Ethnic Heritage / African-American

Evidence of West African and African-American culture is predominant throughout this region since the colonial period. African slaves first arrived in Charles Town as early as its founding in 1670, and by 1715 there was a black majority in the colony. The black population outnumbered the white by 40% at this time and South Carolina was the only English colony in North America where this disproportion existed. Efforts of enslaved Africans and African-Americans produced the patterns of fields, drains, canals, dikes, and pastures that remain largely intact throughout the interior of the district.

Enslaved Africans were involved in the construction of much of the infrastructure within the region as well as the architecture. They built the historic roads that define the district, such as Ashley River Road (SC Hwy 61) and others just on the periphery such as Delemar Highway (SC Hwy 165), as well as secondary roads such as Bear Swamp Road. Colonial legislation required that property owners “send their slaves (when summoned as usual for that purpose) to labor on the high roads, private paths, bridges, causeys [causeways],” and other transportation infrastructure in the district. Another example of this is the “public drain” or “Ashley-Stono Canal” which forms the southwest boundary of the district. A newspaper article/advertisement from 1785 states, “the following plantations…are required to appropriate one-eighth of ALL THE WORKING HANDS from the ages of sixteen to fifty years…to work on the said drain until the said is completed.”

The rapid importation of Africans to this region resulted in the continuation of the West African culture rather than its extinction, as was the case in other regions. The perseverance of West African heritage was further enabled as enslaved people living on Ashley River plantation, particularly on rice plantations, had less contact with whites than other blacks. Rice plantations required large numbers of Africans to get started and often times there were not enough whites to oversee them—thus they were supervised by other blacks. In many instances they lived within close proximity to each other, usually in a row of small houses. Three extant examples of this type of settlement are the five cabins at Magnolia Plantation, the Seven Chimneys site at Millbrook Plantation, and the five slave houses on Uxbridge Plantation. This trend continued beyond emancipation as is illustrated by cabins that continued to be occupied post-Civil War, in many cases well into the 20th century, and in new African-American settlements that began to dot the region. One such settlement was located on Macbeth Road at Drayton Hall Plantation. 

There is a long-held belief that Europeans introduced rice to West Africa, and then brought the knowledge of its cultivation to the New World. In actuality, many of these complicated systems (including water control for irrigation and milling devices) had been developed and were in use for centuries in West Africa prior to being introduced to this country. Additionally, early settlers to this region (English and French) had no prior rice-farming knowledge, but the African slaves they brought with them did. Thus it is essential to understand that Africans brought this knowledge to the district that, because of its financial success, essentially shaped the future of the region. Evidence of this complicated agricultural system remains on the landscape in a number of instances. There are a large number of intact inland and tidal rice fields throughout the region, as well as sites such as Seven Chimneys on Millbrook Plantation, which is surrounded by smaller rice fields, and the rice mill chimney site at Middleton Place. This is a water-driven rice mill at the center of an extensive inland rice field complete with associated earthworks and the remains of wooden rice trunks. 

After the Civil War the focus of African-American labor shifted from agriculture to industry. Former slaves constituted the majority of laborers on the phosphate mines. Phosphate camps were created using existing slave villages, and/or new dwellings were constructed to house individuals working on the mines. Stores were also built nearby for the convenience of the workers. Remnants of these types of sites can found throughout the district. The most prominent of these sites include the three phosphate mining settlement sites at Bulow Plantation, and four sites at Runnyemeade. The actual built environment of these camps was more temporary in nature, and thus usually remains only as archaeological sites rather than extant rows of buildings. The longest-lasting visible remains of the labor of African-Americans in this industry are the phosphate mining ditches and spoil piles.

Additional evidence of a significant African-American population and influence in the region are the various cemeteries found within the district. Remaining cemeteries in the region that contain African-American burial sites include those at Drayton Hall, the former Bulow Plantation, the Cook family cemetery, Magnolia Plantation, and a small burial site at Middleton Place that holds the remains of the Edwards family. Many of these sites still have memorial grave goods left on site by families. Another potential site for African-American graves is on Millbrook plantation around the site of the grave of Richard Brantley, private during the Civil War for the Union in the United States Colored Infantry. The site is fairly overgrown, but the potential for more graves in this area is high. Additionally, there are undoubtedly countless graves throughout the region that have been lost in time with no remaining form of identification.

Conservation Spotlight

Poplar Grove and Watson Hill: A Case Study In Coalition Building and Land Conservation

Two converging development threats in the Ashley River Corridor beginning in 2003 catalyzed a major conservation effort led by the Coastal Conservation League, Ducks Unlimited, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and others…

Established in 1947, Historic Charleston Foundation is dedicated to preserving and protecting the architectural, historical and cultural character of Charleston and its Lowcountry environs, and to educating the public about Charleston’s history and the benefits that are derived from preservation.

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