Why Aren’t Stories Like “12 Years a Slave” Told at Plantation Museums?


Watching 12 Years a Slave, winner of the best picture Oscar Sunday night, it was almost as if I were there at Edwin Epps’ cotton plantation in the 1840s, walking past the gorgeous white mansion in the lush, green Louisiana landscape. Surrounded by cypress trees, I could hear the cicadas, and very nearly feel the humidity on my skin.

But it’s jarring to put yourself in a place so beautiful when you’re witnessing brutal scenes of back-breaking labor, of whippings and rapes, of work-weary slaves being woken up to dance for the master. I thought: This breathtaking place, this is where evil reigns.

Evil is not a word you hear, though, when you visit one of the hundreds of plantation-house museums dotting the South. Instead, these historic sites usually lure tourists with their stunning architecture and wealth of antiques, as the privileged members of the planter class denied themselves nothing. They had the finest china and silver of the 18th and 19th centuries; European-made furniture such as settees and tea caddies; the most expensive rugs, drapes, linens and clothing that money could buy. Even the toys and kitchen utensils offer a glimpse into the privileged life in the antebellum period, and tours play this aspect up, connecting these objects emotionally to the stories of the white planters. Many of these museums let visitors walk away without considering that all of these exquisite things were accumulated through the violence and forced labor of slavery.

For an example of such a museum that revels in its extravagance, but glosses over its uglier past, take Nottoway Plantation [top photo] near New Orleans. Once home to the 13-member Randolph family, its White Castle is one of the largest plantation houses in the South, a 53,000-square-foot mansion with 365 windows and doors, one for every day of the year. Privately owned by the Paul Ramsay Group, a conservative Australian investment firm, the site has been converted into a museum and bed-and-breakfast, where tourists who shell out $300 a night can experience the posh Victorian rooms of the enslavers, updated with modern amenities like electricity. The museum, hotel and restaurant on the site pull in $2.5 to $5 million a year.


Easter, a former slave at Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island, FL

The engine that kept the original 6,200-acre sugarcane plantation profitable was the labor of the 155 enslaved African Americans the Randolphs owned. That’s not to mention the 100-some enslaved people who built the house, and the 57 so-called “household servants” who didn’t draw a paycheck. Yet, Nottoway’s web site tries to counter the reality that these 300-some people were working with no choice, claiming patriarch John Randolph “knew that in order to maintain a willing workforce, it was necessary to provide not only for his slaves’ basic needs for housing, food and medicine, but to also offer additional compensation and rewards when their work was especially productive.”

The shortcomings of this particular museum came to light in December 2013, when progressive feminist singer and poet Ani DiFranco—a white woman originally from Buffalo, N.Y.—announced that she would host a “Righteous Retreat Song Camp” at Nottoway in June 2014. DiFranco ended up canceling the event and apologizing, but her misstep and the outrage it provoked in the African American community show how deep this “social forgetting” goes, and how plantations fail to fully tell their stories.

Nottoway’s description of slave life makes it sound like a walk in the park. “The brutal reality is that human beings didn’t have control over their own lives or the lives of their loved ones, whether they were their spouses or their children,” says Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia. “Slavery was harsh, nasty, dehumanizing. It created so much pain and anguish.”

We know this from narratives written in the 1800s by former slaves who escaped through the Underground Railroad and joined the anti-slavery abolitionist movement, as well as Twelve Years a Slave, the 1853 memoir that free Northern black man Solomon Northup wrote about his traumatic experiences of being kidnapped in 1841 and sold into Southern slavery. In the book, the basis for Steve McQueen’s film of the same name, Northup is shipped to Louisiana, forced to take the name Platt, is hanged and then cut down, is chased by men brandishing weapons more than once, receives multiple beatings and witnesses children being separated from their mothers, as well as countless whippings and beatings of others. He also recounts his master’s lascivious stares at a female slave, and the mistress’ jealous rage toward her. “Historians have taken that book apart and documented everything he said,” Newby-Alexander says. “He was accurate.”

Another priceless resource is the written slave narratives gathered between 1936 and 1938 by writers working for the Works Progress Administration who interviewed elderly former slaves, some 60 years after emancipation. In these accounts, previously enslaved individuals talk about working from sunrise to sundown; seeing families sold apart; being sexually exploited, whipped, maimed and branded; and witnessing murder. Newby-Alexander has worked with late genealogist James M. Rose, the author of Black Genesis, to trace the WPA interviewees back to their plantation homes and families of origin.


Myrtles Plantation, Louisiana

Of course, highlighting the horrors of the slavery is not exactly the best way to draw clients to former plantations that have been turned into bed-and-breakfast resorts. These repurposed plantations often market themselves as wedding sites that cheerfully promise to provide “antebellum splendor” and “the romance and mystery of the South.” The Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana takes light-hearted delight in its title as one of “America’s Most Haunted Homes.” And the web site for Southern Oaks Plantation in Louisiana states “Beautiful Chiavari chairs, sparkling crystal chandeliers, perfectly manicured lawns, magnificently presented cuisine—details like these have differentiated Southern Oaks Plantation from other [wedding] venues since our inception.”

“A lot of people treat a plantation not as sacred ground, not as a place of pain, but as a park,” Newby-Alexander says.

But even plantations that present themselves as museums based on historical facts typically minimize or ignore the presence or importance of enslaved African Americans. Jennifer Eichstedt, a sociology professor at Humboldt State University in California, and Stephen Small, an African American studies professor at University of California, Berkeley, toured and analyzed 122 former plantations in the South more than a decade ago.


Descendants of slaves of the Pettway plantation at Gees Bend, AL, 1937

In their resulting 2002 book, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums, they concluded that a majority of the plantation-house museums they toured were guilty of “symbolic annihilation,” which Eichstedt and Small define as focusing exclusively on the lives of the enslavers, failing to talk about slavery or the enslaved, or mentioning the enslaved only in cursory ways, referring to them with euphemisms such as “servants.” Other museums trivialized or deflected discussions about the presence, suffering or accomplishments of the enslaved, while some segregated the parts of the tour that talk about the enslaved.

Even today, visitors touring plantation-house museums are generally expected to admire the rich, white enslavers and sympathize with their plight. Cultural and historical geographer E. Arnold Modlin’s been through the Destrehan Plantation tour in Louisiana several times, and he’s noted there’s a particular narrative the tourists are participating in, one encouraging them to imagine themselves belonging to this extravagant, exclusive world.

“It’s an emotional journey where we become more and more engaged with the focus of the plantation house tour, the planter family,” Modlin says. “It starts in public spaces outside, with a sense that ‘This house is important. These people are important because they were major figures in the region, in the nation, or internationally.’ As you get to semi-private places in the house, the tour guides tell you, ‘Imagine if you were one of the planters who lived just down road or the river. This is the space you’d be able to come to dance, or you could eat at this table.’

If you tour enough plantations, a constant narrative is this tragic loss. And yet, it’s a tragic loss for whom?

A Lost Cause theme that surfaces in plantation tours is the suggestion that enslaved African Americans would have been lost and helpless without their masters. Modlin recalls touring a site in Louisiana, where the owners have rescued and relocated slave and sharecropper cabins threatened by demolition from around the region. Says Modlin,

We get into one of the sharecropper cabins, and the lady that’s leading us through this tour points out the magazine and newspaper bits that you see shoved in the cracks on the wall. The tour guide literally tells us, ‘Look at how these people chose to live.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, no.’ Can you imagine how drafty this cabin was? It had no insulation at all. These people were trying to keep their children alive. They didn’t choose to live this way; they struggled even in this economic system of slavery and, shortly after, sharecropping. They did what they had to do. … We’re still blaming people on their circumstances, not on the role the Southern slaveholders had.

Some plantations also offer side tours and workshops, where you can watch and learn about the artisan skills enslaved people performed largely for their masters. At Middleton Place in South Carolina, you can see demonstrations of weaving, carpentry, pottery, barrel-making, and blacksmithing. The Latta Plantation in North Carolina offers school programs on woodworking, candle-making, cotton processing and making cornhusk dolls.

It’s a difficult line to walk, Modlin says, acknowledging that despite being enslaved against their will, African Americans had valuable skills, knowledge, and talent that shaped the Southern landscape and economy. “We struggle with this concept of acknowledging, that yes, the enslaved were often extremely skilled people, and they had lives.”

And as miserable as slave life was, Modlin says, it’s just as reductive to picture the enslaved as entirely sad. “In a different way, we’re robbing them of their humanity by painting them as people who didn’t have full lives with the full range of emotion and stresses and moments of joy despite the circumstance they were in.”

Rather than depicting slaves as constantly depressed or angry, plantation-house tours tend to go too far in the other direction, often implying the enslaved were cheerful simpletons, happy to be working for the masters. And most plantation-house narratives, like the one at Nottoway Plantation, assert that this particular planter was a fair and morally upright slaveholder. Modlin says geographers marvel that it seems that the only plantations that have survived to today are those of the “good masters.”

Masters at plantations also didn’t consider the rampant sexual violence against enslaved African American women and girls to be a crime. Says Newby-Alexander,

The ongoing rape of black women was a standard practice. Slaveholders would also force them to be ‘married’ to black men so that they would reproduce, and so in some cases, it was organized rape. It’s tantamount to taking two dogs, a male and a female, and throwing them in a basement to have sex with each other so that you can have puppies. That’s how they treated them.


Interior, the Laura Plantation, Louisiana

According to sociologist Lisa Wade, former slave plantations could learn a thing or two about the presentation of history from, of all places, the death camps of Nazi Germany. Writing in The Society Pages, she compared her experience of touring the Laura Plantation with that of touring the Dachau concentration camp.

At the concentration camp, “The first thing that our tour guide did was impress upon us, in no uncertain terms, that Hitler was a terrible man, that the things that happened under his rule were indescribably inhumane, and that the concentration camps were death camps, pure and simple, with or without a gas chamber,” Wade writes. In contrast, at Laura Plantation, “I would guess that about 15-20 percent of the tour was spent on slave life.”

Leaving Laura Plantation—which is considered by researchers to be one of the plantation houses that does a better job of addressing slavery—she says, one can “come away not really thinking about slavery at all, in favor of how pretty the china was and oooh did you smell that candle as we walked by? Delicious.”

Modlin says that plantation-house tours have improved over the last two decades, although at a very slow pace. Modlin and other academic researchers have often counted mentions of slavery on these tours as a means to quantify how well tour guides are doing at addressing that piece of the past. Three mentions of slavery is considered too low, and if a tour increases that to 50 mentions, that’s a sign of substantial improvement. Still, increasing mentions doesn’t solve the problem of how the narrative is told.

Plantation-house museums run by the National Parks Service or funded by the privately funded nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation tend to be better at talking about the enslaved life, but Modlin says, even some of those places don’t talk about slavery enough. Privately owned plantations, particularly those owned by historic foundations on a county level, tend to be worse.

Working at a historically black university, Modlin says he sometimes talks with his students about how to handle the plantation as a space. “One way for slavery to get talked about more at these sites is for more black people to be present on these tours. If we continue a certain degree of segregation by choice, these places will never get better. But at the same time, individuals like myself who are white shouldn’t be trying to drag people of color into a place where they might not feel comfortable.”

After touring and studying plantation-house museums for six years, Modlin says he still doesn’t have an easy solution for getting plantations—or the United States as a whole—to take ownership or responsibility for slavery. But, he says,

Every tourist that goes through a plantation house who doesn’t ask about slavery is participating in the forgetting of slavery. After Django Unchained [another film about the slave trade] plantation owners reported that tourists were asking about slavery in connection to the movie. If we see something like that in a movie theater and it gets lots of awards, then maybe it’s okay to bring it up on a plantation tour, too. Media and pop culture can help change the narrative. We need to raise slavery in the nation’s consciousness, so that plantation-house museums are places where it’s safe to talk about this important part of our history.

(Recommended reading: Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave; the WPA slave narratives; Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small’s Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museum; some of E. Arnold Modlin’s papers on plantation museums here, here and, with Derek H. Alderman, here; Cassandra Newby-Alexander’s An African American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads; Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery: 1619-1877; Peter Wood’s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion; William Dusinberre’s Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps; Daniel C. Littlefield’s Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina; Dorothy Redford’s Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage; Smithsonian.com on “One Man’s Epic Quest to Visit Every Former Slave Dwelling in the United States.” 

Excerpted with permission from a longer, richly illustrated piece in Collectors’ Weekly.

All photos from Wikimedia Commons

Lisa Hix


Lisa Hix, an associate editor at CollectorsWeekly.com, has worked for Yahoo!, Flavorpill, KQED online and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her work also appeared at Bitch Media, Jezebel, Bust and Glamour. Find her on Twitter at @lisahix.


  1. Great article. Thank you for raising this topic, and exploring it with such subtlety. A really good start at this rich and troubling phenomenon.

    Kudos to Ms., too, for running this piece.

  2. Tedra Osell says:

    It’s not just plantations, either–I was really surprised on a food tour of New Orleans last summer to find that a question I asked about the African-American contribution to New Orleans and southern high cuisine–given that historically the vast majority of the folks cooking for rich southerners were black–was completely dismissed. In essence, the answer was that African-Americans didn’t contribute anything of note to New Orleans cooking (!).

  3. David Harley says:

    It might be worth noting that the director and lead actors are not American.

  4. Oak Alley outside of New Orleans does a better job. They have replicas of the slave quarters with a display that does not try to downplay how awful it was. Kudos to them. In Charleston, the Old Slave Mart Museum is where you’ll get the truth.

    • I visited Oak Alley recently too and couldn’t stop thinking about what this article addresses. I think they had a plaque that honored the slaves and they had recreations of their bare bones quarters, but they didn’t say anything in the tour about how sexual assault is such a basic part of slavery, which I think is an egregious oversight. The tour painted the plantation family as some nice all-American family, when in reality they were at worst rapists and human traffickers, at best, complacent bystanders.

  5. This summer, I traveled down to Louisiana for the first time. While there, I toured the Laura Plantation and they did a great job of showing what life was like for the slaves working there. They even brought up 12 Years A Slave in the tour. We went to another plantation on the tour and it was more like what you are talking about in the article above. It is interesting to think about how dramatically different the lives were in such close proximity to one another.

    • Sherry Stearns says:

      I too toured the Laura Plantation not to long ago. I think they did a really good job on addressing the hardships of the slaves. They had living quarters you could tour and while it was heart wrenching it was very informative. I highly recommend this Plantaion if you are going on a tour. The list of the slaves, their discreptions and their dollar values was very interresting.

  6. Alisa Harrison says:

    Some totally relevant shameless self-promotion: my PhD dissertation on this exact topic, Reconstructing Somerset Place: Slavery, Memory and Historical Consciousness (file:///C:/Users/Alisa/Downloads/D_Harrison_Alisa_a_200812%20(1).pdf). The issues raised in this article are extremely important and this is an area of study that needs more attention.

  7. Something never ever mentioned, and not even in writings about slavery is the architecture of many plantation houses in the South. That is. separated sleeping quarters for adolescent boys and young men so they could come and go as they pleased from the house without “disturbing” anyone.

  8. Carolyn Schemmer says:

    Thank you…Thank you…What a “Stand Up” heart tugging article. The research and energy you put into this article should receive every award possible. I was born in Richmond, Va., My 68 years living in VA. made me extremely aware of the tremendous pain & suffering the African Americans were forced to bare. When I was younger a friend of mine had pictures of her great great grandfather that still showed physical scars of mistreatments.

  9. Wonderfully written piece. Living in the Upper Midwest and never having visited the South as an adult this is something that I had never even considered.

  10. Ursula Dougherty says:

    The stories that are told are of the glory of those who profit from others labour. This is what our societies glorify today: not the labouring workers, but the people who cream the profit from that labour and are celebrated for it.

  11. Jennifer says:

    This web series is a response to the lack of stories about slaves at plantation museums today: http://www.askaslave.com/

  12. Catherine says:

    You could extend this argument to include English manors that have been converted into museums. Many of them owed their wealth and preservation to their lords’ landholdings in the sugar colonies (think Mansfield Park), which often had even more brutal conditions for slaves than the south. Some southern plantations may downplay the brutality of slavery (which is deplorable), but the English manors fail to acknowledge this was even a part of their history. I guess it’s easy to turn a blind eye when your slaves lived a few thousand miles away.

  13. Jennifer says:

    Learn about modern-day slavery at http://www.freetheslaves.net/

  14. Well, I had the chance to visit my 1st plantation in Oct. 2005, the Laura Plantation located in Vacherie LA, and I thought the tour was okay. The tour guide seem to have been a little apprehensive about some of the questions she was being asked and I think because we were African americans she didn’t want to be put on the spot. But we enjoyed ourselves. My entire family visited Evergreen Plantation in Edgard LA in March of 2008, and we where impressed by the tour guide. She was awesome….we were able to walk into a slave cabin and see what it looks like, we learned about the lining up of the cabins and how the cabins blended in with the spanish oaks. We saw a chair that was used for sex (strange) and we learn about the difference between creole slaves and american slaves. Now, remember, LA was not part of the US at one time therefore, that slaves too were not american slaves. Very interesting. Go visit the plantation museums in Georgia, FL, Alabama, MS and LA……You’d be surprise what you could learn.

  15. I remember as a little girl in Mississippi, my class to a field trip to Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’ final home. I didn’t know why at the time, I just wasn’t comfortable on this tour. I was bored and felt out of place. Such was the case again when my gifted class took a trip to the state capitol and again toured many historical Confederate sites. I’ve always been a history buff, but again, I felt disconnected in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I just wasn’t interested in what we were learning. Whereas a family trip to Booker T. Washington’s home in Tuskegee, Alabama seemed to be the most thrilling thing I’d ever experienced and planted in me a desire to attend the prestigious Institute (which I would later do and graduate with my BS in Education). Looking back, I now understand that as a child I couldn’t express my feeling of being left out, yet encouraged to admire these “wonderful” places. Certainly, they have a place in my own history, but that place is so vastly different from what was presented to us at that time and what is generally presented today. As an adult, I certainly feel no pull to visit any of these historical places. In part, because of what I feel is a misrepresentation of plantation life, but also in part because I’m impish in a way and have a habit of pointing out the elephant in the room–LOUDLY–if you will. It is not altogether surprising however, that this is how such should be portrayed. Look at how the MLK holiday is “celebrated” in the south. It is marked as King-Lee holiday. Really? Today’s corporations like Wal-Mart, who make billions of dollars off of workers whose wages and hours are barely enough for them to afford healthcare, many of whom rely on public aid, place the blame elsewhere or make excuses as to why they don’t owe their employees more. They even attempted to shift blame away from themselves when an overworked, sleep-deprived truck driver plowed into a limousine, severely injuring actor/comic Tracy Morgan and killing another passenger. Focusing on the pretty things drives the money IN is more important than highlighting some of the ugly truths that support the foundation upon which the wealth is built.

  16. M. CALDWELL says:

    I agree whole heartily with what was written in this article. Upon visiting our first Louisiana Plantation 5.5.15. I was thrown aback at the ‘bed and breakfast/have your wedding here/park atmosphere. There was no mention of those who toiled the land, made it possible for the plantation to exist. The tour guide actually seemed uncomfortable at the presence of Black Americans (there were only 2, my husband and I). Maybe she herself felt that the story she was selling left out the ugly truth. The Oaks Plantation and the Laura Plantation on the other hand did do a much better job at their attempt to give a feel for life of the slave. The Laura Plantation had the NOIR laws posted, and the tour guide even elaborated on the Catholic Church’s role in slavery. Both the Laura Plantation and the Oak Plantation was worth the time if you at least want to hear slavery mentioned. For the life of me I can’t understand why an African American would want to spend the night at a plantation much less get married at one.

  17. I was emotionally overwhelmed at the thought that my ancestor may have walked bled,and died on those grounds my eyes tears at the thought that any of my people may have went through that personal and emotional terror. my people did not get their first glimpse at terror in the 911 attack it was during and after slavery . let me give you. a piece of my reality . My ancestors died without a trace ,and it hurt me deeply to this day. I wish that some of the slave masters descendants would drop their shame and share their history what they know about their ancestors so I can find my ancestors voices. I Can search their names but ,i can`t know them . Maybe you have a piece of my history . your life and mine is tied together regardless, so if you can give me their voice out of understanding. Any slave owners descendants in the south or anybody with those last names white or black. Their last names are Hester, White, Thompson, Ross, Child`s and McIntosh. Signed, Voices .BE BLESSED!

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