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Did You Know? . . . Middleton Plantation

“The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never be plucked up out of the land l have given them, says the Lord your God.” Amos 9: 13-15 (abbreviated)

Before the 1990’s the connotation of the word plantation may have conjured up visions of Spanish moss hanging over branches of oak trees, Southern women presiding over their antebellum mansions, and Black folk strumming their tunes. But in the late 1990s a distaste for the word plantation began to take hold in the South. As Hilton Head Island began to boom with an influx of northerners, people questioned using the word plantation, which they associated with slaves suffering brutality, forced labor, and a denial of their human rights. Also, Black people themselves, who had lived for decades in Hilton Head, began to honor and share their Gullah culture more widely. They gently pushed for absence of the word plantation found on most gated-community signage. Moss Creek Plantation in Bluffton, SC, became Moss Creek, and Middleton Plantation in Charleston, SC, was renamed Middleton Place.

For hundreds of years the slave trade had boomed in the area. Henry Middleton, governor of South Carolina in the mid 1700s, owned twenty-five plantations where he perfected rice growing in the Lowlands. “His slaves labored to provide the revenue to let the plantation survive for hundreds of years,” said Nancy Moser, author of The Slaves of Middleton Place. Twenty years ago, I visited Middleton Place. I bought a ticket for the tour of the home and gardens, led by a costumed guide. She began, “Middleton’s
acres supported 3,500 slaves.” I raised my hand and the guide nodded. I asked, “Did you mean to say that 3,500 slaves labored to support Middleton Plantation?” She kept her eye on me for the duration of the tour.

Any success in farming cotton, tobacco, or rice on thousands of acres would require free labor. For hundreds of years this necessitated a convenient false belief that slaves were a category below human. Slave markets took center stage in major cities in the South. A plantation owner could wager his produce for a human being. As abhorrent as enslaving a human being is, it became rational to plantation owners who became richer and richer. They placed their agricultural success on the backs of slaves. Slaves had no inheritance, no dowry, apprenticeships, nor family name or legacy. (Harvard Business School, May 2020, study by Janice Hammond, A. Kamau Massey, Mayra A. Garza.)
At Middleton Plantation, post-Civil War, slaves, and their families, continued to live nearby. Freemen came back to rebuild and work the rice terraces after Union soldiers burned down Middleton Plantation. Post-war plantation owners could offer former slaves shares in the work and meager profit. However, sharecropping entailed expenses, mostly over and above what freed slaves earned. For hundreds of years here in the US, a slave’s inequality and inequity resulted from a deliberate intent to keep them illiterate, poor, powerless and dependent.