When a name was included on plantation records, it often was paired with a price — the value of human flesh marked as property.
Rose Hill, tucked away in the Union County portion of Sumter National Forest, was home to hundreds of slaves from the 1700s until the Civil War. It’s also noteworthy as the home of one of South Carolina’s leaders during some of the state’s most tumultuous years.
Elected for a two-year term beginning in 1858, Gov. William Henry Gist was a loud advocate for secession in the days following the election of President Abraham Lincoln.
The plantation — a large mansion surrounded by hills and outbuildings — now stands as a state historical site meant to help interpret the life and legacy of the man now known as the “Secession Governor.”
But on a recent Saturday, Gist’s legacy wasn’t the draw that attracted history buffs, students and other visitors to Rose Hill.
Instead, it was a tiny woman approaching 80-years-old dressed in period clothing.
Kitty Wilson-Evans, a noted interpreter of slave life, played the part of “Kessie” as she held court outside the tenant house on the Rose Hill grounds during the plantation’s first Labors program — an event meant to pay homage to the slaves who called Rose Hill home.
“Miss Kitty” shared old slave remedies — collard greens under the hat for fever, warm ashes in a sock for cramps and fig leaves for ring worms. And taught children how to make Blessing Dolls and other simple toys slave children would have made.
Wilson-Evans was playing a role, but at the same time she wasn’t. Her presentation snaked between stories of slaves and Wilson-Evans’ own childhood as the oldest daughter of a Fort Benning soldier.
She spoke of her mother, recently passed after more than 100 years of life, and conversations she’s had with officials at other plantations during other events.
“Whatever has happened to an old slave child has happened to me,” she said.
Wilson-Evans was one of two special performances highlighting the Labors program.
Across the lawn, Tyrie Rowell sat modeling hunks of red clay on an overturned metal bucket. Rowell, playing the part of “Cato,” an enslaved brick maker, demonstrated how slaves on the Rose Hill plantation would have formed bricks to be used on the grounds.
“You were expected to make 15 to 20 bricks a minute,” he said. “This was a busy process.”
“They were working from sun up to sun down,” Rowell added, “As long as you could see.”
Park manager Trampas Alderman said the Labors program was the first of its kind at Rose Hill.
“We wanted to do something that spoke of the African-American history here,” he said.
Aldermen said he hoped for at least 100 visitors for the event. An hour into the three-hour schedule and officials estimated well more than half that number.
At its peak in 1860, 178 slaves lived on the plantation, Alderman said.
Some of the descendants of those slaves still live in Union County, he said.
Their family histories are shown on plantation records, some of which were on display. Those records showed the plantation’s growth - from eight slaves to well over a hundred - and matched single names like Limus, Jacob and Amerito to prices.
In addition to the historical interpretations, S.C. State Park Service employees demonstrated several other plantation tasks. Small crowds gathered to see how candles were made in the 1800s and to see how residents of Rose Hill would have used large wooden looms to make their own cloth. Still more pushed into a tiny kitchen to smell homemade bread and simmering pumpkin peanut soup and taste benne seed wafers.
But the biggest draw was “Miss Kitty.”
Drawing on years of historical interpretation, Wilson-Evans spoke passionately of the history that doubled as her family history and passed around a rock taken from what she said was an otherwise nondescript dirt path - part of the famed Underground Railroad.
“Sometimes when I get started I go a little longer than I should,” she said after leading the crowd in an impromptu rendition of hymn, “This Little Light of Mine.” “There’s just so much I want to share.”