The descendants of slaves and slave owners meet

Staff writer

The descendants of slaves and slave owners met for a weekend-long reunion at a South Carolina plantation where they bonded over their painful shared past.

The ancestors of slaves who toiled away at Middleton Place, in Charleston, South Carolina, gather with relatives of the plantation's slave-owning family every five years for a two-day stay.

Guests have dinners and lunches together, tour the house and gardens and listen to lectures about their ancestors' lives on the plantation.

Over 3,500 slaves worked on the Middleton family's 19 plantations in South Carolina during the 18th and 19th centuries. The plantation is now a national historic landmark, home to the oldest landscape gardens in America and attracts around 120,000 tourists a year.

The first reunion was held in 2006 after an African American plantation descendant proposed that the separate reunions held for European and African American descendants should be united into one event.

Awkward at first

The second reunion took place in 2011 and the third in 2016 was attended by 300 descendants.

Rose Morton, 66, a retired post office worker, attended the first reunion after discovering that her ancestors had been enslaved at the plantation.

The mother-of-two, of Southfield, Michigan, said: "When my mother died in 2000, that's when I wanted to find family.

"I started doing research online, visiting the Alabama archives and looking up public records.

"I found out that we were from Middleton Place."

Morton's fourth great-grandfather Ceasar was born at Middleton Place in 1793. He remained there until slave owner William Middleton sold him in 1820.

Morton said returning to Middleton Place and meeting with the descendants of those who enslaved her ancestors was an emotional experience.

She said: "I could feel the earth move under my feet.

"I felt that they were there.

"I thought I would be scared the first night, that I would have nightmares, but I slept like a baby.

"It was very emotional.

"I would meet people and at first I was just a black person visiting but after they knew I was a descendant, they would shake my hand as though they wanted to feel something.

She added that there were awkward moments during the reunion but by the time she attended the third reunion in 2016, all her nerves were gone.

"At the first reunion, no one knew what to do," she said.

"The descendants of the slave owners had to carry that pain, but it wasn't them.

"They don't want to carry it but they do.

Mixed feelings

Anne Tinker, 74, is a direct descendant of the Middleton family, and has attended all three reunions.

Tinker, who worked in women's health and development, said: "At the first reunion we were all strangers and not quite comfortable with knowing how to express our past and our future

"By the end of the next reunion, we were all friends.

"We had a way to connect blacks and whites through this interconnected past.

"I was able to meet many of the successful descendants of the African American people who lived and worked at Middleton Place.

"I have been able to make some close friends.

"One of the things that is beneficial is we can talk to each other about race.

"We can acknowledge that slavery was evil but also what we have in common and how we can move forward to make things better."

Tinker has conflicting feelings about her ancestor Arthur Middleton, an immensely wealthy slave owner who was one of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

"I feel very proud that he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and these beautiful gardens and houses that he left behind," she said.

"But what makes me sad is that the family's contributions to US history would never have been possible without the contributions of African Americans who provided the labour, looked after the children and shared their knowledge on how to grow rice.

"Slaves made the Middleton wealth possible."

The next reunion is planned for 2021.