Calling Them by Name: The Story of Freed Slaves' Transition to Freedom

The blistering sun and thick humid air hung over the sea island cotton fields as Pompey worked through the back breaking and tedious process of cultivating crops. The physical discomfort did little to discourage him. For the first time he was growing his own cotton, on his own land. People like Pompey Dawson, who became one of the leading cultivators of sea island cotton on James Island, and Isabella Pinckney, who became an entrepreneur, transitioned from property of William Wallace McLeod to citizen following emancipation.

Right after the Civil War, African Americans were given opportunity to rent land, sharecrop or work for wages. These contracts were often not fair to the freed person, and some were written to be nearly as restrictive as slavery. About 44 people received up to 40 acres of land at McLeod Plantation. Shortly after, the law was retracted and the land was returned to the original owner.

These stories of the struggle for freedom are front and center at McLeod Plantation Historic Site on James Island, owned by the Charleston County Parks & Recreation Commission. The site stands out in such a historic city by telling an inclusive story and helping visitors gain a different perspective from which to consider southern plantations. It is history - not plantation or African American history, but our collective history.

The institution of slavery sought to diminish the humanity and dignity of enslaved people. However, many endured the depraved conditions and lived life in ways difficult to imagine. Millions today are nameless, fewer are named with little idea of who they were beyond a price or listed skill. Many seem faceless.

 

 

However, when the details are viewed through a new lens, a more complete person comes into focus. For example, Charles is revealed, in documents haggling over his value in death and written by owner William Wallace McLeod, to be a man of pride, responsibility and courage – not just a woodcutter for whom McLeod wants $2000 in compensation.

Charles never did experience being a freed man, He was simply thought of as livestock and his owners were compensated $2,000 for the loss of his life. His story was like so many long forgotten and never recognized for their extraordinary contributions, resilience and courage.

“We try to emphasize these were real people, human beings who were victims of the inhumane practice of slavery,” says Gina Ellis-Strother, director of marketing at Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission. “We talk about them with names and real stories that show the human side of this inhumane practice. Our hope is that by emphasizing their humanity we can grow to understand some of the difficulties that we experience today in terms of race relations.”

To assist with the transition and help the freed people become self-sufficient, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established with an office at McLeod Plantation. The bureau was tasked with assisting people in getting marriage licenses, reuniting families and providing education.

“We expanded the discussion beyond slavery and into what happened after the emancipation,” says Ellis-Strother “The realization that you are actually a free person is probably something we will never truly understand in our lifetime,” says Ellis-Strother.

McLeod Plantation Historic Site opened to the public in 2015. Experience the site through guided and self-guided tours that detail the struggles for freedom and justice by the people who lived and worked on the property.

To learn more about McLeod Plantation Historic Site, visit CharlestonCountyParks.com. The site is located at 325 Country Club Drive, Charleston, SC 29412 and is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.

Tours are at 10:00, 11:30, 1:30, and 3:00

 

Sponsored by: Charleston County Park & Recreation