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This September marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richmond Bowens (1908-1998), a seventh generation descendant of people who, according to family history, were brought as slaves from Barbados to Charleston in the late 1600s. To celebrate this important anniversary, on September 20 over 100 people gathered to honor Mr. Bowens’ life and remember the lessons he passed along. Most that attended the event were Drayton Hall descendants, both white and black. The history that Mr. Bowens’ shared about the African-American community of Drayton Hall has allowed us to understand and share so much about the site’s history that was not written down or found in documents, a history that might otherwise have been lost.
The day began with a formal program under a tent placed near the cemetery. Descendants, friends, family, and scholars shared their recollections of Mr. Bowens and how his life and lessons have inspired them. The group then moved into the African-American Cemetery for an unveiling of a new headstone at Mr. Bowens’ grave. Jazz musician Leroy Smalls, Jr. and vocalist Lorraine White, both Drayton Hall family descendants, provided the music for the procession into the cemetery. Following the graveside ceremony, guests gathered back under the tent for a lunch provided by Gullah Cuisine.
Guests had the opportunity visit a number of exhibit areas set up for the day and to share their family stories. Items that Richmond Bowens used while an interpreter were on exhibit as were a number of the archaeological finds excavated from the Bowens house site. Toni Carrier of the Lowcountry Africana project was on-hand to collect family histories and share her research finds on the African-American populations from Drayton-owned properties. Some family descendants had the chance to record their oral histories with our staff. Plans were also shared for a proposed African-American Memorial, designed by the famed Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons and his counsin Joseph Pringle, and a new interpretive panel for the African-American cemetery. We were fortunate to have Philip attend the event, who is a longtime friend and associate of many of the Bowens descendants and performed the repairs on the historic ironwork of Drayton Hall.
For some who attended, the day marked their first time back to the site in years, and for others the event marked the first visit since their childhood. In all, the day offered an opportunity for us to reconnect with the living descendants of the Bowens family, and to make new connections with descendants of other families that lived and worked at Drayton Hall, and knew it as home. The event was not an ending, but a beginning, for future efforts that will help Drayton Hall to reveal additional layers of its history and landscape, and to help shape the telling of their important stories.
You can see a photo album with some of the images from the day here.
Additional photographs of the event have been graciously shared by Mr. Joseph Chandler, and you can see those here.