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Middleton Place, a 110-acre living history park on the banks of the Ashley River, is a national historic landmark best known as the birthplace of Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Photo courtesy of Middleton Place
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Tour guide Leslie Manigault shares the history of the slaves who lived and worked at Middleton Place.
Photo by Mic Smith
Eighty-four-year-old Leslie Manigault, a volunteer guide at Middleton Place, begins his moving Beyond the Fields tour near the stables, where he takes his bald-eagle walking cane and draws lines in the dirt, delineating the routes of the Middle Passage.
The history of slavery as it existed in South Carolina and here on the plantation of the Middleton family, he explains, begins with the forced journey across the Atlantic—captured Africans packed into the cargo holds of slave ships. On the cane’s shaft, Manigault has notched the size of the cramped space each slave occupied, and he holds it up for everyone to see.
“Now, all of a sudden, you run into a storm,” he says, inviting the tour group to imagine themselves on the journey. “And the ship is rocking and rolling, and you get seasick. They close the hatch to keep the water out, so now the airflow below deck is quite foul. Some of you get sick. They throw you overboard. The sharks are waiting.”
It is a sobering dramatization, the first of many on this tour, in which the retired chorus teacher asks his guests to imagine the lives of the slaves who built Middleton Place and grew the rice that made its fortune. Beyond the Fields is one of three complimentary tours available with general admission to Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark better known as the birthplace of Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and as home to the oldest landscaped gardens in the U.S.
There are, of course, modern amenities at Middleton Place—two gift shops, as well as the fine Middleton Place restaurant— but much of the plantation is preserved as it was. Sheep graze on the lawn, and in the stable yard, artisans in period clothing demonstrate textile weaving, blacksmith forging, pottery wheeling and barrel coopering. Other tours explore the livestock raised on the plantation and the symmetrical garden designs following the principles of landscape architect André le Nôtre, designer of the gardens at Versailles.
All three tours offer views of the stately “flanker” house, which, for an additional fee, one can tour in order to observe Middleton family heirlooms and trace the family’s history in South Carolina from the 1670s to the Civil War. The stately brick structure, which once served as guest accommodations, is the oldest building from the plantation days. The main house—burned by Union troops near the end of the Civil War, and then doubly destroyed by an earthquake almost 20 years later—is now just a pile of rubble, a place where Manigault stops to fill in more blanks of the slave experience.
From there, he leads the tour to Eliza’s House, a weatherboard duplex named after Eliza Leach, an African- American who lived there and worked for more than 40 years at Middleton Place. Inside, one poignant display includes a list that gives every slave’s name and job description.
“It’s just about a one-of-a-kind document and an excellent educational tool to remind people what slavery was all about,” says Stephen Reed, the director of communication at Middleton Place.
By the final stop of Manigault’s tour—the plantation chapel on the banks of the river—the tour group is fully absorbed in his dramatizations, hanging onto every word.
“The church is a very important aspect of the slave world,” he explains. “What would you do to earn your freedom before the Underground Railroad or emancipation?”
Here, Leslie Manigault doesn’t expect anyone to answer. After a moment’s pause, he says, “You reach down into that personal reservoir of personal, spiritual and religious strength, and you come up with the spiritual ‘Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody knows but Jesus.’”
And reaching back into his own reservoir, he sings in his gorgeous voice the spiritual “Steal Away,” as the group listens on in a solemn, beautiful quiet.
Middleton Place is located at 4300 Ashley River Road in Charleston.
Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Christmas Day. Middleton Place Restaurant is open for lunch from noon to 3 p.m.
Admission: A $28 admission fee allows you access to the formally landscaped gardens, stable yards, exhibits and complimentary tours, including the Beyond the Fields slavery tour, the Meet the Breeds livestock tour and the Garden Overview tour. There are additional costs for carriage tours ($18) and house museum tours ($15).
Details: Visit middletonplace.org or call (843) 266-7477.