Uncharted Waters, Uncertain Ground

Ginna McGee Richards ’90 (JD) asks:
Can landscapes become a living map of history?

by Elizabeth Leland ’76


As Ginna McGee Richards ’90 (JD) drifted on her back in a creek near Charleston, South Carolina, cooling off from the summer heat, her thoughts also drifted. Though it connected the Wadmalaw and Stono rivers — two names derived from Native American dialects — the channel she was swimming in was called New Cut. Why?

That one simple question launched Richards on a 10-year odyssey of research and discovery.

In a region that prides itself on remembering, Richards uncovered a largely forgotten story: that of the Inner Passage, a 300-mile waterway from Charleston to St. Augustine, Florida, composed of natural rivers and tributaries connected by dozens of 10-foot-deep canals such as the New Cut, which enslaved people dug by hand through cypress swamps, marsh and mud.

The Inner Passage served as a trading route for wealthy planters — and later, in a twist of fate the landowners surely never envisioned, as an escape route for Black people fleeing slavery.

Smithsonian Magazine recently showcased Richards’ project in an article by Imani Perry, an African American studies professor at Princeton University, who wrote that Richards is “gracious, even self-effacing, but her curiosity is luminous.”

The College of Charleston will install large copies of her photos in an outdoor exhibit during its 2022–23 academic year, accompanied by poems written by students whom Richards invited to view and learn about the Inner Passage.

Richards created the photos for the project through a vintage process called wet-plate collodion.

Most photographs focus on the canals still etched into the salt marsh, and surrounding land and trees of the Lowcountry region of coastal South Carolina. In one photo, a soaring live oak fills the frame, its sprawling branches gnarled by age. The dark lines of huge limbs contrast with gray wisps of Spanish moss that appear to be blowing in a breeze. For 400 years, the magnificent oak has stood witness over the Inner Passage as generations of people passed beneath. The tree is a visual poem, Richards believes, giving the land a voice.

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“For me the story is about the land speaking its history,” Richards said. “You can see it. I’ve been photographing the waterways, and there are ‘witness trees’ that were present when the Inner Passage was used. They were physically there at the time. … Southern land is so rich in violence, ambition, hope.”

Richards also photographed descendants of plantation owners and descendants of enslaved people who worked on the plantations — “living embodiments,” she said, “of the people who lived there 300 years ago.”

Richards used a time-consuming, 19th-century method of photography in part because it is time consuming. Wet-plate collodion requires a portable darkroom and all the work must be done on location. First Richards coated an 8-by-10-inch plate of glass or tin with a chemical solution called collodion, then immersed the plate into a container of silver nitrate to make it light-sensitive. She then placed the “wet-plate” negative into her camera, shot the photograph and developed it in her portable darkroom.

With rich detail and silvery sheen, her pictures evoke an earlier era, reminiscent of photographs during the Civil War. The slowing down of the creative process, Richards said, “recorded nuances of shapes and places … and it seems like they speak louder.”

Richards using a modern digital camera at New Cut. Photo courtesy of Ginna Richards ’90 (JD)

Richards’ love of photography began at Myers Park High School in Charlotte. She earned her undergraduate degree in political science from Davidson College including her junior year studying at Carolina, where she photographed for the Yackety Yack. She received her law degree from UNC and for 15 years specialized in environmental law.

Richards was living in Charleston, pregnant with her fourth child, on the day she first walked down a muddy bank and floated in the New Cut. When she discovered the canal was built by enslaved people around 1690, she began combing through historical records searching for their names. She never found any, but when she learned New Cut was one of a series of canals linking the major rivers between Charleston and St. Augustine, she pivoted her research to include the entire route, much of which is now part of the Intracoastal Waterway. She found accounts in historical records and more recent publications of escaped slaves paddling south on the Inner Passage to freedom in Spanish-owned Florida, a century before the Underground Railroad took them north.

After years of sifting through microfilm and archival records, including maps, diaries, newspaper articles and deeds kept in libraries and museums, Richards documented that enslaved men constructed the public canals between 1690 and 1740. “I just kept going with what I thought was interesting,” she said of her research. She plans to write a book on the passage.

James Estrin, a photographer and reporter for The New York Times, helped guide Richards through a mentorship program from 2019–22 at Colorado’s Anderson Ranch Arts Center. “What allows her photographs to happen is this intensive research, this passion for finding out what happened — who are these people who built this, and what happened in this time that’s almost in American prehistory?” Estrin said. “Her photography is sensitive and intimate and reflects the passion that she has about this story.”

In the images, Richards captures so much more than water and trees and people, Estrin said: The power of her photographs comes from the feelings they convey.

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