Different views of one of the out buildings.
No indoor plumbing for the McLeod family. This is an outhouse.
These former slave quarters were modernized and lived in by the descendants of McLeod Plantation's slaves.
Slaves who cooked the McLeod’s meals worked the kitchen, which was an out building far enough from the main house that if it burned it wouldn’t take everything else with it. Despite a proximity to such an abundance of food, slaves received very little of it. The Gullah slaves on the planation ate the stuff their masters wouldn’t, which is why neck bones, chitlins (made from intestines), and pigs’ feet became a part of their diet, as did red rice, black-eyed peas, and okra. To taste traditional Gullah fair, our guide, Olivia Williams, recommended eating at Hannibal’s Kitchen in downtown Charleston, or Gillie’s Seafood on James Island. We visited the latter, and although I despise seafood, Gillie’s had plenty of other fare and I got some excellent baked chicken smothered in barbeque sauce.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, sea island cotton was the most desirable type in the world, but getting the seeds out of it was exceedingly time consuming, limiting its value. Then came the cotton gin that automatically separated out the seeds, increasing this type of cotton’s value exponentially because it could now be produced in large quantities. Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin but it’s possible the idea either originated with Catherine Greene, widow of Revolutionary hero Nathaniel Green, or a slave named Sam. The McLeod Plantation’s original gin house is still on the grounds, although you can’t go inside it.
Everything changed for both masters and slaves when South Carolina seceded from the United States followed by ten other slave states. They had one reason for this and one only: to preserve slavery. It was only after the Civil War ended that Confederate survivors decided to rewrite history and developed the Lost Cause mythology. James Island quickly became a keystone to the defense of Charleston with McLeod Plantation, hidden from passing Union vessels and close to railroad supply lines, being one of its linchpins. In 1862 General States Rights Gist (that’s really his name) evacuated all civilians from James Island including the McLeod family. In 1863 he made the family’s plantation his headquarters.
One of the regiments that paraded through Charleston after Union forces occupied it was the all-black 55th Massachusetts (led, alas, but white officers—no one in the U.S. Army was enlightened enough to put African Americans in charge). The 55th settled on James Island and made McLeod Planation its headquarters. One of its privates, George Smothers, left his autograph on a third floor wall.
As the war came to a close, thousands of ex-slaves flooded James Island, leading to a humanitarian crisis. Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman, and Abandoned Lands to help deal with it. James Island was divvied up in parcels given to these former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau, as it became known, was tasked with establishing schools, helping to foster labor contracts, and taking care of the health of these new settlers. The Bureau set up its headquarters at McLeod Plantation. Then came a smallpox epidemic from Fall 1865 through Winter 1866 that reduced the total number of refugees from about 4,000 to 2,100. Unfortunately for the survivors, the island’s previous planation owners managed to get the government to give them their land back, ending this localized forty acres and a mule enterprise.
William McLeod II and other planters on the island returned to growing sea island cotton to restore their former prestige if not wealth. Jim Crow laws allowed them to exploit those African Americans who hadn’t left the island. William II’s son, William E. McLeod (born in 1885), had to abandon sea island cotton when the boll weevil decimated that crop. He replaced it with vegetable gardens and selling or renting parts of his land to others. Six former slave houses were moved closer to the main house, made more habitable with the addition of things such as wooden floors, and in the 1940s William E. rented them to descendants of the plantation’s original slaves for a mere $27 a month. Upon his death in 1990, the plantation’s new caretaker, Charleston County Parks, evicted them, one last indignity for the generations of African Americans who lived here.
In 1939 Gone with the Wind, the highest grossing movie in U.S. history (when adjusted for inflation), came out. This presented William E. and other plantation owners with an opportunity. The movie’s heavily romanticized version of life on a plantation transformed real ones into hot tourist destinations. Capitalizing on this, William E. added an elaborate porch to the back of his house to make it look like one seen in the Gone with the Wind. Now the house’s back became the front and vice versa. It was he who arranged for the house to become a museum after his death.