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.
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.
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.
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.
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