Pipe Down Rice Plantation and Phillip Washington: The African-American Slaves of Sandy Island, South Carolina, Choose a Master
[A selection from Gullah Ghosts, also included in Tales from Brookgreen]
Genevieve Wilcox Chandler, a Hostess at Brookgreen Gardens, the popular South Carolina tourist attraction, told this story about Phillip Washington and the unusual events at Pipe Down Plantation on Sandy Island to visitors in the 1950s. Part of Sandy Island is included in today’s Brookgreen Gardens . . .
On Sandy Island before the War Between the States, Dr. Edward Heriot’s Mont Arena Plantation, where the main river landing was located, became the center of activity. Captain Thomas Petigru planted nearby Pipe Down Plantation. Unlike most other men who owned rice plantations on Sandy Island, Dr. Heriot and Captain Petigru and their families actually lived there on their plantations, along with their slaves.
Shortly before the War Captain Petigru died. His widow moved away and no longer wanted to operate the plantation. She began looking for a buyer for Pipe Down Plantation and its African-American slaves. She contacted several large landowners in the area, but none was interested.
The slaves on Pipe Down grew worried. They feared that the Petigru family would abandon the plantation and send their slaves off to auction, separating them from their home and from each other.
So the Sandy Island slaves took matters into their own hands, in one of the few ways permitted to them by the laws of that time. In quite an unusual step and one that demonstrated a unique level of independence and initiative, the Pipe Down slaves met together to select a new master for themselves!
At this meeting the slaves discussed what they knew about each planter under consideration: the clothing, food, medical services, and religious opportunities he provided for his slaves; the type of overseers he hired; the disciplinary measures he used; and his history of buying and selling off slaves.
After much discussion the Pipe Down slaves settled on Governor Robert Francis Withers Allston to become their new master. He already owned lands on the Pee Dee River. Governor Allston was the son of Benjamin Allston who had inherited Brookgreen Plantation from his father, Gentleman Billy Allston, the Revolutionary War guerrilla fighter who married Rachel Moore Allston, later Flagg (Remember, I told you all these stories, like all these families, are connected. Ask me about Governor Allston’s three given names sometime. They have an interesting story behind them that is also a part of the history of Brookgreen.) Anyway, the Pipe Down slaves all agreed that Governor Allston would make the best new master.
The next step was to convince Governor Allston to buy Pipe Down and its slaves. The Widow Petigru had already offered Pipe Down to Governor Allston but he had turned her down saying that he already owned more than enough land and slaves (as it turned out, he was right, but that is another story). So the Sandy Islanders had quite a task ahead of them.
The Sandy Island community met again and selected Phillip Washington, the Pipe Down Driver, to carry their request to Governor Allston. They chose Phillip Washington because he was intelligent and better educated than many of the other slaves. He was also well spoken and a leader respected by both his fellow slaves and by the white planters.
The trip to Governor Allston was arranged. There Phillip Washington pleaded the case of the Pipe Down slaves so eloquently that Governor Allston changed his mind, agreed to purchase Pipe Down, and soon did so!
Amazingly, the slaves of Pipe Down had accomplished their goal. They had kept their community together and acquired as desirable a new master as possible for themselves. Even more amazingly, this was a master of their own choosing!
Copyright 2004 Lynn Michelsohn
To learn more about Sandy Island and Phillip Washington, read . . .