Yesterday I visited the McLeod Plantation on James Island, one of the 74,000 islands that comprise Charleston. From the shade of the oak-lined entrance boulevard, the denizens of the place, free and enslaved, must have heard the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. The Battery, after all, is barely three miles from the plantation. The McLeods were decidedly comfortable: account books reveal that, in one year, their 74 slaves harvested 90 tons of cotton, almost as many tons of fruits and vegetables. The slaves also tended cattle, hogs, and sheep. Of course, they ran the household, did the laundry, cooked and cleaned, tended the children, nursed the sick, watched their children shipped off to distant buyers. All this, and they dreamed of being free, too. Indeed, during the Civil War an uncounted number fled north, joined the Union forces, fought, and survived the hostilities. Some returned for the heady, early days of Reconstruction during which the feds took possession of plantations like the McLeod’s, divided them into 40 acre parcels, and distributed them to newly emancipated African-Americans.
This boon didn’t last long. Within a few years President Johnson rolled back the distribution laws, tore up the contracts ceding land to the former slaves, and returned the whole shebang to the original owners. Some of the disenfranchised departed into the unknown; others chose to stay on the plantation to work as tenant farmers. They occupied the same one-room cottages their fathers and grandfathers had lived in.
At present, there is little evidence of what a hard-working farm McLeod must have been. Now it’s simply beautiful. ‘Stately’ barely does justice to the rows of live oaks that bejewel both sides of the carriage path up to the Big House and the secondary road that passes the row of slave cottages. Some of these trees are 300, 400, even 500 years old. Ten eager children, their arms outstretched, could not reach all the way around the trunks. Branches extend fifty or sixty feet from the trunk, big branches, massive and ponderous. They decline gradually until they almost touch the ground, and then they soar into a perpendicular defiance of gravity that is breathtaking. To be seven and to climb these branches, and dare those vertical leaps, must be the perfect Wordsworthian boyhood adventure. Eden, pacific and serene. Time as grace preserved under these protective boughs. A dream of courtesy. A “spot of time” to which we return in later years as to a fountain thirsty for relief and inspiration.
Before the afternoon’s visit, the Shakespeare class I’m auditing at the College of Charleston discussed Macbeth. We watched a clip of Ian McKellen analyzing the “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech. Macbeth has just learned his wife has died; he replies “she should have died hereafter.” Apparently, some notion of time, the weight or the pointlessness or the irreversibility or its power to reduce a human being to utter nothingness arises from the word ‘hereafter.’ The soliloquy seeps out of McKellen’s reading of the lines. Time appears as tomorrow, now, the past, the lost, the never-attainable. We humans fulfill players’ roles; we strut and declaim our sound and fury; but we are idiots and we signify nothing, inevitably crushed by time.
Our good guide at McLeod Plantation wants to tell a different story. Here, the young woman suggests, time heals or, at least, progresses. We’ve recognized our past and corrected course. Which brings her to the life of Miss Gathers, a story that surely signifies something. Miss Gathers is the descendent of slaves who worked the plantation. She herself was born in one of the slave cottages. She graduated from high school—the first in her family to do so—and became a nurse. In this world of ironies, she returned to the plantation to nurse old Mr. McLeod, a job she held until he died at the age of 104. During her tenure she lived in one of the slave cottages. Indeed, she commanded several of these cottages. She transformed one into a school, another into an infirmary, a third into a chapel.
All this story felt recovered, restored from a distant past: a slave child overcomes great challenges, emerges from bondage, becomes the harbinger of a society that the future will bless. N’est-ce pas?
Turns out that Miss Gathers was born in 1945. This makes her a year younger than I am. I felt time collapsing about me. How could we be so far from and so close to slave days? How could those ancient trees learn the new ways?
Without knowing it, our kind young guide, still in school or newly liberated, showed us just how the past binds us and disconnects us simultaneously. She told us that Miss Gathers organized Sunday services in one of the slave cottages. To provide music, she brought in a portable radio tuned to a gospel station. Then our guide ran onto the shoals separating her, even her, even modern her, from the tale she told: “She provided music with a TRANS-i-tor radio,” she said, confidently mispronouncing the word. Time has broken her, or she has broken time. Macbeth’s ‘last syllable of recorded time?’ Probably not, but not a simple error by a naïf either.