Settled in the late 17th century, Middleton Place was acquired by Henry Middleton through marriage in 1741. The property remained in the family for four successive generations of Middletons: Henry, who was a President of the First Continental Congress, Arthur, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, the second Henry, Governor of South Carolina and Minister to Russia, and Williams, who signed the Ordinance of Secession five years before the Civil War engulfed Middleton Place and brought its golden age to a sudden end. Much of the wealth that built Charleston as a great colonial city came from the early plantation system. The Middleton Place serves as an opportunity to see and hear what plantation life was like in the 18th and 19th century.
At the Middleton Plantation there are two tours available: the African American tour and the House Museum tour. The former tour explores the lives of African American slaves and freedmen at Middleton Place and other plantations. Along the tour route guides examine labor at the Rice Mill and Spring House, the process of rice cultivation, the work of slaves in the landscaped gardens, and the domestic life of Eliza’s House (a freedmen home). While the African American tour focuses on how harsh and brutal the institution of slavery was on the Middleton Plantation, it neglects the slave community that was formed against the constraints of the masters. In order to truly understand slavery both sides of the coin must be examined: the oppression of slavery and the slave community formed within and often against these constraints. Religion and spirituality was at the center of the slave community which is evident when examining the Plantation Chapel and slave cemetery on the Middleton Plantation. In 1850, the second story of the Spring House was converted into a chapel where slaves merged European and African traditions to form Afro-Christianity. This new form of religion created an avenue for slaves to maintain humanity and hope for the future. In essence after taking the African American tour the viewer only sees a fraction of the lives of enslaved Africans on the Middleton Plantation in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Middleton Place House was built in 1755 as a gentlemen’s guest wing beside the family residence. Today it serves as a museum of rare Middleton family furniture, paintings, silver, china, books, and historic documents dating from the 1740s through the Civil War. The inside of the south wing has been renovated therefore fading the authenticity of the inside of the building itself. Although the actual structure of the house remains, historians select the primary documents and artifacts that viewers see during the tour. This becomes problematic because the historian can skew the information to fit his or her argument or purpose. The guided tours of the House Museum introduce visitors to the men, women, and children who made Middleton Place their home for over two centuries; however the tour neglects the African American servants and workers who labored in the home. The brick house itself was made by slave labor, and servants worked each day cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the master’s children in the house.
The actual separation of the African American tour and the Middleton House Museum becomes problematic to the goal of accurately depicting plantation life in antebellum Charleston. There is no clear transition from the life of slaves on the plantation and the life of the Middleton family, therefore the relationship between the master and slave is not seen or heard during the tours. Although these are two separate stories, they work together to paint a more complex picture of plantation life. This is evident when analyzing a letter from Mrs. Middleton to her son in 1872. After the Civil War many disappointed ex-slaves returned to the familiarity of their old homes to work for former masters in exchange for housing and token wages. Mrs. Middleton wrote her son in 1872 that a number of freedmen wanted to come back to Middleton Place. She commented that, after a while, there would be “enough laborers to keep the dear old place from reverting to a wilderness.” It is evident that a relationship was forged between the Middleton’s and the enslaved Africans on the plantation that persisted even after the Civil War. Creating an explicit transition between the two tours will create a more accurate depiction of the Middleton plantation that was built on slave labor.
Critical Tourism Company (Out of 10): 6.5