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On my last full day in Charleston, I boarded a bus headed to the oldest tourist site in the Lowcountry. This historic property also lays claim to the oldest public gardens in the US.
Was I excited? Not exactly. I felt…cautiously curious. Thirty other people chatted as we bounced along in the air conditioned bus. I remained quiet and introspective. The truth is, I almost didn’t join this tour, making a last minute decision late the day before to go.
Our destination was Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. While I looked forward to walking in the gardens, slavery is a huge issue for me. I wasn’t sure what the energy would feel like at the plantation and how that would impact me as an intuitive empath.
However, the city of Charleston is deeply connected to slavery. I discovered as I explored the city, listened during historic tours and talked to the people of Charleston that this city does not shy away from its complex history. Rather, they’ve expanded their history, instead of hiding it, glorifying it or ignoring it, which is something I appreciate. Charlestonians tell their stories and make sure all of the past is talked about openly.
I decided not to shy away from Charleston’s history either. My first plantation choice was no longer reachable by tour bus. And while that one seemed like a “safer” choice, I chose another plantation, feeling a strange draw to that one for reasons I did not understand at the time.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens History
The plantation dates back to 1676, when Thomas and Ann Fox Drayton built the house and a small formal garden on almost 1900 acres along the Ashley River. During the Colonial Era, the plantation thrived, growing and accumulating wealth due to the cultivation of rice by enslaved people brought in from Barbados in the 1670s.
In 1825, upon the death of the great grandson of the first Drayton, the plantation passed to his daughter’s sons, Thomas and John Grimke. As there were no male heirs, the stipulation was that the grandsons must assume the last name of Drayton.
The elder brother Thomas died tragically a short time later on the steps of the plantation house, from a gunshot wound while hunting. Younger brother John, an Episcopal minister, unexpectedly found himself the owner of Magnolia Plantation at the young age of 22.
The Creation of the Magnolia Gardens
It was John Grimke Drayton that created the informal romantic gardens at Magnolia. His young wife, whom he met and married while attending seminary in New York, grew up in Philadelphia. John hoped the gardens would make Julia feel more at home in South Carolina.
The stress of managing the plantation and pastoring a congregation in a nearby church led to John developing tuberculosis. Working in the gardens, expanding them and tending to the plants, became John’s therapy. And it appeared that he responded well to being outdoors. Until his death, 50 years later, John devoted himself to creating an earthly paradise for his wife.
Surviving the Civil War
The first and second plantation houses burned, the first time due to an accidental fire and the second time, during the Civil War. Like the rest of the plantation owners in the Lowcountry, John emerged from the war low on funds and with many repairs to make. The rice cultivation stopped. Some of the former enslaved chose to stay on the plantation as free people, working in the gardens for a good wage, and continuing to live in cabins on the property.
To raise funds, John sold off most of the acreage, retaining 390 acres. And in 1870 Magnolia Plantation and Gardens opened to the public, receiving visitors as a way to restore and preserve the historic property.
John Grimke Drayton died in 1890, leaving Magnolia to his daughter, Julia Drayton Hastie. The estate remains in the Drayton Family, 15 generations of descendants from the first owner, Thomas Drayton. It is currently managed by a board of directors that includes members of the Drayton/Hastie family.
The Magnolia Gardens
Our tour began in the magnificent Magnolia Gardens.
Included in these wild gardens are the Barbados Tropical Garden and the shrub maze based on England’s famous Hampton Court Maze. The Eden like gardens draw visitors from around the world.
John Drayton’s legacy here are the azaleas that bloom in the spring. He introduced these flowering shrubs to the United States. His camellia gardens were celebrated by horticulturalists as pioneering.
Although the gardens are most spectacular in spring, plants bloom year around, offering beauty to visitors who wander the extensive paths.
I could have spent the whole day walking in these gardens.
Magnolia Plantation Swamp and Marshes
The Audubon Swamp at Magnolia Plantation originally served as a basin to store freshwater to flood the rice fields. Today the swamp occupies about 60 acres of the plantation. Cypress and Tupelo trees stand in the water, providing homes for waterfowl and wildlife, including alligators.
This section of the plantation requires an extra fee to enter. While I was there, they were working in that area and the swamp was closed to visitors. My tour group rode a tram through the marshes and we got a peek into the swamp. To my surprise, I found the swamp beautiful, with its green water and abundance of flora and wildlife.
This swamp served as the inspiration for Shrek’s home, in the animated film.
The 45 minute tram ride takes visitors through the surrounding woods and along the river, lakes and marshes, for a interesting look at the natural beauty found in the wetlands. The knowledgeable tour guide, who also drives the tram, shares history about the plantation as well.
We drove by the former slave cabins, fully restored, that are now part of the Freedom Tour.
And we saw egrets, herons and a large owl, along with turtles and alligators who seemed to enjoy the gentle rain.
Visitors can choose to walk in these areas too, along paved paths that hug the marshlands. Although our guide assured us there has never been an alligator attack on plantation grounds, he advised us to remain alert and aware.
The Magnolia Plantation House
After a quick lunch at the onsite cafe, my group gathered on the large covered veranda at the plantation house. Our guide informed us that no photos are allowed inside, due to the age of many of the furnishings and art pieces.
Ten rooms are open to the public in the plantation house. The family no longer resides here, living instead in houses built a short distance away. The current house, built in 1870 after fire destroyed the second home, features Doric columns, a gabled roof and dormers and a two story stucco tower.
The 30 to 45 minute house tour includes history about the Drayton Family and plantation life. Each room features early American antiques, art, porcelain, quilts and family heirlooms.
I enjoyed the quiet beauty of the house. It was not difficult to close my eyes and imagine a different world that changed through necessity and then through intention.
The Grimke Sisters
John Grimke Drayton’s aunts, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, born in 1792 and 1805 respectively, abhorred slavery. The sisters spent their adult lives as activists for abolition and for women’s rights.
Outcasts in the south, they moved to Philadelphia where they continued to fight for social justice until their deaths.
I also learned that the Draytons treated their enslaved people better than most, caring for them and providing education for the children even though it was illegal to do so. While that does not make enslaving others acceptable in any way, I’d rather hear that people were cared for than the opposite.
And finally, our guide shared that all descendants of Magnolia’s enslaved and freed people are welcome to work for above average wages and live free of charge at Magnolia (not in the former cabins). There are typically eight to ten or more descendants living on the property, working in the gardens or as tour guides.
I’m Glad I Visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
The night before my scheduled tour of Magnolia Plantation, I slept fitfully, feeling restless and unsure about my decision to visit the plantation and also the Slave Mart Museum.
But I wondered if my reluctance to visit was a way of keeping my eyes averted…of refusing to look at the issue of slavery head on?
As I dozed in that alpha state, between being fully awake and fully asleep, I had a visitor. It’s common for me to see spirits while in this state. This night, a very old woman approached me. She appeared as a Gullah woman, descended from enslaved West Africans, her gray hair long and curly, and wearing beads around her thin neck.
She put her face very close to mine, peering deeply into my eyes. Although she didn’t speak, she slowly smiled at me…and then faded away. I didn’t sleep much after that, but I determined to visit both the plantation and the museum, encouraged by the intensity in the Gullah woman’s eyes and her smile. It was the right decision and, as it turned out, the right plantation to visit.
Finding Who I am in Charleston
I’m grateful that I toured both places. I have African heritage, according to my Ancestry DNA results…from Nigeria in West Africa. I don’t know anything about my ancestor. However it is very possible that he or she passed through Charleston.
I appreciate that Magnolia Plantation and Charleston recognize the importance of acknowledging the crucial role enslaved people played in Lowcountry history. It’s important to me to hear their stories and to remember and honor those who labored in the houses and fields in this area.
I no longer fear what I will feel. What I experience is as complicated as the history in the south and that’s okay. I want to know all that I can and someday perhaps I’ll find a clue that leads me to my ancestor.
It’s even possible that I met her, in that space between worlds, and she smiled at me.
Learn more about Magnolia Plantation HERE.
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