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How do you research, document, and interpret the history of a community that has seemingly vanished from the landscape? A session last November at the National Preservation Conference in Savannah gave some answers. Organized by George W. McDaniel, executive director of Drayton Hall, the session featured Toni Carrier, founding director of Lowcountry Africana and former Wood Family Fellow, as well as five descendants of Drayton Hall: Catherine Brown Braxton, Rebecca Brown Campbell, Annie Brown Meyers, Charles Drayton, and Shelby Nelson. “Our purpose was to show how historic sites could recapture seemingly lost history and connect it to people today,” said McDaniel.
Entitled “Preserving Our History, Telling Our Story,” the session was the first offered at a National Trust conference that included descendants of a historic site as participants. They are connected to the site because their ancestors were either slaves or slave-owners at Drayton Hall. As with most historic sites today, these descendants never lived at Drayton Hall, but they have special memories and connections to the site, passed on from generation to generation, thanks in no small measure to the site’s preservation.
Together, the five descendants represent more than three centuries of American history. Shelby Nelson and Charles Drayton are both ninth-generation descendants of John Drayton, who established Drayton Hall in 1738. A video of their grandfather, the last member of the Drayton family to own Drayton Hall, was featured at the session. “I think the groundbreaking outreach underway at Drayton Hall towards being ‘the tie that binds us’ can become such a positive message for all historic sites and people alike,” explained Charles Drayton. The descendants shared with the audience their special memories of Drayton Hall, and also encouraged others to embrace the concept of shared histories in order to interpret all sides of the plantation experience.
Sisters Rebecca and Catherine started researching their family’s connection to Drayton Hall with the assistance of their cousin, Richmond Bowens, who was born in 1908 and was also a gatekeeper and historian at Drayton Hall. Annie’s mother and her aunts and uncles were all born at Drayton Hall in the early 20th century, and she is the niece of Richmond Bowens. According to their family’s oral history, their ancestors were brought from Barbados to the Carolina colony by the Draytons in the 1670s as enslaved people. They shared their family’s history and spoke about the importance of bridging the divide between the descendants of the enslaved and slaveholders.
During the session, Toni Carrier presented her in-depth research of primary sources, including written records, photographs, drawings, and even a memory map produced as a result of oral histories of Richmond Bowens. While the map identifies the locations of houses, stores, and graveyard of the post-Civil War African American community at Drayton Hall, there are no buildings standing and few photographic or documentary records remain in family possession. Carrier researched this lost history, and put significant pieces of the puzzle back together again by interweaving oral history interviews with her dedicated research online of census records, deeds, marriage and death certificates, and other primary sources. As a result, she was able to write a brief history of each family’s home site and to characterize that landscape as having been occupied by a tight-knit community that valued hard work, cooperation, and education.
The session ended with a call to action for the audience to find out more about their own family histories. “For people who are interested in learning more about their family’s past, we would encourage them to commit to family, to learn their roots, to ask questions of their elders, and become engaged with their communities to promote and preserve their history,” said Rebecca. Eric Emerson, director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, reiterated that point and explained that this session has inspired sites in Kentucky and Tennessee to undertake such programs with descendants. In ways such as this, Drayton Hall makes a difference.