In Charleston, the Ghosts of Toil and Struggle Are As Distant As Your Backyard
I grew up in suburban Charleston, South Carolina, on James Island in a neighborhood called Lawton Bluff, where I lived until I was 23. What I didn't know then was that the neighborhood was named after the Lawton Plantation, and that beneath the Kentucky bluegrass of our average American front yards was the sweat of countless slaves who picked cotton here as the first shot of the Civil War rang out from Fort Johnson, only a few miles away.
The Lawton Plantation was adjacent to the McLeod Plantation, whose slave quarters only a few feet from Folly Road formed the backdrop of my commute to school and work, and even our grocery shopping for many years. The McLeod Plantation was closed to the public until just two years ago, when Charleston County opened it as a historic site meant to tell the stories of the slaves who worked these fields and lived in these shacks visible to the tens of thousands who drive Folly Road every day.
I visited the plantation for the first time today, and learned that this plantation is unique because the direct descendants of the slaves who worked the fields here lived in these shacks until 1990, when the last member of the McLeod family, Willie McLeod, who attended the church I went to as a kid, died at the age of 104.
Think about that: The McLeod Plantation slaves remained here after emancipation, and their families lived in these shacks without running water or plumbing of any kind, using only nearby outhouses, until just 27 years ago. And they lived here as my friends and I and rode by in our parents' minivans every day, hardly noticing the history beneath us, as if the vestiges of America's Original Sin were the wallpaper of Charleston's suburbs.
Today, you can eat lunch at a taco joint in a strip mall across the street and look out at the slave quarters and easily think this is just an average Southern suburban scene. But the reality is that slavery is baked into the land beneath the trappings of corporate suburbia — James Island's bustling Harris Teeters, CVS pharmacies and tract housing — which go far to annihilate a sense of place and history. The suburbanites who are flocking to Charleston would do well to learn and appreciate the power of its past and the ghosts of toil and struggle beneath their feet.