Let us start by saying that the decision to visit a plantation as part of our Southern Road Trip was not made lightly. We did not want to visit a place that did not acknowledge the history that played out there.
While researching plantations in Charleston, Chuck found a man named Joseph McGill, a black man who is the founder of the ‘Slave Dwelling Project.’ He sleeps in slave quarters, all over the eastern seaboard, where enslaved people had lived.
Digging a little deeper, we learned that he also speaks at the Magnolia Plantation. So, based on this research, we decided to visit. We felt that if he was comfortable working there, there must be some good coming from it.
Acknowledging Magnolia’s Role in History
Magnolia recognizes the importance of acknowledging the vital role of enslaved people in Lowcountry history. No visit to Magnolia can be complete without understanding the families who have lived here—first as enslaved workers and then as paid garden staff—throughout Magnolia’s 350-year history. By addressing this often overlooked part of the narrative, we seek to honor and remember the men, women, and children who designed, planted, and worked in the gardens, built and maintained the bridges, and labored in the house and the rice fields while enslaved.
The plantation was founded in 1676 by Thomas Drayton and his wife, Ana. They arrived in the colonies from the island of Barbados and made their fortune growing rice in the swampy area on their land. The plantation survived the American Revolution and then the Civil War and, to this day, continues to be owned by the Drayton family. In recent years, the younger family members had pushed to have the plantation own up to what had occurred there and find some way to tell the story of the enslaved people who had lived there.
Visiting Magnolia Plantation
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
3550 Ashley River Road
Charleston, SC 29414
When we arrived, we had a few options of what tour(s) we would like to take:
General Admission: $29.00, which included the Slavery to Freedom Tour
Historic House Tour: $10.00
Nature Tram: $10.00
Audubon Swamp: $10.00
We stuck with the General admission and added on the Nature tram. Opting not to tour the plantation house, we didn’t need to see it. Especially knowing the polarity of the living environments. When you purchase your tickets, you need to reserve your space on the tour at the ticket office. We opted to do the Slavery to Freedom tour first, then we toured the gardens, and then we did the nature tour after the gardens.
Slavery To Freedom Tour
We hopped on the tram, which was the beginning of the Slavery to Freedom tour, and were taken to buildings where the enslaved people lived. When the gentleman introduced himself, I was thrilled to hear him say he was Joseph McGill. There were other tour guides, and we were fortunate to have him as our guide. As we said earlier, he was the main reason we chose to visit. He has spent over 50 nights in slave dwellings in 25 states and the District of Columbia.
We encourage you to learn more about Joseph McGill and The Slave Dwelling Project.
Now that I have the attention of the public by sleeping in extant slave dwellings, it is time to wake up and deliver the message that the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history. – Joseph McGill, Founder of the Slave Dwelling Project
There is no sugar coating what we saw and heard. The enslaved people who lived at Magnolia Plantation did not have it any easier than at other plantations. There is no such thing as a “good” slave owner. They were treated like every other enslaved person. They were owned, sold, and considered to be chattel.
The tour included a frank discussion about life at Magnolia Plantation, time to ask questions, and the opportunity to visit several buildings.
Chuck asked about how many enslaved people had lived here and how many had died here, but they didn’t keep good records back then, so there was no way of knowing, but Joseph did say they probably had 50 enslaved people living there at any given time.
Houses were built as one-room duplexes, with a family on each side, and quite often, there would be over ten people living in one room. They were cramped, made of spare wood, and didn’t offer much protection from the elements.
The buildings showed homes during the 1850s during enslavement, the 1870s following Emancipation, the 1920s during the Jim Crow era, and the 1960s through the Civil Rights Movement.
After the Civil War, many enslaved people continued to live at Magnolia Plantation as there were few other options. Many worked as caretakers of the gardens and served as tour guides. We were surprised to learn that several cabins continued to be inhabited as late as the 1970s.
We’re really glad we made the decision to visit Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, largely because of the research Chuck did, and the work of the Slave Dwelling Project. Our suggestion is to do your own research and be sure to visit plantations that are making an attempt to tell their whole story.