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CHARLESTON, S.C. - Robert Bellinger was driving down Ashley River Road in Charleston, S.C., enjoying the landscape of live oak trees and Spanish moss, when it dawned on him exactly where he was headed and why.
"It just hit me," Bellinger recalled of his drive in November 2016. "I thought, 'I'm headed to a family reunion on a plantation where my ancestors were enslaved.'"
Bellinger, a historian and researcher from Boston, was on his way to Middleton Place, a former rice plantation in the Ashley River Historic Corridor. Today, Middleton Place is a national historic landmark and museum, and it is home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States.
Bellinger learned about his family's connection to Middleton Place decades before deciding to make the trip. In 1983, his cousin Mamie Garvin Fields, then 90 years old, published "Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir," which recounts the family's generational connections to the low country, including stories about Fields' enslaved grandfather. His own family research helped Bellinger find ancestors at Middleton dating back to 1790.
He also learned that Middleton Place hosted descendant reunions every few years, gathering both Black and White descendants for a weekend of on-site research presentations, history lectures and informal dialogues. With some trepidation, he decided to attend.
"Just three days before, we had a presidential election, the results of which I was not too crazy about," Bellinger said. "I was saying to myself, now why am I heading to a plantation in this climate?"
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The past two decades have seen a shift among plantation museums across the south. Previously, the majority of tours focused on the architecture of the main house, the landscapes and the economics of slavery. But today, a growing number of these sites are making efforts to confront slavery head-on, emphasizing the narratives of the enslaved and often requesting the help of their descendants.
At Middleton Place, it began with Earl Middleton, a noted civil rights leader and Tuskegee Airman from Orangeburg, S.C., who in 1997 became the first Black descendant asked to join Middleton Place's board of trustees. Earl Middleton's grandfather, Abram, was enslaved there until the end of the Civil War. After emancipation, newly freed Black families needed a surname to be counted as citizens by the government; some families adopted the surname of their former masters, making today's search for descendants easier for historians.
Middleton Place had previously hosted two reunions for White descendants, and in 2001, Earl Middleton was integral in the board's decision to find and invite Black descendants as well.
"When a plantation comes to a Black family, there's often suspicion, rightfully so," said Tracey Todd, president and CEO of the Middleton Place Foundation. "But with the help of Dr. Earl Middleton acting as a liaison, as well as our continued genealogy research, we had a turnout of about 350 people at that first combined reunion in 2006."
According to Todd, who is the first person outside the family to lead Middleton, about 30% of the descendants at the reunion were Black, and the event was "a little tense at times." Ty Collins, one of the Black Middleton descendants who attended the first combined reunion, agreed.
"At first, it was a warm and fuzzy kumbaya, I'll-be-glad-when-this-is-all-over kind of moment," Collins joked. "I don't know what our expectations were going into it, but it has resulted in a lot of communication between family members over the years."
Collins is a former English and theater professor who, after attending the reunion, began to volunteer at Middleton Place, giving tours and even performing dramatic interpretations of the daily lives of his ancestors. He is preparing to launch the African Heritage Seed Project, which includes researching and cultivating seeds of African origins on site.
Earl Middleton died the following year in 2007, though the combined reunions continued in 2011 and 2016, the year his cousin Bellinger arrived on his first visit to Middleton.
Since that first visit in 2016, Bellinger has remained involved at Middleton Place, acting as the site's scholar-in-residence in 2019.
Collins and Bellinger said they agreed that being able to identify the soil their ancestors worked on is heavy but necessary knowledge to have. "I guess the word that would come up is 'bittersweet,'" Bellinger said. "You know where they were and you know the conditions they were in, but now you also have the opportunity to know their names and celebrate their successes."
"We see Middleton very differently than many other people of color do, because these are our ancestors. We have a right and a specific need to acknowledge their presence," Collins said.
Recently while giving a tour of Eliza's House, a renovated slave cabin at Middleton Place, Collins greeted a Black couple in the home - and made a surprise family connection.
Vincent and Dorothy White, visiting from Athens, Ga., had never been to Middleton Place before; they decided to pull over because they have Middletons in their family from South Carolina.
"One of [Vincent's] cousins married a Kenneth Middleton family, so we got curious . . . And then we found Earl Middleton in this book," said Dorothy White, referencing a book about slavery at Middleton.
"That's his cousin!," she said, pointing at her husband.
Vincent White nodded, "I have pictures of me, Earl and Kenny from back in the day!"
Collins was delighted. "That makes us cousins, too," he said. "Dr. Middleton is still bringing us together."
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Magnolia Plantation, another former rice plantation near the Ashley River, has been owned by the Drayton family since 1676. Black people have lived and worked at Magnolia throughout its 350-year history, first as enslaved workers and then, after emancipation, as paid garden staff.
In 2008, Taylor Drayton Nelson, then CEO of Magnolia, partnered with genealogist and anthropologist Toni Carrier to launch Lowcountry Africana, an online database that has since helped thousands of people learn about their enslaved ancestors at Drayton Hall and Magnolia Plantation, including comedian Chris Rock and former first lady Michelle Obama.
"For White Americans, genealogy is primarily a hobby. It's a leisure pursuit," said Carrier, now director of the Center for Family History at the International African American Museum. "But for African Americans, it's much deeper than that. It's a yearning to know who came before you."
Using 10,000 pages of historical documents and oral histories, researchers uncovered an initial 1,568 names of the enslaved and their family members. An ad Nelson placed in Charleston's Post and Courier newspaper helped locate Susan Weston Bennett, the granddaughter of Adam Bennett, the later-freed enslaved overseer at Magnolia Plantation.
Bennett descendants continue to visit Magnolia, even getting married on the crest of the plantation's White Bridge. Susan Weston Bennett, who died in 2016, celebrated her 90th birthday at Magnolia in 2006.
When the remaining Bennett family left Magnolia in the 1930s, another Black family, the Leaches, came to live and work in the gardens.
"Rev. Willie Leach worked as gardens superintendent alongside my grandfather," Moore said. "His son Johnnie Leach worked as the gardens superintendent alongside my brother for several years after my grandfather's death."
Until 1969, Johnnie Leach lived with his family in one of the five slave cabins at Magnolia, situated in a row commonly referred to as "The Street." At the time, the cabins had been updated with electricity, but the Leach family still used an outhouse and a gas stove. Years later, running water was added, but in 2008, each cabin was restored to demonstrate the historic building materials and living conditions as part of the "Slavery to Freedom" tour.
Two of Johnnie Leach's sons, Isaac and Ted, who work at Magnolia, say they remember their childhood there fondly.
"Growing up here, sometimes my friends [would ask] 'Damn, you actually live there?'," said Ted Leach, who at 54 is the youngest of Johnnie's 16 children. "We can't forget what happened with slavery, of course, but for us, this place was just home. My dad worked here for about 70 years."
"Our grandfather [Willie Leach] was a botanist and he grafted camellias here for years," said Isaac Leach. "This place will continue to change hands in the family and each person will have their ideas about how to run it, but what I see is African Americans doing this propagation and tending to the landscape. I'm looking at what our folks have done to this land and what they put into it."
Both Isaac and his grandfather Willie have camellias named after them and registered with the American Camellias Society.
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Growing up on James Island from the 1970s to '80s, Kerri Forrest passed McLeod Plantation every day.
"We'd drive by and someone would say 'Your grandfather used to live there,' " said Forrest of the slave cabins on Folly Road. "According to my dad and my aunts, my grandfather Coleman was the gravedigger there and was supposedly the last person buried in the graveyard."
She also learned that not only was her great-grandfather Stephen Forrest enslaved at McLeod, but also he was left in charge of the plantation when owner William W. McLeod served in the Civil War.
"It was always just part of the family story," Forrest said. "Unfortunately, my grandfather was already dead by the time I was born, and my grandmother passed away before I was 10 years old. I've had these stories all my life, even though I didn't have people to necessarily connect them to."
Established in 1851, McLeod was known for producing sea island cotton, a rare and expensive strain unique to the Lowcountry and tended to by enslaved workers from West and Central Africa. The home was occupied by the McLeod family until 1990, and the site changed ownership several times before ultimately being sold to the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission in 2011. As the park system prepared to restore the site and open it to the public, Forrest's family stories became especially relevant.
"At the time, they were getting [McLeod] ready to turn it into an open park site," Forrest said. "I mentioned my great-grandfather was the slave who held it down when McLeod went to war. That's when we started talking about my family tree and how many of the older family members were still alive."
From there, more puzzle pieces started to fall into place, including a photo of Forrest's great-grandmother Harriet found by the South Carolina Historical Society; the picture shows her sitting on a stoop and smoking a cigar. Forrest said she appreciates how the research has reframed her perspective.
"Growing up, you didn't want to talk about your enslaved ancestors because the assumed narrative was that they were just labor, they weren't actually smart and they had no skills," Forrest said. "But truly, these enslaved Africans brought skills that they used to build the city and to create an economic engine."
Forrest spoke about her family connections to McLeod at the site's opening in 2015 and has since stayed in touch. As director of Lowcountry programs at the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, she hopes to partner with McLeod in the future and support their efforts to tell complete narratives.
According to Shawn Halifax, the cultural history interpretation coordinator at McLeod Plantation, the work to engage descendants of McLeod is an ongoing process meant to recover history that was once intentionally hidden.
"Traditionally speaking, sites of slavery have engaged in efforts to misrepresent, ignore, even at times, annihilate the history of the majority of the people that occupied these spaces," said Halifax. "Subsequently the stories and the narratives that have been crafted traditionally at places like this have been crafted by folks that have been actively engaged in that work. Engaging descended communities is a way for people to take back their history. "
McLeod continues to research using not only the oral histories from local families, but also the cemetery on-site.
"Archaeologists that have studied [the cemetery] said that it was used as early as the American Revolution all the way until 1965," Halifax said. "Not everyone that's buried has a direct connection to the site, but the names of people that are descended from here are ones that we continue to try to uncover and research."
As a direct descendant, Forrest looks forward to engaging in conversations about the future of the cemetery.
"There's been a lot of conversation in Charleston lately about those burial grounds," she said. "With all of the development pressure going on in Charleston right now, you're seeing so many burial sites being desecrated for development. I hope we're able to actually honor the lives of those who have been laid to rest there."