[JAMES ISLAND] – McLeod Plantation Historic Site, owned by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission (CCPRC), will host a Sea Island Cotton Day to educate the public on the rare crop that will be harvested at the property this fall. Planted in May at McLeod Plantation Historic Site for the first time in nearly a century, the Sea Island cotton (Gossypium barbadense) variety that made the Lowcountry famous.
On Oct. 21, the historic site will host a variety of educational and hands-on activities in honor of the growing crop. At 11 a.m., a special talk will take place with Dr. Richard Porcher, author of The Story of Sea Island Cotton, and Bill McLean, who acquired the seed planted. A second talk with Dr. Porcher will be held at 1 p.m. Site and cotton field tours will take place throughout the day, at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 12 p.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Ongoing from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sea Island Cotton Day will be several educational activities. Visitors will be able to pick a boll of cotton from the field, de-seed it using a hand-cranked cotton gin or by hand, and dye it with Indigo dye. Gullah-Geechee artist Sonja Griffin-Evans will be on hand to discuss her Sea Island cotton paintings and their inspiration.
Prior to the event, at 7 p.m. on Oct. 18, The Friends of McLeod non-profit organization will host a lecture featuring Dr. Richard Porcher and Bill McLean on Sea Island cotton’s past, at Fort Johnson Marine Laboratory.
The one-quarter acre Sea Island cotton crop planted May 22 at McLeod Plantation Historic Site will continue to grow and be harvested throughout the fall. The public may return to the site throughout the rest of the year to see the cotton bolls as they continue to form. For history and agricultural enthusiasts, the Sea Island cotton harvesting is an exciting event; however, the plant also symbolizes generations of oppression for many people who worked on cotton plantations such as McLeod. These themes will be a major part of the conversation and tours during Sea Island Cotton Day.
“Growing cotton has been remarkable because of the conversations it ingnites,” said Shawn Halifax, site historian and cultural history interpretation coordinator for CCPRC. “Some question growing a plant drenched in violent oppresion in 2017, because plantations during the 20th and 21st centuries often romanticize this history. However, digging deeper, one learns about the opportunity it presented to freed landowners on James Island like Pompey Dawson who in 1870 harvested 2 1/3 more cotton than McLeod using slave labor in 1860.”
Open now as a historic site, the 37-acre property on James Island was originally purchased by William Wallace McLeod in 1851 as a Sea Island cotton plantation. The last time Sea Island cotton was grown at McLeod was in the 1920s, ending with the arrival of the boll weevil, a beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers. The Sea Island Cotton Project is a partnership between CCPRC, the Friends of McLeod, Dr. Richard Porcher, and longtime local attorney and James Island resident Bill McLean.
Inspired by Porcher's book and the mystery of what happened to the local varieties of the cotton, McLean embarked upon a search for Sea Island cotton seed from the Lowcountry. He successfully located and acquired Bleak Hall seed originating from Edisto Island at a USDA seed repository. Looking for a location to plant, he approached CCPRC about growing the cotton at McLeod Plantation Historic Site.
“Sea Island cotton, along with rice, had a very important influence on the development of the Lowcountry and Charleston,” said McLean. “Locally produced Sea Island cotton was the finest and most valuable cotton fiber ever produced anywhere and provided the desired genetic traits of the finest cottons grown in the world today.”
In addition to its importance as a Sea Island cotton plantation, the site is locally significant to the history of James Island African Americans. In 1860, enslaved families like the Dawsons, Forrests and Gathers harvested 90 tons of Sea Island cotton, making it the most productive plantation on James Island. Today McLeod Plantation is important to Gullah-Geechee heritage and is carefully preserved in recognition of its cultural and historical significance. The site’s buildings include homes that make up Transition Row, where enslaved families and their free descendants lived during the 19th and 20th centuries.
CCPRC acquired McLeod Plantation from the Historic Charleston Foundation in 2011 and opened it as a public county park and historic site in 2015. McLeod Plantation Historic Site is open for regular visitation every Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit CharlestonCountyParks.com/McLeod or call 843-762-9514.