For research purposes, I decided I needed an immersive experience on an American chattel slavery plantation. My third plantation this year, I realized the only way I could have an intimate experience, absorb details, and listen to the story the land had to tell was to stay. Thank God for adventurous travel partners! Plantation tourism is a baffling concept, but we will get to that in a bit.
Middleton plantation is scenic, historic, and poignant. Known widely as Middleton Place the National Historic Landmark boasts being America’s Oldest Landscaped Garden. The gardens were constructed by the hands of the enslaved at the direction of a French landscape architect. The plantation, house museum, restaurant, and stable yards are absolutely picturesque. Even in the rain, the beauty of the rice fields and chapel shine through, butterfly wing-shaped lakes can be seen from space.
Henry Middleton (1717-1784) inherited the land that became Middleton Place as part of his wife’s dowry. The formal gardens date back to 1741 and are absolutely breathtaking. Middleton was used largely for entertaining, although rice was cultivated on the land. The ingenuity and craftsmanship of those enslaved under the chattel system is without comparison. Their work remains and speaking for itself in the meticulous cornerstones and ornate carvings. Henry owned twenty other working plantations equaling out to more than 75,000 acres, worked for free by more than 800 slaves at any given time. It is said that Henry owned up to 5,000 slaves over his lifetime. Middleton’s wealth was in access of $1.5 billion dollars in the money of his day. The Middleton’s enjoyed lavish wealth.
Middleton was a space of lavish entertainment. All that free labor landed Henry a sweet life. Despite their Bill Gates money, and the otherworldly beauty surrounding them, these planters lived in fear of revolt from those providing them free labor. They wrote about these sentiments in their journals. Middleton plantation has remained amongst Henry’s posterity ever since.
Middleton Place has observed history. These historic grounds bore witness to Henry Middleton being part of the continental congress, his son signing the constitution, and his grandson becoming the 43rd governor of South Carolina. During the Civil War, Union troops burned their way up the river. Several of the buildings on the plantation are in ruins from the war.
Over the generations, the Middleton plantation has undergone changes. In 1850, a billiard’s room was built over the well, it was quickly transitioned into a more meaningful space based on the needs of the moment, a chapel. So much occurred on this land and the story continues.
Members of the enslaved communities on this property remained until the 1960s. The stolen Africans enslaved at Middleton and surrounding plantations cultivated rice, livestock, maintained the ornate gardens and so more.
This brings me to one of the elements of this experience that stands out the most. The fact that the Middleton family continues to generate revenue from the plantation built using slave labor is a reflection of the generational wealth gap that continues to plague our American society. Forming a non-profit in the 1970s and later building the Middleton Inn, Middleton Place is a prime example of how the planter’s posterity continues to profit from slavery, while the ancestors of the enslaved are left with nothing.
With weddings starting at $8,500 the Middleton Foundation continues to thrive on the impressive land sewn by the enslaved. One tour guide mentioned ancestors of the enslaved returned on Juneteenth to present and share their history. Unfortunately, this insight was not accessible past the holiday of African American liberation. I would have loved to learn the perspective of the ancestors of the enslaved. It would be an appropriate tribute to the souls who toiled under the control of the Middleton ancestry to include these stories and compensate those who are bravely telling them.
An additional element that could not be overlooked was the ethnic makeup of the tour guides. During my time at Middleton Place, not a single person of color worked in the capacity of tour guide. There were Black people cleaning and fulfilling other roles, but none front-facing and none sharing the experience of the enslaved.
All things considered, we had a beautiful experience at Middleton Place. I just couldn’t shake knowing the trauma people who looked like me faced daily on the very land I stood. There were some beautiful sentiments as well, I felt a sense of appreciation and even the spirit of trailblazing. We saw one other Black family during our stay. Not many Black people would visit or, let alone stay on a plantation. The Get Out jokes and references from my friends were plentiful. At the end of the day, this was an experience that was essential to me because I was in search of an understanding. It felt a bit pioneering.
Plantation tourism is a lucrative industry and an outgrowth of American Chattel slavery. This necessary evil has a place in our society however there is more than one side to the story, and it is altogether inappropriate for only one side to profit off this industry.
To be continued ….