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Researchers focus on Caw Caw in World Heritage Site effort

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By Barry Waldman

In 1739, a literate African slave named Jemmy instigated an uprising among his fellow slaves against slave owners along a corridor of plantations now known as U.S. Highway 17 in Ravenel. Research has determined that the Stono Rebellion, as it became known, spilled into the plantation that is now Caw Caw Interpretive Center. 

Nearly 300 years later, historic preservation experts and enthusiasts are planning to deploy that research to win National Historic Landmark status for Caw Caw.

The rice fields at  Caw Caw Interpretive Center now serve as habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, with the water-control system built hundreds of years ago still working as a preserve instead of being used for growing rice.  (Photos/Andy Owens)That designation will help fuel the city of Charleston’s efforts to earn World Heritage Site status for the local rice culture, the contributions of African labor and the resulting wealth creation that built some of the nation’s most historically significant buildings in downtown Charleston.

World Heritage status is conferred not upon a municipality but upon a collection of significant sites, each of which must individually earn designation as a National Historic Landmark. 

The Charleston World Heritage Coalition, funded in part by the city, is spearheading Caw Caw’s application for landmark status and will add that to 15-20 others as part of the larger effort to win World Heritage status for the city, according to Brittany Lavelle-Tulla. She runs a historic preservation research business and serves as executive director of the Charleston World Heritage Coalition.

The Stono Rebellion

Many details about the Stono Rebellion were not known for some time, in part because slave owners suppressed the news to prevent the idea from spreading. Newspapers in New York and London reported on it, but newspapers in South Carolina made no mention.

“It’s not something that’s taught in history class,” said Shawn Halifax, cultural history interpretation coordinator for Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, whose research served as catalyst to Caw Caw’s application for landmark status.

Slaves worked this system of dikes and quarter drains to control water flow to rice fields near the Laurel Hill settlement at Caw Caw Interpretive Center near Ravenel. (Photos/Andy Owens)Stono was the largest slave uprising in the British colonies, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 people, equally divided between whites and blacks, Halifax said. Jemmy led his band of Portuguese-speaking Africans in an armed march headed for Florida, where it had been suggested they could win their freedom.

Halifax said a birch-lined cellar of a warehouse about a mile and a half north of Caw Caw stands as the one physical reminder of the insurrection. Researchers found that the rebels raided the store for arms before heading south.

For this reason, the warehouse site is a National Historic Landmark. A marker on U.S. Highway 17 denotes the event and its significance.

Further research by Halifax indicates the likely route of the rebellion went right through Caw Caw, which continues today to commemorate the rice plantation still evident there. 

The rebellion ultimately failed, and it led to the Negro Act of 1740, which outlawed the education of slaves and largely curtailed the importation of slaves to South Carolina. This historic law had widespread implications for the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade, Halifax said.

“Slave importation slowed to a trickle as a result,” he said.

Halifax acknowledges that a similar law would probably have been passed without the Stono uprising, and the contours of the slave trade would probably have been the same. 

“It’s just my opinion, but what happened was inevitable and so was the fallout,” he said. “It didn’t happen in isolation. There were uprisings preceding and leading up to it, and a whole network of communities among enslaved people.”

The Charleston World Heritage Coalition has proffered to the National Park Service what amounts to a letter of intent to apply for National Historic Landmark status. The park service has final say on National Historic Landmarks and is scheduled to decide whether the coalition can go ahead with a full application in September.

If that approval is given, Lavelle-Tulla said her organization will then be tasked with another year or two of research to strengthen the case for Caw Caw. 

“The National Park Service may see this as an opportunity to dig deeper. That’s part of their mission,” she said.

She said landmark status for the Hutchinson warehouse is acknowledgment of the national significance of the Stono Rebellion and should work in Caw Caw’s favor. 

After the actual nomination is submitted, the park service has months more to make a final determination.

In the meantime, the government agency must decide which U.S. sites may be presented for World Heritage site status. Those nominations are open only once every decade, so if Charleston is not included on the list this year, its next opportunity won’t come until 2026. 

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