At South Carolina State Parks, you can walk the same historic ground where African-Americans lived, worked, struggled, worshiped, played, laughed, raised families, and built lasting communities over generations. From the first English settlement of 1670 at Charles Towne Landing, to parks built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, men and women of African descent have played important roles in South Carolina history.
Charles Towne Landing
Early records from the first English colony in South Carolina tell us that Africans were among the first settlers at Charles Towne. The majority of them arrived with colonists from the English West Indian island of Barbados, where, decades before, planters had turned to the system of race-based slavery to power the immensely profitable sugar industry. The increasing presence of Africans as slave laborers at early Charles Towne strengthened the economic viability of the colony, contributed materially to its defense against attackers, broadened the culture of the settlement, and eventually led to an entrenched system of slave labor that would remain in existence until the end of the Civil War. The arrival of enslaved Africans in 1670 began an unbroken transmission of African and Creole cultural contributions to South Carolina.
African-Americans played a major role in the forming of this colonial community. Colonial Dorchester also provides a contrast between African-American slave life in towns versus plantations. The institution of slavery was already established in the colony when the Dorchester area was settled. The earliest Dorchester-area slave reference is from the diary of Congregationalist elder William Pratt, who recorded his purchase of a black slave woman in August of 1699. During Dorchester’s existence slaves worked and lived in the village. Although some slaves were Indians, most were black—some of them African natives, some of them born in South Carolina. Village slaves worked as artisans and domestics. They undoubtedly associated with plantation slaves who came into the town to trade or plied the Ashley River as boatmen on the schooners and other vessels that tied up at Dorchester’s wharves. Like slaves elsewhere, they were bought, sold, mortgaged, leased, and passed through wills. And like slaves elsewhere, they were punished; some were executed. Slaves made up a majority of the population in the parish that included Dorchester.
The structures at Hampton Plantation are architectural monuments to the labor of enslaved Africans and the social prominence of the Horry, Pinckney and Rutledge families. The cultivation of rice during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created the economic prosperity of Hampton Plantation and the Santee Delta. The impressive architectural display of the Hampton mansion was financed with the profits created by intensive rice production and the labor of enslaved African-Americans. Without the contribution of rice and of hundreds of slaves the lifestyle of Hampton’s socially prominent families would not have been possible. No other commercial crop grown in South Carolina during this era would match the success and wealth of rice. Products from nearby forests – lumber, tar, pitch and turpentine – were the earliest profitable commodities exported by Lowcountry settlers. Indigo, processed to obtain a blue dye, became an important cash crop in the mid-1700s when the British government subsidized its production. But it was the system of rice cultivation, however, that transformed nearly the entire South Carolina Coast, bringing immense wealth to planters, permanently altering the landscape, and nurturing the region’s unique Gullah culture.
Though rice was introduced to South Carolina in the late 1600s, the decades just before the Civil War witnessed the high point of rice cultivation in the state. Hampton Plantation produced 250,000 pounds of rice in 1850 alone. Rice cultivation involved entire communities of African-Americans, as men, women, and children all played a role in production. This work, especially the construction and maintenance of rice fields, was often exhausting and may have impaired the health of slave laborers. Despite the often oppressive nature of the system, however, enslaved families were able to create communities with a rich cultural heritage.
Rose Hill Plantation
Rose Hill provides visitors with a good opportunity to explore the lives of African-Americans at a typical large upcountry cotton plantation. African-Americans have always lived and worked at Rose Hill, first as slaves and later as free men and women. Their experience differed from that of the slaves working on the lowcountry rice plantations: the labor system was organized differently but both groups managed to establish strong communities and cultural traditions. As governor of South Carolina from 1858 to 1860, William H. Gist (the owner of Rose Hill) acted to move the state out of the Union in an effort to protect the institution of slavery from perceived Northern attacks. After the election of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1860, Gist issued a call for a state convention to secede from the Union. In so doing he unwittingly unleashed events that would eventually lead to the emancipation of Southern slaves.
At least 21 enslaved African Americans lived at Redcliffe Plantation in the 1850s. These men and women were part of a much larger slave community that by 1864 included approximately 300 individuals dispersed on four different plantations: Silver Bluff, Redcliffe, Cowden and Cathwood. African Americans worked to establish the plantation and their mark on the landscape and structures is still visible today. Their experiences and contributions are also documented extensive records left behind by Redcliffe’s original owner, James Henry Hammond.
The battle of Rivers Bridge was fought during the waning days of the Confederacy, and represents the commitment of both sides to fight for their respective ideals. Interpretation of the battle of Rivers Bridge permits explorations into wider contexts, such as the causes of the war, Civil War military technology and tactics, Civil War medical treatment, the lives of average soldiers, and the effects of the war on civilians. Among these broader contexts is the role of slavery in causing the war, and the results of the war: emancipation and reconstruction.
Slave laborers were probably pressed into service to build the earthen fortifications that protected the Confederate position at Rivers Bridge. Freedmen who joined the Union army to serve as “pioneers” wielded axes and shovels to hack roads through the Salkehatchie swamp that helped Union troops to flank the fortified Confederate line. And thousands of African American slaves in South Carolina freed themselves in the wake of Sherman’s march, following his army through the state and into an uncertain future that offered nothing but freedom.
Rose Hill Plantation
The experience of the Gist family shows how planter families and Freedmen adapted to economic constraints and new social roles following the Civil War. Union county experienced severe upheaval during Reconstruction, as African-Americans struggled to keep their newfound freedom and whites struggled to reclaim power. It is likely that these dramatic events affected the lives of Rose Hill’s African-American residents and members of the Gist family.
Redcliffe Plantation also preserves the history of the African-American families who remained connected to the site for generations. Visitors can explore the stories of the Henley, Wigfall and Crawford families, as well as numerous individuals, from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement. Many of these families are documented through extensive photographs which are displayed in one of two historic slave quarters still present on the property.
Aiken, Chester, Poinsett
During the hard times of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) gave young men jobs conserving natural resources. Several segregated African-American CCC companies worked at South Carolina State Parks, including Company 4470 at Montmorenci, near Aiken State Park. Between 1936 and 1939, these men labored to build the recreational facilities of the park, including fishing cabins, trails and roads. In 1937 alone, they planted 27,000 new trees and fought 31 forest fires. Company 4475 did similar work at Poinsett and Chester State Parks.
Even in the face of discrimination by certain white army officers, CCC personnel, and local communities, some African-American men managed to gain significant, though limited benefits from the program (good pay, job experience, education, better nutrition, etc.). South Carolina enrolled African-American men at a rate much closer to their percentage of the overall population than other states.
Attempts to desegregate the state park system first began at Edisto Beach in 1956. When the Charleston Chapter of the NAACP filed a lawsuit challenging segregation at Edisto Beach, the state closed the park for seven years rather than integrate.
“The importance of the Edisto Beach case goes beyond the immediate impact of its closing—the real significance lies with the strategies and lessons learned by both sides in the South Carolina desegregation struggle . . . The cumulative effect of the lessons learned from the Edisto Beach and similar cases in other states contributed to the maturation of the entire civil rights movement. The lessons learned from the civil rights set-backs of the 1950s were to result in the victories of the 1960s.” (Historian Stephen Lewis Cox)