freedom of movement — in the field the movements are repetitive and it’s under someone else’s control,” says Brundage. Brundage says she will play a slave shout song — an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual — in the background to give the group a sense of that utter release. “You can hear in this particular selection that they just loosen up and it builds and builds and builds. We’re gonna talk about that freedom,” says Brundage. With drums outlawed for fear of neighboring slaves communicating, the dancers would keep time with their hands and feet.
“They had all these adaptations to keep their culture alive,” says Brundage. The song is called, fittingly, “You Got to Move.” After hours and days and years of being treated like animals, submitted to endless labor and foreign customs and brutality, after all that, they still moved. “But this is their world,” says Brundage. “It’s rising above, isn’t it?”
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