When discussing whether it would benefit my readers and be respectful to include a plantation in my travel guides, Robin and I agreed that ignoring plantations and slavery wouldn’t change the fact that both majorly shaped history, culture, etc., and the area in and around Charleston. Learning about even the worst things to have happened in history, including what was done to enslaved people from West Africa and Barbados at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, can help prevent things like this from ever happening again. Here’s how the owners of Magnolia Plantation & Gardens can continue to transform this plantation into a place of education and respect.
**Please note that there are no ads or affiliate links within this post, as I do not believe it is ever okay to profit from slavery or the stories surrounding it. This post is different from my usual Gardens posts, as I’ll begin by discussing what’s offered at the plantation and end by sharing ways this plantation could be used to support racial justice causes and help end modern-day slavery.
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
Location: Charleston, South Carolina
Address: 3550 Ashley River Road
Type: Indoor & Outdoor Gardens
Size: 390 Acres
What is Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
390 acre Magnolia Plantation & Gardens was where several hundred enslaved people and their descendants were abused and forced to work the lands, primarily growing Charleston rice imported from Western Africa. Slavery existed at this plantation for around 200 years. Today, volunteers and staff, some of whom are descendants of these enslaved people, still tend to the gardens and preserve this historic site as paid gardeners.
Tours of the gardens began in 1870, making them the oldest public gardens in the nation. It is also the most visited plantation in Charleston. It was voted “America’s Most Beautiful Garden” by Travel & Leisure Magazine, it’s the oldest tourist attraction in the Lowcountry, and it’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When to Visit
I would recommend visiting Magnolia Plantation & Gardens on a day when it isn’t raining very hard, as most of the gardens are outdoors, and most of the paths are dirt, which means they could be muddy during or just after hard rains.
We visited in late April, early in the morning, when the azaleas, jasmine, and irises were in bloom, the skies were clear and beautiful, and everything was green and robust around the gardens. I can’t speak about visiting during other months, but late April was the perfect time to admire the beauty of the gardens on a warm, clear morning.
What to Do at the Gardens
The gardens offer several tours of the grounds. The most popular by far is the Slavery to Freedom Tour that takes participants through various time periods of slavery that Black people and Africans/African Americans experienced at the plantation, beginning with slavery and ending in the 1900s. Housed inside 5 preserved buildings, 4 cabins, and 1 smokehouse, the tour acknowledges that none of Magnolia Plantation would have been possible without the forced labor of enslaved people.
More guests who visit the plantation take this tour to learn about the lives and history of the enslaved people who lived on the plantation, rather than visiting the property’s main house where the slave-owning family resided. I think that’s encouraging as it speaks to people’s desire to understand African American & Black history better, as well as the desire to learn the stories of those who made Magnolia Plantation & Gardens possible, instead of focusing on the slave owners who exploited enslaved people. The property owners could leverage this massive interest in learning about and beginning to correct historical inaccuracies that are often glossed over to do much more good in the world, which I’ll discuss a bit later.
The conservatory garden was lovely and housed a large variety of orchids, palms, and air plants, all of which were thriving in the garden. There wasn’t much information about where they came from, which I would have loved to have learned about. Were they just there to be decorative? Did they hold any special significance? I couldn’t find this information anywhere, so I had to assume they were simply there for ornamental purposes. I’d love to see more information about their flora and fauna around the property.
Aside from the variety of tours available on-site, visitors who purchase an additional ticket can also take a 45-minute walk through the Audubon Swamp Garden at the plantation entrance on their way out. This swamp garden offers a rare glimpse at otherwise inaccessible swamp ecosystems, which is a fantastic opportunity for anyone passionate about nature and environmental conservation.
The white bridges around the gardens are some of the most popular photo spots on site. The gardens all interconnect, making it convenient to walk through the property seamlessly to take in the well-preserved natural beauty of these gardens. The property is also home to massive Live Oak trees, nearly all draped in gorgeous Spanish moss.
During our visit to the plantation, we saw peacocks wandering around freely, herons flying overhead, alligators lounging at the edge of the water, along with a dozen turtles sunning themselves near the water’s edge or on logs.
Bird-watching walking tours are also sometimes available on Sundays, where participants can learn about the incredible plethora of birds that call this area home. This walking tour requires an additional ticket.
Thoughts on Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
Slavery was and still is absolutely abhorrent. Tragically, racism still exists today, demonstrating the long-lasting, brutal damage slavery did to our nation and the rest of the world. It’s difficult to fathom such incredible gardens, blooming under the breathtaking Lowcountry sun, coexisting with such a monstrous practice as stripping people of their freedom, abusing them, and forcing them to work in rice paddies and gardens during the plantation’s 200+ years of slavery. We visited the plantation in the hopes of becoming better educated on slavery and the lives of the enslaved people, and I feel like Magnolia Plantation & Gardens did a decent job of this. Still, there is a lot of potential for positive change.
What Magnolia Plantation & Gardens Could Do Better
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens is in an excellent position to not only clearly acknowledge the pain caused by racism & slavery in the United States through signage, verbal acknowledgments during tours, and on their digital presences, but to also raise awareness of and support efforts to end modern-day slavery & sex-trafficking around the world. I hope that they take it upon themselves to do so. Obviously, their visitors have an interest in learning about the enslaved people who lived and were forced to work at the plantation for two centuries, as demonstrated by the popularity of their award-winning From Slavery to Freedom tour. They can and should build upon that momentum and do so in such a way that doesn’t take away from the stories of the slaves at this plantation but in a way that honors their struggles and helps others from suffering the same fate in modern times.
I didn’t see any clear condemnation of the practice of slavery itself around the plantation outright stating that what happened there was wrong, or any condemnation of the slave owners themselves, stating explicitly that what they did was abhorrent. From what I can find, the slave owner’s descendants still own this land according to this article in the New York Times from 2009 (if anyone knows of any updates on who owns this property, please let me know). An outright condemnation of slavery and racism would make it crystal clear to visitors, employees, and volunteers to show that they disagree with what their ancestors did to innocent men, women, and children.
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens has a non-profit side, which benefits food banks, dog adoption drives, environmental protection, and youth programs, among other causes. While these are all excellent causes to be sure, they could also support the descendants of those who were enslaved on their lands through scholarships, grants, or whatever specific assistance and reparations these individuals say they need, as well as seeing the plantation support charities that prevent and fight against modern-day slavery and sex-trafficking in the United States and around the world. Supporting anti-slavery initiatives as a place that formerly used slave labor seems like a no-brainer, but it wasn’t something I saw listed in the charities they support.
I also learned after visiting the plantation that apparently some couples get married at plantations, like celebrities Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, who married at Boone Plantation in South Carolina and later deeply regretted it. Why would anyone want to celebrate what should be the most romantic and happy day of their lives in a place where so much cruelty and abuse happened, and why would anyone be okay profiting from these weddings? There are so many more respectful places people could marry or host events in Charleston and worldwide that this is entirely unnecessary. Pinterest, The Knot, and other wedding planning services no longer promote plantation weddings for this reason, and you can join their efforts, initiated by Color of Change, by discontinuing the option to marry there and discontinuing for-profit events on the property like yoga classes.
Condemning violence against minorities and people of color, including condemning police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline, to such a captive audience as those visiting the plantation would go a very long way and would clear up any uncertainty about where the owners of this property’s beliefs lie. Making it clear that the descendants of those slave owners do not agree with or support the actions of their ancestors would show that they’ve learned from their mistakes and that they are committed to helping right these societal wrongs.
If they already do any of these things, it has not been made clear enough to be found by someone who was seeking out this information, and I would really like to learn more about their efforts if they exist. Continue offering educational tours of these lovely grounds, continue protecting threatened wetland areas, and supporting environmental conservation, all while simultaneously acknowledging that this property would not exist as it does today without the slaves who did all of the work to build and maintain them. Transform these gardens into a memorial where enslaved people can be honored, have their stories told, their names spoken, and their efforts honored, and emphasize that this place is part of their legacy, not the legacy of slave owners. The descendants of slave owners who are alive today are not responsible for the atrocities committed by their ancestors. Still, they do have the ability and the responsibility to help work towards a more well-informed, equitable, and respectful future.
If you are interested in finding local volunteer groups or causes to donate to in order to fight modern-day slavery, please check out EndSlaveryNow.org for a directory of causes that directly support ending slavery around the world.