I became interested in Black history during a class on Women’s History, surprisingly. My Professor, and friend, Dr. Linda Dudik (WWII Experience), taught the course. About half way into the class, Linda began telling a story about an enslaved woman by the name of Harriet Jacobs. That one woman’s story truly became a main thread through the rest of my education. Harriet Jacobs, a woman enslaved in North Carolina, escaped her enslaver rather than give in to his sexual harassment and demands. Jacobs’ story is harrowing and brave and heart-wrenching, as well as inspiring. I would go on to learn more about Harriet in future classes. Eventually, Harriet became the sole subject of a documentary project I was assigned in a later class, as well. But it was Harriet whose story compelled me to learn more. I wanted to understand how it was that slavery began and why it took a devastating war, where more than 600,000 men, and a President, were killed, to end it. I believed, and it proved true, that to fully understand the American institution of slavery, to the best of our ability, was to visit the places where slavery existed. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of those who sacrificed so much for the growth and prosperity of the American south. That is what I set out to do….walk in their footsteps and be where those millions of nameless, faceless, enslaved people suffered horrible oppression.
After graduation in 2008, I moved to North Carolina with more learning on my heart. I had settled into my new home and then hit the road to Edenton, North Carolina where Harriet had been enslaved. I could not believe how moving it was to stand where I knew Jacobs had walked; where, from her hiding place, she had watched her children coming and going on visits to their grandmother’s bakery; where she had stood looking out onto the vast water that kept her from escaping, or so she thought. I could feel the history I had studied for so many semesters surging through me. Maybe you have had an experience like that. You either read about a place or an event and/or saw footage of it over and over again and when you visited that place you felt a connection. That is how I felt during my visit to Edenton. I wrote my first travel blog about that visit, and I will probably write a follow-up about visiting Jacobs’ final resting place at a later date. But I digress…
After my experience in Edenton, I wanted to visit as many locations where the story of slavery was being told and I wanted to visit as many places as I could find. A friend from college and I took a road trip to South Carolina. We originally just wanted to see the historic city. But to our good fortune, we stumbled upon a planation tour and decided to check it out. I came away from the experience changed forever.
The first plantation tour I took was of the Boone-Hall Plantation. This plantation is hailed as America’s most photographed plantation. As soon as you get there, you can immediately see why that is true. This plantation is absolutely gorgeous.
As you drive into Boone-Hall, which was established in 1681 and once a pecan and cotton plantation, you cannot help but marvel at the beauty that is the 3/4 mile Avenue of Oaks. This beautiful drive guides you to the main house. These trees are dripping with beautiful Spanish Moss, which I learned, from another tour on a different plantation, is neither Spanish nor moss. Spanish moss is actually a flowering plant that grows from the top of larger trees, mostly strong oaks, and it grows in many tropical, and subtropical climates. The Southern United States, especially the North and South Carolinas, as well as Georgia, are where this moss can most often be seen in all of its glory.
The moss is so striking to a first time visitor, like me, that I stopped and just admired its beauty. I took the picture below just so I could remember this magnificent view. As I stood there at the entrance, where, as you can see, I could see nothing other than these gorgeous trees, I could only imagine how wealthy those who lived at the end of this drive must have seemed to visitors entering in carriages generations before me.
As I was coming to the end of this beautiful drive, I noticed “small houses” to my left. I would come to learn that those houses were original slave cabins, but note: they are nicely updated to a more modern appearance than how they appeared when enslaved people resided in them. During the years this land was used as a working plantation, these cabins were wood structures, with window openings, no glass, and wooden shutters, and dirt floors. The chimneys were also wood. The thought behind these structures, at that time, was that if they burned down, they would not be expensive to rebuild. Now that this row of slave cabins are some of the last in the area, they are used for educational purposes and have wood floors and the exteriors have been bricked. I had learned from my studies in college that many large plantations would line the drive with the cabins built for their enslaved property to show visitors the financial prosperity of the enslavers. This is one of the last “slave streets” in the US and is well-preserved.
The front view shows the doorway and window openings of the slave cabin. Note, again, these widows would have been covered by thin, maybe 1×4 slats of wood, and there was truly no protection from the elements. Cold air could easily come through the walls and up from the floor, as well as through the wood shutters that covered the windows. Also keep in mind that these cabins were used, post slavery, by freed slaves who stayed on the land to work for their former enslaver as sharecroppers. Any changes to these cabins would have been updated by those who lived there at their own expense.
As you pass these cabins, you then enter through an opening in a brick wall, the gorgeous wrought iron gates are open, and the main house is all you can see. It is truly beautiful upon first sight and it only becomes more beautiful as you tour through.
This home, a large Colonial Revival plantation house, sits on 738 acres of land that is made up of crop fields, naturally preserved wetlands, and several ponds. There is true wildlife on the property that is respected, such as the alligators that were sunning themselves on the dirt road our tour was traveling down. Our tour guide stopped and quietly drew our attention to the gators and there we sat until the alligators got up and moseyed themselves back into the water pond. The land is absolutely breathtaking. The large oaks, scattered throughout the grounds, have been on this land for hundreds of years and are well cared for and protected. This is the 2nd home on this property, as the first home was lost. The current home was built in 1936. As one of the oldest and longest continual crop producing plantations in the United States, Boone-Hall boasts more than 320 years of crops. One of the first products ever produced from this land, however, was bricks. The owners in the early 1800s were in the brick business and they used many of the bricks made here to build homes and businesses that still exist within Charleston’s downtown area. At the height of production, the tour guid estimates that some four million bricks were produced here each year from the labor of less than 100 enslaved people. This home and surrounding land has been open for tours to the public since 1956.
Many films and television shows have used this house and the surrounding land in their productions. Just to name a few, and starting with the most notable, the film The Notebook (2004) shot several scenes here.
North and South (1985 & 1986 Mini-Series), starring Patrick Swayze was filmed here, as well as a few scenes for Days of Our Lives (1984), and Alex Haley’s Queen (1993 Mini-Series) was shot here.
The home is also used for weddings, which it was set up for the day of our visit. I will simply say this about the inside of this home….breathtaking. Everything you think it should be and more.
So, why did I find this plantation visit so wonderful and not to be missed? Well, let’s start from the beginning. The cost to tour is $26 for adults (ages 13 to 64) and $12 for children (ages 6 to 12). The tour price includes everything: The Plantation House Tour, the Black History in America Exhibit, the Plantation Tractor Tour, Exploring The Gullah Culture live presentation, Slave Street and History Tour, and the Butterfly Pavilion (late April thru October). Parking is free.
The Tractor Tour is not to be missed because you are provided a wonderful view of the land and wildlife. The tour guide educates you to Charleston, as well as plantation, history. I would have to say that history is not the focus for the tours. It is truly a business and they do the tours to promote themselves as a business; hayrides through haunted woods at Halloween, wildlife tractor tours, house tours, etc. The tour guide discusses very little about the life for slaves on the plantation. But there was one bright spot for those who came to learn something.
The highlight is the Gullah Culture live presentation. I was blown away by the information provided during this presentation. The presenter starts with life in Africa, talks about the trip to America for captive Africans, and then life as a slave in the Charleston area. It is during this time in the presentation that you learn the most about slavery on this plantation. You also learn where phrases we say every day stem from, such as, “living high on the hog.” That comes directly from slavery and is only one example discussed. The woman whose presentation I saw was so great and she was incredibly truthful in her presentation and information shared that I could not get enough of her story. I do not want to spoil anything, but she was a direct descendent of people who had been enslaved on this plantation. This is one part of the plantation that should be planned for as it is a seasonal part of the tour. I would say you do not want to visit this plantation unless the season is right for the Gullah live presentation, unless you’re only there for the film and television history.
Boone-Hall was a wonderful first plantation experience and I was thrilled to be able to visit. I enjoyed the demonstration inside one of the slave cabins by a woman who makes the famous sweet grass baskets, which are synonymous with Charleston, South Carolina. But it was the Gullah presentation that really made the entire day worth the four hour drive to get there.
You truly need to add this tourist spot to your travels whenever you visit the Charleston area.