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This slave cabin, seen here before it was moved in 2013 from Point of Pines plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina, is the centerpiece exhibit for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The move was facilitated by the Edisto Island Museum. Photo by Gretchen Smith
ColumnsHit the Road

Edisto Island, S.C., a vacation destination steeped in history

Looking head-on at the Edisto Island Museum, it does appear to be on the small side. But “it’s bigger than it looks,” says Director Gretchen Smith.

And sure enough, walk through the door of the former plantation-property home, and you’ll discover 3,500-square-feet of island history and culture, as well as a gallery featuring works by local artists.

“(The former house) has been added on to several times,” Smith says. “It was part of the Middleton’s plantation and belonged to a Black family. The plantation owners sold off portions of their land and the developer gave it to the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society, which operates the museum. I guess he thought that no one would want to live on Highway 174,” the island’s main road.

Centuries-old live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, provide a regal entrance to the home at Middleton’s plantation (built in the early 1800s) on Edisto Island. Sea Island cotton, a luxury variety that felt more like silk, made Edisto Island planters some of the wealthiest people in the country prior to the Civil War. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Edisto (ED-is-tow) Island, about 45 minutes southwest of Charleston. Today, Edisto’s 65 square miles and the town of Edisto Beach are touted as a family vacation destination.

Summer brings thousands of visitors who rent homes (no hotels) and come for the pristine, shell-covered beach; loggerhead turtles; massive, centuries-old live oaks dripping with Spanish moss; mom-and-pop shops and restaurants; a slower pace of life; and the ubiquitous water — marshes, creeks, rivers and the Atlantic, all rich with wildlife.

All of the above are why Smith built a vacation home on Edisto and later retired here. In 2007, she was recruited as director of the museum, which opened in 1986.

“I picked up the mantle but put my own priorities on it,” she says. “The museum had done a really good job of telling Edisto history from the white plantation owner’s view, so we gradually expanded the story to include the history of the Blacks who lived on the island.”

Smith’s most thrilling experience as director was facilitating the transfer in 2013 of an original slave cabin from Edisto’s Point of Pines Plantation to the then-newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Its curator called the cabin “one of the jewels of the museum positioned at its center to tell the story of slavery and freedom within its walls.”

The Edisto Island Museum, whose mission it is to preserve and exhibit the history of the island and to educate the public, opened in 1991. Its next major exhibit will explore South Carolina’s Gullah culture. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

“A family of 13 actually lived in it until the 1970s,” Smith says.

Two of those family members were present for the cabin’s installation at the Smithsonian.

There were hundreds of slave cabins on the island, Smith adds, “but nobody kept them because you had to pay taxes on them.”

Luckily, there was a second cabin, next door to the Smithsonian cabin but not in as good condition, that the museum salvaged. When the museum was renovated a few years ago, a space for this cabin was created. Th exhibit is illustrative of the life and hardships suffered by enslaved people. 

The 1860 census of Edisto indicated that 329 whites and 5,082 enslaved people lived on the island. Today, the island’s year-round population is about 1,900; 75% are Black.

Our friends Charlotte and Strait reside here three days a week. A recently retired family practitioner, Strait volunteers at the local clinic. Their home sits on Store Creek (so-named for the historic general store on the creek bank) and next to the main home of the Middleton’s plantation.

Boat docks and marsh grasses are a common sight along Store Creek on Edisto Island, 45 minutes southwest of Charleston. The creek was named after the store that once sat on the creek bank. Today, there still is only one grocery store on the island, which also has no hotels or chain stores. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

After walking its several acres, we take a cruise on Store Creek. From their creek boat, we can see other historic properties and land that once produced Sea Island cotton. It grew only in this area, known as South Carolina’s Low Country.

“It has much longer fibers and has a much softer feel than short-staple cotton,” Charlotte says. “It’s more like silk, and the English bought it all.”

As a result, prior to the Civil War, Edisto Island was one of the wealthiest per capita jurisdictions in the country.

As our boat ride comes to end, we watch an orange sun descend between the marsh grasses, turned from green to autumn gold. It’s difficult to imagine the strife, inhumanity and bloodshed that happened here, but reassuring to know that the earth can, given enough time, regenerate — and simultaneously, transport you to the past.

“Coming to Edisto is like stepping back 50 or 60 years,” Charlotte says. “Very rural, peaceful and quiet. We can enjoy nature and it’s really low-key.”

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