Oral history helps recover past at SC plantation
CHARLESTON — When historians from across South Carolina gather today for a preservation conference, one thing they will discuss is recovering the history of communities that no longer exist.
“That question resonates for any community that is gone,” said George McDaniel, executive director at Drayton Hall, the 17th Century plantation home on the banks of the Ashley River outside Charleston. “How do you research and tell the story of a community that has vanished from the landscape?”
In the case of Drayton, beyond a chimney in the overgrown woods there’s little evidence of the community of blacks at the former plantation after the Civil War. But researchers have relied on oral histories of the descendants of those who lived there to mark a road map for reclaiming that history.
There will be two panels on the topic during the South Carolina Historic Preservation Conference at the South Carolina Archives and History Center in Columbia. The conference will also deal with other issues, from underwater archaeology and documenting South Carolina’s vanishing country stores to maintaining historic buildings and preserving the historic bridges.
The sessions concerning Drayton, a site that’s part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It involves the history of blacks there after the Civil War and building a rapport between the site and descendants, both white and black, of those who once lived there. A number of those descendants will speak Tuesday.
Having a place to return to like Drayton Hall – the same as D-Day veterans might return to Omaha Beach in France – helps to preserve stories passed down across the generations.
“This is a place where their ancestors walked. You’re not just in a museum looking at artifacts in a case,” McDaniel said.
A man named Richmond Bowens was born at Drayton in 1908 and died in 1998. Three years before his death he collected his recollections in a book titled “Will-o’-the-Wisp.” As importantly, he passed down what researchers at Drayton call a “memory map” – a map from memory of where the houses of blacks once stood and who lived in them. entitled
That helped Toni Carrier of Lowcountry Africana, a group working to document the histories of black families along the South Carolina coast, to research who lived there.
“It’s all grounded in the place of Drayton Hall and it can serve as a model for what other historic sites can do,” McDaniel said. “Certainly some are doing it and we’re not the only one. But it helps build momentum for using place to research and tell the story of the past.”