Insight Into Slave History
Project Will Put Names With Faces
By Brian Hicks
The Post and Courier
Saturday, May 5, 2007
The images are haunting, rare glimpses into a chapter of American history that some people would just as soon forget.
In one photograph from Magnolia Plantation, a well-dressed house slave stands with members of the Drayton family on the steps of the grand home. In another, a slave child in a suit poses with Drayton children, as though he were just another playmate.
Magnolia Plantation has taken new, unprecedented steps to put names to the faces in those photographs, as well as all the other slaves who built and maintained the Ashley River plantations between 1676 and 1865.
Through a grant from the plantation's foundation, historical archaeologists are linking the Lowcountry slave population to the rest of the world. Next year, those records will be available on the Internet for people looking into their family history.
"No former slave-holding family has ever reached out in this way," said Toni Carrier, Founding Director of the Africana Heritage Project at the University of South Florida. "They are opening their records to researchers and funding a database for people to look into their past."
The Africana Heritage Project has been doing slave research for several years, but in the Lowcountry only for about a year. Here they have found what Carrier calls "remarkably detailed, remarkably complete" records on slaves and freedmen in the area. The work on this project, dubbed the Lowcountry Africana Project, will be online by next March.
The historical archaeologists have already unearthed a great amount of new information that provides insight into Lowcountry history. Carrier said slave families here appear to have been extremely stable over time,
possibly because of their skills in growing rice. And freedmen bank records the project has uncovered suggest that only 20 percent of former slaves kept their masters' surnames after the Civil War.
Many of those records, some of them from bank accounts of former slaves, link freedmen to their slave names and former masters, another breakthrough in the genealogy of slavery. The Draytons were one of the most prosperous families of the day, with a plantation that kept about 45 slaves at a time, according to surviving 19th century records. In some of those records, slaves have names given to them that are as much titles: Carpenter Robert, House Servant George. The research of the Lowcountry Africana Project may lead to the names of those slaves, as well as the surname they gave to their descendants. The Web site will not only publish reams of research information, but also include instructions on how people can conduct their own research, where to go, and what to look for.
Craig Hadley of the Living History Group is working with the Africana Heritage group and Magnolia Plantation on projects to refurbish the slave quarters on site and connect researchers with known descendants of Drayton slaves. He said the work and the Web site are historical breakthroughs.
"It's always been one of the most difficult things to do — put together a slave genealogy," Hadley said. "But this is part of the plantation's long-term plans."
In recent years, Magnolia Plantation and Drayton Hall have held reunions for the descendants of slaves and actively worked to tell an accurate history of the Ashley River plantations.
Carrier said in her research that she has found the trail of some Drayton slaves who moved to New York and caught ships to Nova Scotia. There is some evidence to suggest that some eventually went to Sierra Leone.
On its Web site, Magnolia Plantation calls slavery an important aspect of understanding the history of the area. Putting names to the slaves is a "daunting but important task."
Carrier said that she hopes the research of the Africana Heritage Project helps people learn about their past and the history of slavery, as well as bring some sense of an end to the nation's greatest sin.
"What it's going to take to heal this profound wound is for people to come together and share their life histories," Carrier said.
The USF Africana Heritage Project is Sponsored by the Africana Studies Department at the University of South Florida.
Copyright 2005 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail .