Charleston's plantation sites were historically romanticized as places of beauty and gentility, often without telling the full story of all who built and maintained them. Today's visitors see a more complete representation of reality through tours and exhibits that elevate the hardships and contributions of all, including the captive and enslaved.
History Reveals Itself Through Exhibits and Tours
Sprawling Colonial-era estates along historic Ashley River Road are a few of the most enticing reasons to leave the peninsula. Not simply for their bountiful beauty, but equally for the beauty of truth with history telling transformations. A quick 30-minute drive takes you back in time where the country’s finest architecture and oldest gardens immerse you in the duality of the ages: Colonist manor living overshadowing enslaved shanties. The south’s grandeur juxtaposes against harsh realities of its ca[tove people. Director of Visitor Services at one site put it astutely,
“We continually strive to tell a complete history — and that includes the troubling and ugly components of our past. It’s important that our visitors understand that the impressive home they see today was made possible by the wealth procured in the South’s plantation economy — an estate and lifestyle quite literally built upon the lives and labor of an enslaved workforce.”
Present day tours and exhibits strive to reflect all sides of history with transparency and sensitivity; glory days are only one side of the equation, now evidenced at each site.
Middleton Place includes heritage breed animals alongside iron forging, spinning, weaving, carpentry, pottery and candle-making demonstrations. A variety of guided and self-tours interpret the Middleton family's role in American history, including the House Museum, and extensive trails through "America's oldest landscaped gardens". Designed by acclaimed Le Nôtre principals who later designed the gardens of Versaille, the sixty-five acres are some of America’s oldest landscaped vistas, with classic design reflecting order, geometry, and balance.
Visit the stable yards and tour the house museum—the only surviving portion of the three-building residence that once overlooked the Ashley River. The Middleton Place Foundation presents the history of more than just the white residents of this historical site in “Beyond the Fields,” a tour of the enslaved people—what their daily labors were, and the private lives they led. Walk through Eliza’s House and experience what home was for the estate’s slaves. Learn about the intensely close-knit slave community which laid the foundation for much of the culture still prevalent in the south today.
The earliest Palladian architecture in the US showcases lavish ornamentation at Drayton Hall. Prominently sited on the banks of the Ashley River for over 270 years, this pre-Revolutionary Charleston plantation remains close to its original condition today. Tour the principal building or walk along the river and marshes following interpretive maps. Don’t miss “A Sacred Place,” the oldest documented African-American cemetery in the nation still in use. History tours provide estate details, including the lives of both the manor family and enslaved people.
Bursting in flora and fauna,Magnolia Gardens and former plantation site is reputed as America’s most beautiful garden, and one of the last large-scale, romantic-styled designs. Here there is less focus on symmetry and formal design, and more on emotion and natural elements. Enjoy azaleas in spring, hydrangeas in summer, and camellias in fall. Throughout the year, walk through Magnolia’s Audubon Swamp Garden via a network of bridges and boardwalks and spot egrets and herons nesting in the otherworldly flora. A visit to Magnolia should also include the “From Slavery to Freedom: The Magnolia Cabin Project Tour”, with discussion about the enslaved people, and the culture they created.
Guided and self-tours are available between the three; bike trails, bird walks, swamps, picnic areas, kid-friendly activities, dining, gift-shops, and even accommodations are available. Tickets and advance reservations may be required.
After a day exploring Ashley River Road history-telling properties, continue your tours at McLeod Historic Site—a unique experience that encourages transformation of conscience through such presentations as the evolution of the Gullah culture—and Boone Hall, a working, living farm that bustles with events like the January Oyster Festival.
Declaring that McLeod is “not just a place for memorialization and a place of conscience, but a place where the transformation of conscience can occur,” this site was established to educate the public about a complete history that took place here. There is an emphasis on telling the whole story for black and white, enslaved and free people, and this makes McLeod a unique tour experience out of all Charleston's former plantation and historical sites. It’s a place to trace the evolution of the Gullah culture in the Lowcountry, and a place that allows visitors to see the changing relationships between the site’s residents and society. Each tour is different, so feel free to listen to more than one to get a complete history of the land.
High on history, Boone Hall tells the stories of “Black History in America” in a critically acclaimed exhibit that takes visitors through original slave cabins to tell stories from slavery to civil rights and beyond. Don’t miss the “Exploring The Gullah Culture,” a unique presentation where visitors can learn about that culture from descendants of the Gullah people through storytelling, song, and dance. Today the estate is still a working, living farm, actively producing strawberries, tomatoes and pumpkins, and more. Pick your own fruits and vegetables in season or shop the modern market for Boone Hall label jams, jellies, and sauces.