Since we had the car in Charleston we wanted to make maximum use of it so we looked at the various plantation tours and decided on Drayton Hall, the oldest unrestored plantation house and grounds open to the public. It is on the Ashley River in a lovely setting surrounded by live oaks, formerly fantastic Victorian gardens and a reflecting pond built by slaves (of course) from a diverted stream on the property. A slave cemetery is on the grounds. During the tour, which wasn’t crowded, the guide referred to the slaves as enslaved African Americans. Hah! It may sound more gentle or correct but does not take away from the miserable lives those people had. Some people cite the fact that the slaves sang in the fields so they must be happy. A former slave set the record straight: “They sang because they was unhappy and nuthin’ else to lift their soul.”
Built in the 1740s by slaves, naturally, Drayton Hall is a prime example of Georgian Palladian architecture, a careful copy of the popular styled English houses of that period by John Drayon. The main house was originally abutted by two “flankers” connected by a curved portico walkway. The flankers are no longer there nor do any of the slave quarters remain. A privy house sits about 100 yards from the main house, one of two small 18th century buildings remaining on the grounds. Beyond the house toward the river there was a garden house designed for propagating plants and entertaining. The gardens are no longer kept, unfortunately; I can imagine they were fantastic. All tended by slaves.
The symmetrical grand staircase and a detail of the mahogany carvings
The back slave staircase was narrow and winding. No grand entrances here.
Which makes me wonder: What did these people DO all day long? They didn’t cook, clean, take care of their own children, dress themselves, tend the fire, work or exert themselves in any way. The men, I assume, rode around checking on the work and the property; Drayton Hall consisted of 76,000 acres of rice and indigo plants. They reportedly had over a thousand slaves so I suppose that took quite a bit of oversight. Many of those who ended up as slaves came to the country as indentured servants and worked to pay for their travel until the Dred Scott Decision where all indentured servants became personal property. What an abomination! Shouldn’t be surprised after how we treated the Native Americans.
I imagine the women ran the household and directed the inside slaves, arranged menus, socialized and played cards, had tea and napped? Unless a woman developed a painting or drawing hobby I cannot imagine how they filled their days. Some may have ridden horseback or taken carriage rides with everything prepped by slaves. I would go stark raving mad. Maybe there was a lot of day drinking going on.
The presence of slaves would be hard to get used to; it would be weird having other people around all the time, especially people you did’t even consider human, just expendable property. I have read extensively about slavery and the Civil War and the slaves did not have an easy life, even on the best of plantations. Families were separated on a regular basis. Whippings were common. The work was backbreaking. John Drayton’s wife was given a slave for their marriage present; who knows what wretched circumstances she had to go through to become a gift. Shameful.
And the clothes they had to wear in the South Carolina heat and humidity! Corsets, layers of petticoats and outer skirts and bonnets. Long sleeves. And they changed several times a day. I guess that kept them busy. The day we were there it was extremely hot and humid and we got a good look at what they had to deal with. No air conditioning or fans even. Maybe the slaves fanned them. Again, what a terrible deal for the slaves. Better than picking cotton maybe.
Anyway, the house was interesting and much of the original woodwork remains, including the mahogany staircases and ornamented banisters. They imported mahogany and other exotic woods and then painted them! Yellow ocher, no less, for the original color. The greenish color of the interior now was painted in the 1880s. Some of the ornate plaster ceilings remain but many were damaged by the leaky roof.
One of the remaining plaster ceilings, not the most ornate.
There is a basement which is unusual in the area. The house slaves lived there and cooked in the big fireplace. I bet it got blazing hot during the summer.
Once we toured the house and walked along the river garden, we went to the African American cemetery. Many grave markers are missing but a few remain. Black people continue to be buried here. It is far from the main house and unattended. As the black caretaker said, “Leave “Em Rest.