Drayton Hall and its different perspectives: an interview with Charlie Drayton and Rebecca Campbell
By George W. McDaniel
Rebecca Campbell and Charles Drayton. Image provided.
Since Drayton Hall’s establishment by John Drayton as a plantation on the Ashley River in 1738, it has represented the story of both the influential and the marginalized. Purchased in 1974 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and state of South Carolina, Drayton Hall is an icon in colonial architecture, the first fully executed Palladian building in America. Charlie Drayton, who with his brother, Frank, was its last family owner, joins others in believing that Drayton Hall represents “our country’s history.” Rebecca Campbell, whose ancestors were enslaved there, explains when she visits the site, she “feels the spirits of my ancestors.” Historic places connect people.
It was Tony Wood, a member of Drayton Hall Preservation Trust’s board of trustees, who suggested I produce this book, Drayton Hall Stories: A Place and Its People, with an accent on the recent past. Thanks to Drayton Hall’s generosity, photographs and transcriptions of interviews from my last decade as site director were provided to make it possible. To look at this one place from multiple points of view, I conducted more than 50 interviews with Drayton and African American descendants and with staff, board members, donors and professional historians, architects, conservators and tourism leaders. This fall Evening Post Books will publish the resulting mosaic.
One goal is that by bringing people together of different points of view, Drayton Hall, like other historic places, can enhance understanding and build bridges across long-standing divides. The interview below is an example. Charlie Drayton was a direct descendant of the plantation’s founder, while Rebecca Campbell’s enslaved ancestors, according to family oral history, arrived with the Draytons from Barbados in the 1670s. Together, they represent better than three centuries of American history. Doesn’t their dialogue and seeking to understand each other illustrate how historic places might be used to benefit all of us?
Interview between Charlie Drayton and Rebecca Campbell
This interview was conducted in 2015 at Drayton Hall and is stored in Drayton Hall’s archives. Interviewers were George McDaniel; Toni Carrier, Wood Family Fellow, Drayton Hall, and now director of the Center for Family History, International African American Museum; Robin Foster, family history research assistant, Drayton Hall; and Jay Millard, videographer.
How are each of you connected to Drayton Hall?
Charlie: I was lucky to have been born into this family. I am the sixth Charles. The first Charles, born in 1744, was the son of John Drayton, who founded Drayton Hall. Now there are three more: my son, grandson and great grandson, Charles the ninth.
Rebecca: I am a descendant of Drayton Hall through Catherine Bowens, my great grandmother. My connections go way back.
What does Drayton Hall mean to you?
Charlie: It means just about everything. When I was growing up, I didn’t realize it was so wonderful. It wasn’t till later that I began to appreciate it. Transferring the ownership was traumatic because it’d been in the family for so long. Here I was, breaking up the line of ownership, but my brother, Frank, and I couldn’t pay the taxes, repairs and other expenses. That said, Drayton Hall still means an awful lot to me and to my children, and my nephew is now on its board.
Rebecca: Drayton Hall means family. My ancestors are buried here. Drayton Hall means to me Catherine Bowens, Caesar Bowens, Willis Johnson and Richmond Bowens. I can feel their spirits as I walk the grounds.
What did Richmond Bowens mean to you?
Charlie: Prior to World War II, he worked for my father. At the beginning of the war my father died, so Richmond went to Chicago to work. In the 1970s he came by my house and said he wanted to be buried at Drayton Hall. Could I help? Not only did we get permission from the National Trust for him to be buried in the cemetery here, but we recommended him to work as Drayton Hall’s gatekeeper and later at the gift shop [as a historian about family and community life for visitors]. After he died, his widow asked me to speak at his funeral, as she did you, George. It was a very touching time for me.
Rebecca: Richmond meant family. We did many things together. When he visited from Chicago, he’d bring his daughter Gloria and little Richmond to our home on Calhoun Street for my grandmother to babysit, and Gloria and I would play. He was more like my uncle than a cousin.
What were your fondest experiences at Drayton Hall?
Charlie: There have been so many. Two that stand out are my two daughters having their parties and wedding receptions here.
Rebecca: My fondest experience is coming back to the cemetery. Our events in the cemetery brought family members back. The dedication of Philip Simons’ arch, for example, was great, and the Draytons and us were also able to socialize.
What was your favorite place?
Charlie: Probably the woods. That’s where I spent most of my time. My father would let me bring a friend, and we’d just take off. We played a lot of games, fished, hunted and just had fun.
Rebecca: The cemetery. While other relatives may not have tombstones, we know they rest there.
What was your scariest moment here?
Charlie: I don’t remember having a scary moment. We did have hurricanes, and after one big one, the house survived beautifully, but the grounds didn’t. It took me an hour to go from the house to the river, climbing over and under fallen trees. I don’t know how this house has survived years of war, hurricanes, earthquakes and family!
How has knowing each other enriched your lives?
Rebecca: Knowing Charles has enriched my life. In the 1970s my cousin Richmond got family members together and said, “Look, let’s come to Drayton Hall. We need to get involved because our ancestors were from Drayton Hall. We need to move on. I’ll teach you.” My sister Catherine and I followed him. Richmond said, “I’m older than Charlie, but Charlie and I played together.” So we met Charlie, and then Anne, the other children and grandchildren. It seemed like we all became a part of the Drayton family. There was no hatred. No going back hundreds of years to what happened!
Charlie: No question! I hope it will remain that way forever. I remember being with your family and with Richmond and others and how wonderful it was. None of that acrimony at all. We all got along well together.
Rebecca: We sure did!
What messages would you like visitors to learn?
Charlie: They should learn that the house is different from anything else that exists today, either locally or elsewhere. It’s been in the same family for these many years. Even though it’s a site of the National Trust, I still consider it part of the family and always will. My children definitely do.
As for the whole site, I wish the houses were still here. A woman, Binah, lived across the highway, and until I was three years old or so, she took care of me whenever I came out. About seven or eight small wooden houses stood along a road off the entrance drive. I remember vegetable gardens and chickens, and most families had automobiles. I used to go and chat with families. It was wonderful. When I came back after World War II, all were gone. The museum shop [now exhibited as the Caretaker’s House] was typical — one big room around a fireplace and small bedrooms.
Rebecca: Now when you walk the grounds, it’s as if no one lived here. But there were houses, as Charlie said. We need to interpret those places and identify life.
How might museums connect descendants of former slaves and slave owners?
Rebecca: The main answer is to find the key person. Here, it was Richmond Bowens. Though him, we got to know the Draytons.
What is necessary for sites to bring descendants of slaveowners and the enslaved together?
Charlie: I’d say to families: “Come and find out something and learn. Come not just to Drayton Hall or to Magnolia or Middleton but to plantations wherever your families may have come from. Rebecca, Drayton Hall is ourhistory.
Rebecca: I would like to add that it goes beyond the families. We met George through Richmond, who said, “You need to meet George McDaniel.” So Catherine and I met George and his wife, Mary Sue, and we talked about Africa, where he’d been in the Peace Corps. George said, “Let’s start working with the Bowens and Drayton families and other descendants and have programs.” So we started doing event after event and brought out hundreds of descendants. This joint interview is one result. I recommend it to other plantations. The harder you work, the closer you get, the better you get to know each other. You begin to feel the tension ease.
What are your thoughts about the African American cemetery?
Charlie: One of the positive things recently is the recognition of the graveyard. The entrance “gate” [a wrought-iron open arch designed by Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons] and the love that’s gone into getting together and meeting, all have been tremendously positive steps.
Rebecca: One of the events that brought the descendants back to Drayton Hall was the dedication. Lonnie Bunch, director of National Museum of African American History and Culture [now secretary of the Smithsonian Institution], spoke. With the arch having no gate, the spirits freely walk in and go out. That’s the way we want to do — flow in and flow out as the living people.
Have you learned anything about your family from one another that you did not know before you met?
Charlie: I’ve learned that my own family loved to meet with you, Rebecca, your sister Catherine, and other descendants. I consider us as family.
Rebecca: We learned from Charlie and his family that he could sing Negro spirituals. When he got up by the podium at the cemetery program and sang, we were shocked. We asked ourselves, “How did he learn them?” His family had enslaved people, and we are the descendants, and here he is, singing Negro spirituals!
Charlie: Two originated at Drayton Hall. At the cemetery dedication in 2008, Anne and I sang one of them, “Honor the Lamb.”
Honor the Lamb for the good He’s done.
Honor the Lamb. Honor the Lamb.
Honor your mother for the good He’s done.
Honor the Lamb. Honor the Lamb.
And it goes on for 49 verses. Your ancestors sang that.
As descendants of slaveholders and of the enslaved, what would you say as takeaway messages?
Charlie: I’d like people to know we are good friends. We’re here together. This is home for both of us. All of us!
Rebecca: I’ve accepted being a part of Drayton Hall because of my ancestors and the Drayton family. I feel a part of Drayton Hall!
Charlie: I would like to say to you, Rebecca, that you are my good friend and that you are just as much a part of Drayton Hall as I am and my family is. The thing I’d like people to know is that we are all from Drayton Hall. Not just me, not just you, but all the people who were born here, who had any connection to Drayton Hall. We all belong to Drayton Hall.
How can sites like Drayton Hall help bridge racial divides?
Charlie: I think [it was] the fact that Richmond Bowens was here and became the link between the two of us. I hope more groups will get together and just enjoy each other’s company. Drayton Hall could help bridge the racial divide by having more gatherings like those.
Rebecca: I feel like Drayton Hall could help bridge the racial divide by using the cemetery as a starting point. Its tombstones show the birth date and death date and the family’s name. Most people are looking for relatives, so that’s a way of getting people together and then sitting down, meeting around a table and talking about the racial problems we are facing. I’d like for Drayton Hall to extend itself and have a retreat with plantations like Middleton and Magnolia and others so we can explain our feelings to each other. Probably this will release tension and could move us to other areas as well.
Charlie: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that’s a wonderful idea.
A resident of Summerville, S.C., George McDaniel was executive director of Drayton Hall from 1989 to 2015 and is now president of McDaniel Consulting, LLC, a strategy firm for communities and historical organizations.