Towards Truth and Reconciliation at Drayton Hall

By Dr. Dale Rosengarten, Founding Director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library

Students listening to Drayton Hall's preservation department staff introduce them to the site.

Students listening to Drayton Hall’s preservation department staff introduce them to the site. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Dale Rosengarten.

On a cold afternoon at the end of February, I accompanied 20 first-year students at the College of Charleston on a field trip to Drayton Hall. The class I am teaching, “Charleston as a Classroom,” features a field trip every Thursday, with an extra hour added to the schedule so we have plenty of time. As we boarded the bus for Drayton Hall, I was happy to see we had 100% attendance, despite the frigid temperatures and the fact that we were just one day away from spring break.

We were greeted at the edge of the parking lot by Cameron Moon, a recent College of Charleston grad who works for Drayton Hall as the Preservation Coordinator. She was soon joined by Carter C. Hudgins, Deputy Director, and Rosemary Giesy, the interpreter who would lead our tour. Cameron and Carter talked about the history of the property and their professional involvement. We headed across the lawn and Rosemary began to tell us about the history of Drayton Hall and the people who lived there.

Drayton Hall Historic House Interpreter Rosemary Giesy, who was described at the

Drayton Hall Historic House Interpreter Rosemary Giesy, who was described as the “cutest tour guide ever” by student Lawson Thompson. Photograph courtesy of Lawson Thompson.

The house and grounds were as spectacular as ever, but what made the place come to life was Rosemary’s animation and deep knowledge of the subject. As the mother of a C of C alum her appreciation of her young audience was palpable. We explored the house from top to bottom, finishing up on the ground floor (as the temperature continued to drop!) with a slide show about Drayton Hall’s African American history.

“The scenery was beautiful but the house was even more beautiful, if not for the view, for its elaborateness. The fine detail that went into the wood-carving and crafting of the estate was amazing. There was such precision and small detail to observe. I found it amazing that the original paint was still there, if not a little worn. I loved hearing the story of what each room was used for whether it be a bedroom or a room to entertain guests, a dining room, another living room, or even a “VIP” sort of room used for entertaining the finest of visitors. I loved hearing about the last Drayton to live in the house and about her many, many dog paintings in the front room.

Learning about the slaves who worked there and their relationship to the Draytons was interesting. The basement was dark and colder than the rest of the house and if that wasn’t sad enough, the site of their unmarked graves with the beautiful arch and peaceful scenery did it for me. Our guide was so warm, welcoming and knowledgeable about everything there was to know about the plantation. She was so memorable with her big red coat and excited talk.”
—Haley Olds, student

(For additional student responses, visit the class’s blog.)

Shortly after our visit, Dr. George W. McDaniel, president and executive director of Drayton Hall, made an offer I couldn’t refuse: to bring a group of descendants of Drayton Hall—both heirs of the owners and descendants of the enslaved—to the college for a panel presentation. We scheduled the program for March 18 and invited not only my students, but also Grant Gilmore’s historic preservation majors, Simon Lewis’s English class, and Ruth Ellen Gruber, the Jewish Studies Program’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar this term.

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Shown above and below: sixty-plus people packed into Room 227 in Addlestone Library, and McDaniel started the session by introducing our guests: Catherine Brown Braxton, Rebecca Campbell, and Annie Meyers—all relations of Richmond Bowens, whose ancestors were brought by the Draytons from Barbados in the 1670s —and Shelby Nelson, grandson of the last Drayton to own Drayton Hall.

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George McDaniel introduces the descendants.

Dr. George W. McDaniel introduces the descendants.

First we watched a short and powerful video, after which the four panelists spoke about their connections to Drayton Hall and the way that race relations have changed in their lifetimes. Annie Meyers said her cousin Richmond Bowens helped her overcome the negative feeling she had toward Drayton Hall, where her ancestors were enslaved. Richmond’s fondness for the place and close friendship with Charles Drayton gave her a different sense, and she began to feel comfortable and positive.

Rebecca Campbell. left foreground.
Rebecca Campbell, left foreground.

“I see a change in generations,” said Rebecca Campbell. “Now we hang out together, go to conferences together—it was not always so. We’ve learned to love and forgive. We are now seeing the light. To make America grow we got to work together.”

Shelby Nelson, left center in green shirt.
Shelby Nelson, left center in green shirt.

Shelby Nelson described his feeling of “coming home” when he reconnected with Drayton Hall. He called the house “a real treasure” and said that in 1974, when his grandfather Charles Drayton and great-uncle Frank Drayton decided to sell the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “it was the best thing we ever did.”

Catherine Braxton turned the discussion in a historical direction. She and her sister Rebecca own the Borough Houses, historic properties at the foot of Calhoun Street in Charleston that are remnants of a largely African American neighborhood. Catherine declared: “Drayton Hall is my roots.” After emancipation, the freed people stayed and worked to earn something to live on. “My family left a legacy there. My grandfather was born there as a free man.”

Catherine Braxton, far right.

Catherine Braxton, far right.

“Coming to the table,” Catherine said, is what meetings of descendants of slave owners and of the enslaved are called, and they are happening in many places. “We’ve been wounded and need to heal.” She welcomes opportunities to confront the demons of slavery. In 1978 she visited Gorée Island, off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, where captives were once bought and sold. “I could smell, feel the pain.”

Annie Myers, second from left.

Annie Meyers, second from left.

While Annie did not go to Africa, she found deep roots at Drayton Hall, where her grandmother worked, sewing and cooking and sweeping the yard. With the help of genealogist Toni Carrier, she has made progress tracing her lineage. She is now “doing my DNA,” to get further clues about where her people came from. With some prompting from George, Annie also described how she got involved in the sit-in at Kress’s on King and Wentworth Street in 1960. She joined the picket line demanding the right to sit at the lunch counter. “Something needed to be done,” she said, “and we did it.” For more on the sit-in, check out this article by the Post and Courier: “A Lunch Unserved: How the 1960 Kress sit-in changed Charleston.”

The Drayton descendants made a profound impact on my students, adding a layer of understanding to what they learned on the field trip. I asked them to write down their reactions to the panel and here’s what they had to say:

“It was the most beautiful act of forgiveness I have ever seen. Never before had I witnessed history resolved in such an elegant and hopeful manor. There was so much love between them all that I felt as if we too were being welcomed into the family.” —Emma Lieberman

I found the entire presentation quite moving. I got chills [watching the video] as one of the descendants of the Bowens family started singing in the graveyard of her ancestors. The connection between the Draytons and the Bowens today is heartwarming and is a perfect example of the impacts of history, time, and understanding. They say they are like a family, but it is clear the relationship and respect for one another goes much deeper.” —Kristen Kita

“It was really special to me to have descendants of the former slaves that worked at Drayton Hall and Shelby Nelson, a descendant of the Draytons, come talk to everyone. I found it fascinating to see them sit together at a table sharing what one house means to them. It warmed my heart to see how close the families have somewhat become considering their history so long ago. I am even more thankful for the fact that Drayton Hall is open to the public and we are able to appreciate and admire such a beautiful home that holds many memories along with untold stories.” —Lawson Thompson

“The video and presentation explaining the history of the Drayton Plantation brought the site to life through the stories and experiences of those closely connected to the families who lived there, and most especially, those who worked as slaves. I was delighted to see that the descendants of those who lived on Drayton are still very involved with the plantation and keep close contact with one another.” 
—Mattie Rogers

“The discussion and video about Drayton Hall were fantastic and inspiring. It was great being able to ask the panelists my questions and they did a very good job providing detailed answers. The way they are able to share their personal feelings and stories with us is amazing.” —Owens Morgan

“The presentation was a great experience for many reasons including actually meeting descendants of Drayton Hall. It was also enjoyable and interesting to hear them out on their own perspective of their historic lineage. Their perspectives were invaluable and appreciated. It was awesome to see the complete reconciliation of the Draytons on behalf of the descendants of their slaves because it really highlights the long way we’ve come in race relations.” —Mikey Bishof

“First of all, I want to thank each and every member of the panel for coming and speaking to us. I feel that the best way for us to learn is by hearing the stories first hand, and I think the way it was structured allowed us to hear from all sides. . . . We are most likely the last generation to be able to hear these stories from a first or second hand account, and so in order to keep these viewpoints alive we need to listen and in turn share their stories.” —Paige Claire Mesher

Drayton Hall's upper great hall. Photograph by P.C. Mescher.

Drayton Hall’s upper great hall. Photograph courtesy of Paige Claire Mescher.

“It was a great experience getting to hear stories from people who are directly related to Drayton Hall. They had very interesting things to say and they made Drayton Hall easier to understand. It was a great opportunity that not many people get to experience. I thought it was very nice and thoughtful of the presenters to take time out of their day to come talk to us.” —Caroline Whitaker

“The Drayton Hall descendants who came to speak to us were very interesting. I thought that it was very cool and would have loved to stay longer.” —Allie Garland

While the take-away message was one of reconciliation, the Q&A session broached a number of thorny issues facing the field of public history. Can plantation site interpretation do justice to the lives of the slaves as well as the masters? How can reluctant descendants be persuaded to “come to the table?” How can the field of historic preservation and museum studies attract more African American practitioners? What can be learned from examples of “Dark Tourism” elsewhere? I asked my colleague Ruth Gruber, as a specialist in Jewish heritage tourism in Eastern Europe, to ponder this question.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Dale Rosengarten unless otherwise noted.

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