A new school plans to build classrooms on a South Carolina plantation.
By Meghan Hogan | Online Only | Feb. 11, 2005
On the same stretch of land where the Civil War started, a battle is under way over the fate of a historic South Carolina estate.
Located on James Island, S.C., the McLeod Plantation, which dates to 1671, has been empty for the last 15 years, quietly waiting for a new owner. That wait came to an end last December when the Historic Charleston Foundation sold it for $850,000 to the American College of the Building Arts, a new school that specializes in artisan trades such as masonry, carpentry, and ornamental ironwork.
However, some residents of the area, just off Charleston's coast, feel that a school will ruin the plantation's historic integrity.
The 617-acre plantation changed hands several times before William Wallace McLeod purchased it in 1851. During the Civil War, the estate served as officers' quarters for both Confederate and Union troops, a commissary, and a field hospital. After the war, it became a field office for the Freedmen's Bureau and was temporarily home to 20,000 freed slaves. The McLeod family regained control of the plantation in 1879.
After McLeod's grandson, William Ellis McLeod, inherited the property in 1918, he turned it from a cotton plantation into a potato, asparagus, and dairy farm. When he died in 1990, McLeod left the 39 remaining acres of the estate to the Historic Charleston Foundation with the stipulation that the grounds be preserved with the lowest residential density possible. The school's plan to build classrooms on the plantation has upset some residents, who last year formed a group, Friends of McLeod, Inc., and filed three lawsuits against the foundation.
Others are concerned about the school's construction plans because the plantation is a Gullah-Geechee slave burial site. The Gullah, or Geechee, people, who live on the sea islands and coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida, still use the language, crafts, and spiritual beliefs of their African ancestors. Listed last year on the National Trust's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, the Gullah-Geechee coast is slowly dying out as a result of development. During the antebellum era, 74 slaves worked McLeod's grounds, speaking their own language, a blend of English and African dialects, and practicing the traditions of their native West Africa.
"To build a school there would be like desecrating a grave site," says Thomas Johnson, chairman of the committee to preserve James Island's African American cemeteries. "The land should be utilized to help tell the story of the African American journey from bondage to slavery to freedom."
What makes McLeod Plantation unique, however, isn't so much its history but the fact that it's one of the last few plantations to retain many of its original antebellum structures. Still standing are the main house, five slave cabins, a kitchen, dairy, gin house, barn, and some other agricultural buildings.
"It's not exceptional. It isn't Tara or anything, but it's all there," says Carol Jacobsen, the general secretary for Friends of McLeod, which formed last April to fight the plantation's sale.
Having spent $190,000 on archaeological work and market research, no one can say the Historic Charleston Foundation didn't consider how to best honor McLeod's wishes while at the same time keeping it open to the public.
"We kept looking for a preservation-minded, nonprofit entity, since we felt that was the best organization to pass it on to so that it could be shared with the public," says Kitty Robinson, executive director of the Historic Charleston Foundation.
The foundation determined that the plantation could not sustain itself financially as a museum, so when the college, based in downtown Charleston, offered to turn the estate into its main campus, the Historic Charleston Foundation agreed that it was just the right group.
"We find that the school's ownership will be ideal because its mission and goals are similar to ours as far as preservation goes," Robinson says. "It will become a training ground for the very people who are masters in the building crafts, and they will have hands-on capabilities, just by being on the property."
American College of Building Arts President David AvRutick says the school spent about a year looking at different sites and finally chose McLeod because it felt both the school and plantation needed each other.
"It will be a wonderful, inspirational home for our students, and in return, our students will add to the life, maintenance, and care needed to take the plantation into the future," AvRutick says.
The school, which recently obtained its license, is the only college in the country to offer a degree in the building arts. It will welcome its first 48 students in the fall, but enrollment will gradually increase to a limit of 144.
Friends of McLeod argue that a college is not what William Ellis McLeod intended for his land, noting that his will specifically states the estate should be preserved as a single-family residence. Another bone of contention is the 60,000 square feet of classrooms the school intends to construct.
"The school wants to build 21 new buildings, and everyone knows from archaeological reports that pottery and other artifacts are buried there," Jacobsen says. "All the blood is still there from the Civil War."
AvRutick says the new buildings will fit into their setting. "Our largest building will be 3,000 square feet, and they are all very reminiscent of the slave cabins already on the property," AvRutick says, adding that no significant artifacts would be buried during construction.
According to the strict easements the school must follow, archaeological surveys must be conducted for any excavation deeper than five inches, and if anything is found, the ground must be examined further.
"With the amount of oversight going into this, there is probably no site with greater care being paid to it," AvRutick says.
However, Friends of McLeod say they have reason to worry: In 1997, the island's fire department purchased a one-acre parcel of the plantation to build a fire station. During construction, workers unearthed a hundred graves—after the city had declared the land archaeologically insignificant. The fire department later found a different site.
"There are remains of both Confederate and Union soldiers who died after surgery, and an unknown number of African American graves," Jacobsen says. "The latter are difficult to identify by cursory inspection because many graves were marked only with a pipe, a piece of pottery, or a rock."
While the plantation will be open for the public to stroll the grounds, the group questions how much of it will be restored to its original condition or be accessible to sightseers. The Historic Charleston Foundation's easements state that the main house, built in 1856, and some other buildings must be opened to the public at least two days of every quarter, but opponents of the college feel that is not enough.
"One of the easements states that they only have to protect one slave cabin, and the rest can be used for school purposes," Jacobsen says.
With more than 100 members, the group has collected 3,000 signatures on a petition against the school's plan and is awaiting the results of its three pending lawsuits against the Historic Charleston Foundation.
The foundation has plenty of support of its own, including that of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"We support the school and its mission, but besides that, the Historic Charleston Foundation hasn't been able to utilize the plantation as a museum, and we feel this is the best way to make sure it's preserved," says John Hildreth, director of the National Trust's Southern Office.
Despite the plantation's sale, the college has not decided on a construction schedule yet, and students will spend the fall 2005 semester attending classes at the school's current location.
Whatever the outcome of the lawsuits, it is obvious that residents on both sides of the issue care deeply about the plantation's cultural value.
"The thing about McLeod is that there are some big plantations with one or two made-up slave cabins to show plantation life, but this is the real thing," Jacobsen says. "This still is what it was."
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