Who Gets to Tell the Story?

For a nation and world in desperate need of positive change, the “fourth estate” is (or at least should be) anunbiased moderator of conversations around improving society. Unfortunately, not onlyhave local news outlets become marginalized, many have been under near constantattack and demonized for asking the hard questions.

Earl Bridges: We’re on McLeod plantation.

Toby Smith: We’re on the McLeod  plantation.

Earl Bridges: And I’m looking at?

Toby Smith: At well, I’ll tell you, you picked a good spot. Right in front of us is the back of the kitchen and all that good food that people come to Charleston for. That food came out of those kitchens, those women who would bring their knowledge of sweet potatoes and cooking and spices with them to change the lives of so many people, not to mention feed people as well. Right. Their story starts there.

Earl Bridges: So these two structures are both kitchens.

Toby Smith: That’s the kitchen. This is the cold storage dairy that we’re looking at on this side. And in 1860, the enslaved people here churned out 600 lbs of butter in cold storage dairy, which would subsequently get rolled down this waterway. We’re going down to the market of Charleston and be sold.

Earl Bridges: Really? Okay. What was the major kind of crop at this plantation?

Toby Smith: Sea Island Cotton.

Earl Bridges: Cotton?

Toby Smith: Sea Island Cotton.

Earl Bridges: I did’nt think we did much cotton here.

Toby Smith: Some of the rarest in the world and it was quite laborious. So people would start early with that cotton, not go to bed till very late at night, particularly when it was time to get it to market. And the gin house, which we’re going to look at, is where people would spend that time pulling that cotton, long, luxurious fibers, cleaning out the seeds and getting it prepared. They would bale it down into very large bags. Those bags would go down that waterway, take it to market in Charleston in it would end up overseas for processing.

Toby Smith: Wow. So in many ways, this water is the key for so many reasons to the 74 to 100 souls who would live here, sometimes find love here and certainly die here came up this waterway. They came from as far away as Senegal, all the way down to Angola. And they did not forget who they were. They brought their heritage, deprived their family, their memories. They brought all of that person when they came.

Earl Bridges: 70 plus people.

Toby Smith: 74 to 100.

Earl Bridges: And of that. How many were enslaved?

Toby Smith: All of them? Well, every single one of them.

Earl Bridges: So it’s a rather large kind of community on the plantation.

Toby Smith: For this size. It is. And they would form what we know now is the Gullah Geechee community, and that community would be what would take care of people when they arrived. When they first got here, they were shell shocked, had no idea, didn’t even speak the language. So when they got here, there would be people who they might have heard a word or two from a village who would embrace them and try to get them acclimated to what life like what life would be like here. Wow.

Earl Bridges: How long did they have enslaved people on this property going back?

Toby Smith: As early as the 1700s people were here. It’s an interesting thing because these were always fields and people would always be working these fields. It just was in the hands of different people. By 1850, things would change dramatically with the family that would arrive here. They would in fact make this property far more viable through achievements that and flooding and agriculture and irrigation. And that was due in part to the knowledge of the enslaved who would bring an understanding of how the moon impacted the tides, which would help the fields be irrigated.

Toby Smith: Far more so. The cotton was successful because of the knowledge that they brought with them.

Earl Bridges: Interesting. Wow.

Toby Smith: It’s a very interesting thing about the people who got off those ships, those 74 to 100, they would settle along the sea islands and they would become what we now know as the community being three generations away. That makes me proud. Gullah girl. And I would give anything for 15 more minutes with my grandmother because I realize now she was speaking to me in Gullah when I was a little girl. And I don’t I don’t remember it.

Earl Bridges: But the word Gullah, where does it come from?

Toby Smith: Well, different different thoughts. The Gullah River in Angola is one there is another reference to it of a river in Sierra Leone. I generally talk about it as being the framework of both the language, the culture, all of that good food that people love when they come to Charleston, the faith, the worship. It is a broader umbrella. I think of it in that framework of everything that people find when they come here to Charleston.

Earl Bridges: And then on the Geechee side.

Toby Smith: Geechee often referencing Georgia. But when you say Gullah Geechee, people understand, you’re referencing a very special place, very special people, and what they left behind. And it continues to evolve. The Gullah culture is still very, very much alive to this day.

Earl Bridges: Interesting is mostly the sea islands, though.

Toby Smith: The Sea Island.

Earl Bridges: From, say, North Carolina, all the way down.

Toby Smith: All the way down.

Earl Bridges: Florida or wherever. Exactly what are some of the manifestations that we would see the Gullah Geechee culture and today’s.

Toby Smith: Well, one of them still continues to touch our lives. And that is in the way we say goodbye and honor people in our funeral services, in the way that we don’t more. On the death. We celebrate the life that comes out in our services. This is a cemetery across the street, and there are 100 remains that are there now. Oftentimes, slave masters would allow people from other plantations to come and say goodbye. It was quite an elaborate process. Heartfelt. It’s truly one of the things that we owned.

Toby Smith: And so saying goodbye then marked the beginning. One of the things that we believe one of the Gullah beliefs is if you’re buried near water, it helps your journey home. And for an enslaved person, if you can’t be free in life, at least I can be free in death.

Earl Bridges: Did the enslaved folks from different plantations, did they tend to have interactions.

Earl Bridges: As much.

Earl Bridges: Information as.

Toby Smith: Yes. Yes, they did.

Earl Bridges:Was it communal church services or not?

Toby Smith: Not so much communal church. But the drivers who went from plantation to plantation would bring back news about how people were doing. And that was really pivotal. And they did keep in touch with each other. One of the more difficult components of that is in how they maintained families. There were fathers who would leave their plantations knowing that they were going to get a beating, a whipping severely when they got back. They’d go see their children. They would go and spend time with their wives. They maintained family as much as possible, even though it meant severe suffering on the other side.

Toby Smith: After the war, we know that many people put ads in the newspapers looking for their family members. After the time of freedom. And the Freedman’s Bureau, which was stationed here at McCloud, helped in that process. The Freedman’s Bureau was a group, an institution organization that was settled here in many other parts that was designed to help formerly enslaved people get up on their feet food, medicine and clothing. But what they managed to do was set forth an agenda for the formerly enslaved, and they did a Herculean task, given how little they had.

Toby Smith: They helped bring families together. They helped set up those first schools. And they were actually right here at Mayflower Plantation.

Earl Bridges: In South Carolina when it was colonized. It wasn’t really colonized for the same reasons in the Northeast. That was religious persecution. This Charleston story is very much feels like a business. It’s all about making money or whatever. The Lord Proprietors were given this area and then that creates the enslavement felt like it came as an extension of how do we make money?

Toby Smith: There’s no question. And in looking at that piece of it, too, the connection for Charleston in Barbados is another interesting piece of the story, because that is what in fact, brought some of those early planters here. They were looking for space to expand and people to grow. And of course, that would be the enslaved people who would bring all their knowledge with them, everything they learned, everything they did to make planters wealthy. They didn’t learn it in the halls of those ships. They brought it with them, which means they were already doing it back home.

Toby Smith: So this waterway would be pivotal both for those souls who would come here. If we were to go to the right, we’d end up back downtown in the harbor of Charleston if we were to go three months more, 8 to 12 weeks, depending on weather conditions. Then we would end up on the west coast of Africa after the period of enslavement. People would take their fruits and vegetables downtown, sell them door to door and Charleston, and then come back here. That’s for many people who lived in McLoud after that time frame. When we think about this water, we also think about it as an escape point for a man named William Dawson and nine others who left McCloud in 1862.

Toby Smith: We think that they went to the left, went around the stone, ended up at Folly, where they presented themselves to the union. They would have been considered contraband, so they would not have been returned to McCloud.

Earl Bridges: Richmond, meaning that they were basically war spoils or something.

Toby Smith: In effect. Yes, exactly.

Earl Bridges: Okay.

Toby Smith: And they had a measure of protection as a result. William would go on to serve two terms, and his third wife would get his pension. I’m so honored that we now know his descendants and they have come to McCloud to hear a little bit about their story. The one thing that intrigues me is they took a lady with them. They rose. Rose had a 14 month old baby. And I wonder whatever happened to her? How did she survive with a baby in the midst of all that? But it also tells us how bad things were that they would risk leaving at that time.

Toby Smith: Mm hmm.

Earl Bridges: Yeah. I mean, this is one of the messy parts of living in the Lowcountry. It’s so beautiful on one level.

Toby Smith: And then there’s the horror on the other. Exactly.

Earl Bridges: They made the courageous decision to tell the story this way, and I always applaud that. But just my own sense is sometimes there’s a little bit of discomfort about what kind of a place this is. How do we manage this? How do we, you know, so we’ve been able to have a lot of say and shout out to Sean Halifax. Yeah, because Sean is like.

Earl Bridges: Great, so far in this.

Earl Bridges: Shit. He just gets it and he will move every single obstacle.

Earl Bridges: Yeah.

Earl Bridges: To make sure that we’re able to tell the story with dignity and with honor, with. With an understanding of the fact that we are walking on the blood, sweat and tears. And he treasures that. And he has given us empowered us to be able to talk about that so candidly. And I think that that’s one of the reasons it. MacLeod is so special. Yeah, it is a memorial to what they left, but it is also a chance for us to have difficult conversations, not as enemies, not against each other, but as people coming to a park to walk and stretch and to figure out this last path, which is this path to freedom.

Earl Bridges: Mm hmm. Could have those conversations here. And I think it makes McLeod so special. We are approaching one of the most popular sites, the wisdom tree.

Earl Bridges: Okay.

Earl Bridges: She’s a beauty between three and 500 years old.

Earl Bridges: She’s huge.

Earl Bridges: She’s huge. It’s a live oaks. You know, there are no rings as they how they hollow out as they get older. But this tree is so special. She has seen so much. She would have seen those Africans coming across the waterway. She would have seen the folks in the field. She would have seen the enslaved children playing. She is an interesting marker. And when we talk about her, sometimes some very interesting conversations happen right here. Right. People will begin to feel a little bit lighter about being here and they’ll start to unburden themselves.

Earl Bridges: And I’ve had so many poignant confessions. One man in particular, I’ll never forget him. He said, I want to tell you something after everybody leaves. And I thought, Oh, no, what’s going to happen? And the group left. And he stood there with his daughter and she was crying. And he said, I want you to know I was one of the worst racists in my town. He said. And I. I bless my ex-wife because she worked on me. And I said, Why? Why is your daughter crying? And she said, Because I would have never come to a place like this, because I wouldn’t have wanted to hear a story like this from someone who looked like you.

Earl Bridges: And so this was pre corona. We gave each other a big hug. Yes. And we talked about the value of coming to this place. But you can have conversations like this with people who are different and leave feeling a little bit more.

Earl Bridges: Well, maybe healed. My and our hope, my hope, my colleagues, is that McLeod would be that place of healing, in addition to a place of memorial for all those souls who died here. And this tree bears witness to all of that. If only she could talk.

Earl Bridges: I promise you.

Earl Bridges: Well, then. Now. Now the burdens on you to tell the stories.

Earl Bridges: It is. But, you know, it’s one that I treasure. Because when I think about their journey down this path to freedom, it is filled with gratitude. All of the things that they did not get came to me. So if I can rep them, as these young folks say, with dignity and honor and continue to show people what they left us, and that’s a job well done. And I can only do that because of what they didn’t do.

Earl Bridges: Hmm.

Earl Bridges: I love it.

Earl Bridges: I am.

Earl Bridges: Make up.

Earl Bridges: It’s funny, these trees, I mean, the oaks here. And we have the Spanish moss.

Earl Bridges: Yeah.

Earl Bridges: So it’s almost like it’s the plants are on top of these things. It is. Has so many things growing on top of.

Earl Bridges: It’s true. And this moss is so critical because, you know, we call it Spanish moss. It’s neither Spanish nor moss. It’s an epic fight, an air plant. And for those strong women who lived here, they would have used this stuff to make the floor a little bit softer. They would have used this to help with their monthly menstrual cycle. They used this to pack wounds. And before we said goodbye to her, my grandmother ward in her shoes for years because it was thought to bring down high blood pressure and cholesterol. Don’t look for that in the Journal of American Medicine.

Earl Bridges: It’s not there. So these are things that that that intrinsic connection to nature still very, very African. They brought it with them, remember? They brought everything with them now.

Earl Bridges: And when we think about this tree being so old, this Ocala, these trees were planted in 1920 when the house was changed. So this oak L.A. and this oak L.A. and I always reference that because people are just.

Earl Bridges: Calling it an Oak L.A..

Earl Bridges: An Oak Alley.

Earl Bridges: Alena Alley.

Earl Bridges: Alley. Okay. Yes, the fancy French oak. L.A., I.

Earl Bridges: Guess.

Earl Bridges: People ask it. It’s a hard question. Were people hung from these trees? We can’t definitively say yes or no, but it’s not likely. These trees, they were planted in 1920. If it happened and we don’t have any oral testimony to to back it up would be this tree over here, which we call. I call the face tree or this one here. So we’re searching, but we don’t have any documentation that any lynchings occurred here at McCloud, but then were limited to into how far we can go back. That’s a that’s a tough one.

Earl Bridges: That’s a tough one. I’m very proud to be able to tell our story. Yeah, because for so long we were told your stories don’t matter. They don’t count. It’s made up. It’s taken us a while as black people to not be afraid. And there were always people who were doing it quietly. Now there are so many more storytellers standing together. And shout out to my colleagues across the country who do this because the emotional toil. Yeah. It’s it’s a lot. There are some days when I just go home and cry and then I move on because I have to come back here because they could not take them day off.

Earl Bridges: Yeah.

Earl Bridges: And so I draw strength from what they left us, from those women who continue to be women, who continue to take care of people, from those who tried to make a difference, who dare to learn to read and to write, and who finally found the strength.

Toby Smith: That they weren’t allowed to know.

Earl Bridges: And even years later, they still struggled with that. I want to show you something. I know we won’t get to cover this. This is a letter from a lady named Rena Renda Bouknight. You see, it’s dated 1932. She’s writing back to Willie because she needs him to identify her. So we’ve calculated she was probably trying to get state benefits in New York. Social Security would kick in three years later. So she pours her heart out to him in her best English, trying to get him to remember that she washed clothes for his mother here and that her little kids played with his little sisters.

Earl Bridges: And she basically begs him.

Earl Bridges: Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty funny. It’s easy, but.

Earl Bridges: It’s so funny. Yes.

Earl Bridges: Because it is phonetic. That’s right. Yeah.

Earl Bridges: She’s trying to get him to remember, right.

Earl Bridges: I was living on McLeod place 20 years ago.

Earl Bridges: This part that gets me, I write to ask you to help me. I need you to put in your own handwriting. Identify me.

Earl Bridges: Yeah. There it is.

Earl Bridges: Get some white people down south who can say I am who I am so that I can get these benefits. That’s what she’s asking this man. Yeah. At 76, she’s got to come back here.

Earl Bridges: That’s interesting.

Earl Bridges: And so what we’re trying to figure out is why did he keep this letter? Mm hmm. Did he pull it out at dinner parties to laugh at her? Did he actually help her? What happened to her? I found her in the census the other day. She got married. She had a family. But did she ever get those benefits? Here she is. That’s Anna Ravenel.

Earl Bridges: Oh, really?

Earl Bridges: Real person.

Earl Bridges: Yeah.

Earl Bridges: And that you just asked me about the interpretive piece. Part of it is bringing the story forward into modern times. It didn’t just end right. And she went on to have a family. So my hope is that one day I could find a great, great grandson. So I could give them this letter and I can tell them that their grandmother stood up for herself and she was her own best advocate with what little education she had and that it mattered.

Earl Bridges: That’s the power of McCloud.

Earl Bridges: So tell me tell me a little bit about this.

Earl Bridges: Is this. Yeah, the slave.

Earl Bridges: Street, slave stream.

Earl Bridges: And transition. Real transition row. This is where those 74 precious souls, 74 to 100, would have lived with their families in these cabins. Now, there were 23 of them originally. We see the others on the maps. We can’t quite figure out what happened to them if they burned down. They fell in a state of disrepair. So we treasure these which date? Back to about the 1850s. And you would have had multiple families living in these even amidst long hours of work and terrible outcomes.

Earl Bridges: They still retain family. And so the community then did life together. Right. And they held on to each other. And in trying to understand. Why family was so critical. It was the one stable element. Moms and dads did work to raise their kids, to prepare them for one day a future when they would not be enslaved anymore. We know that they gave their kids every single thing they had, and it would take place often late at night when everybody got in the house, from the fields, from working, when the kids would be resting, it would be family time.

Earl Bridges: And that was very, very precious. This particular cabin and I want to share with you a beautiful woman by the name of Mrs. Gathers. She was born here in 1945, and she left this cabin. She went down to Burke High School, which is our only remaining black high school on the peninsula, and began to get her get her education. She also went beyond that and became what we would call kind of like a home health nurse. Ironically, in the seventies, she got a call to come back here to take care of the former owner.

Earl Bridges: He was sick. And she has told us in her oral testimony that she thought anybody who lived in a house that big had to be God. But when she met him, she realized he was just an old sick man. And so she stayed here and took care of him. And they developed a friendship. And she rented several of these cabins from him. This one, she turned into a church. And I want you to come inside. And if you look up on the wall, you’ll see the scriptures that meant so much to her. We have you.

Earl Bridges: Come on here.

Earl Bridges: If you see up on the wall. So she would have her pulpit in here, she would have chairs. She would have signs on the wall. She also would give away food and clothing as she was trying to change the atmosphere. Her ministry was called The Children of God, and it lasted until about 1986, just four years before the owners died. And everything would change here. She is still living. Oh, she’s still living to this day. And not long ago, I had an opportunity to meet someone who used to ride his bike down here to get the food that she would give away.

Earl Bridges: She left an incredible legacy of love and forgiveness and this very, very special lady.

Earl Bridges: She also had. This will make you laugh. Do you see this orange on the stairs? Yes. Do you remember in the seventies, everybody had shag orange rugs?

Earl Bridges: Right.

Earl Bridges: This is the remnants of her rug. That was here. She would have a radio playing transistor radio with good old gospel music. There would be chairs everywhere out here. And people would come and she would deliver an encouraging word to them.

Earl Bridges: Okay.

Earl Bridges: She was determined to make a difference. And she did. And she did. One other thing I’d like to show you.

Earl Bridges: Let’s see it.

Earl Bridges: Since we’re so close. Do you see behind that white sign right there?

Earl Bridges: Closer.

Earl Bridges: That is.

Earl Bridges: Something that looks like an outhouse.

Earl Bridges: That’s what it is.

Earl Bridges: Was it?

Earl Bridges: And that was for everybody along this road. And I understand that outhouses were unique across this country. Our grandparents. Right. But they were still using this in 1990. And the highway is right there. And it hurts.

Earl Bridges: Oh, man.

Earl Bridges: It hurts to think about that, that they were still here. And in many ways, it’s as though time stood still here. Tremendous things were going on just across the bridge. But here, not yet. That would come later.

Earl Bridges: So this is why I say whatever is left of this path. We’ve got to walk it and we’ve got to walk it together.

Earl Bridges: Well, thank you, Toby. It’s a gorgeous history, the way you tell it. Thank you. But it’s hard.

Earl Bridges: It’s. But it’s necessary.

Earl Bridges: There’s so much more to explore. And we want you to join us on The Good Road. For more in-depth content, meet us on the Internet at the Good Road Dot to hear more great stories, connect organizations and make sure you download our podcast, Fill Anthropologie.