To get a full feel and appreciation for the history of Charleston, Emily and I ventured out of the city to explore two gorgeous plantations. The first was Middleton Place. Middleton Place was a stunning eighteenth century plantation whose original design was inspired by French Chateaus and the gardens of Versailles. Visiting the grounds you feel as if you have stepped back in time, they even have adorable sheep grazing the property.
We were excited to tour the surviving portion of the residential plantain. But my excitement quickly turned to dismay as the tour progressed. You see, our docent slowly took us through the house detailing every portrait, piece of furniture, piece of silver, and trinket of the Middleton family. As a historian, I get especially angry when people make history so boring. I am not sure how they do it. History is so interesting and there is a reason people love historical dramas and the idea of time travel — the sex, power, and politics of the past are both completely relatable and strange and unfamiliar all at the same time. I wanted to raise my hand on the tour and say, “no one cares about that breakfast table, why don’t we discuss the politics, racism, and issues of class and gender that fueled the economy and culture of this plantation?” It is not that the Middleton family shouldn’t be the subject of historical investigation, it is just that history has been there and done that. A much more fascinating story would be the human story of the greed, power, class tension, misogyny, negotiation, conflict, and coercion of the southern plantation system.
I am not sure why people think slavery is only a topic of African American history. It is U.S. history, and it is world history. More enslaved West Americans lived, died, and worked at that plantation than the Middletons and without extreme coerced labor, transforming cypress swamps into rice plantations would have never been a viable or profitable enterprise. Plantations, Charleston, southern cities more generally, and the cultures and traditions that developed from these were intimately connected to slavery. I think it is a shame and a disservice to present a white-washed narrative of a such a complex period of American history.
But did I mention the grounds are lovely? Sorry for this historical rant!