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former plantations that have been turned into bed-and-breakfast resorts
April 22, 2014 6:57 PM   Subscribe

Why Aren't Stories Like '12 Years a Slave' Told at Southern Plantation Museums?
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 like 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.

An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives
Slave Narratives:
John W. Fields:
It was the law that if a white man was caught trying to educate a negro slave, he was liable to prosecution entailing a fine of fifty dollars and a jail sentence. We were never allowed to go to town and it was not until after I ran away that I knew that they sold anything but slaves, tobacco, and wiskey. Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then?
Sarah Frances Shaw Graves
"Allotments made a lot of grief for the slaves," Aunt Sally asserted. "We left my papa in Kentucky, 'cause he was allotted to another man. My papa never knew where my mama went, an' my mama never knew where papa went." Aunt Sally paused a moment, then went on bitterly. "They never wanted mama to know, 'cause they knowed she would never marry so long she knew where he was. Our master wanted her to marry again and raise more children to be slaves. They never wanted mama to know where papa was, an' she never did," sighed Aunt Sally.
Sarah Gudger
I 'membahs de time when mah mammy wah alive, I wah a small chile, afoah dey tuck huh t' Rims Crick. All us chillens wah playin' in de ya'd one night. Jes' arunnin' an' aplayin' lak chillun will. All a sudden mammy cum to de do' all a'sited. "Cum in heah dis minnit," she say. "Jes look up at what is ahappenin'," and bless yo' life, honey, da sta's wah fallin' jes' lak rain.
Charley Williams, James Cape, Tempie Cummins, William Moore, Walter Rimm

Narratives by State

PBS has links to sites with more information, like the Ohio Historical Society and the University of Virginia, and Mississippi.
Slavery And Emancipation In The Mountain South: Evidence, Sources and Methods - Slave Narratives
Unchained Memories: Readings From The Slave Narratives [PDF], a documentary by HBO, now on youtube.

previously
posted by the man of twists and turns (90 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

 
To answer the question of "why aren't these stories told at plantations" -

It's pretty much human nature to not want to be reminded about bad stuff in your past. Not an excuse, but it does seem understandable.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:13 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


From the first link:
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.

That pretty much nails it right there. People want to go on vacation and have fun. Yes, the building sand settings were home to slavery and all its terrible practices. We shouldn't forget that, but I don't see much point in deriding those who go to these places with no intention or desire to dwell on those awful events.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:13 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


A Canadian might have said it best:

I saw cotton
and I saw black
Tall white mansions
and little shacks.
Southern man
when will you
pay them back?
I heard screamin'
and bullwhips cracking
How long?
How long?
posted by item at 7:16 PM on April 22 [20 favorites]


Collector's Weekly consistently turns out these amazing articles, I love it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:17 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Sometimes people like a vacation spent looking at pretty things in an old pretty house.

If you want to get beaten over the head with things that happened generations before your ancestors died fighting for the North, there's always college.
posted by codswallop at 7:20 PM on April 22 [8 favorites]


I imagine it's pretty much the same if you visit the pyramids. Most of the world's opulence came from slavery.
posted by rocket88 at 7:24 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


I imagine it's pretty much the same if you visit the pyramids.
Not to derail, but some research indicates slaves didn't build pyramids.
posted by agentofselection at 7:30 PM on April 22 [18 favorites]


People who want to vacation in places like this are frequently doing so because of the "charm" of the antebellum South. The whole image they're selling is based on a picture of the place that was built on slave labor, with the slaves carefully erased. It's not like it's a pretty house where a murder just happened to have occurred at some point and it's best not dwelled-upon because there's no relation to the current occupants; the whole thing only exists as a destination anybody wants to go to because of this history. Otherwise it would be a bunch of much smaller farm houses, nowhere near as nicely furnished. People go there to envy the lifestyles of people who only lived that way because they owned other human beings. That seems like a very bad thing to be teaching people to covet.
posted by Sequence at 7:31 PM on April 22 [91 favorites]


Sometimes people like a vacation spent looking at pretty things in an old pretty house.


I guess we'll know this country has actually started to come to terms with its past when plantations are seen less as old pretty houses and more as monuments of an atrocity.
posted by seymourScagnetti at 7:34 PM on April 22 [76 favorites]


Big Government and the End of Slavery
posted by homunculus at 7:36 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


having just stayed in one such hotel, it's a weird feeling when it dawns on you (as you are being served by all-black kitchen staff) at breakfast exactly where you are staying. I hadn't really considered it because the place wasn't ever a plantation, but man did I have a sudden case of guilt.
posted by Dr. Twist at 7:37 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


I think failing to discuss slavery when giving a tour of a plantation house is a huge mistake, and a missed opportunity. There's plenty of reasons this stuff should still be relevant to modern visitors.

For one, there's the obvious fact that the legacy of slavery lives on in America, in the form of lingering racial economic inequality.

And then there's a more subtle point about the relationship between luxury goods and economic exploitation. It would do us good to think more about the relationship of the modern West to the developing world, and where our clothing, laptops, and smartphones come from.
posted by my favorite orange at 7:37 PM on April 22 [12 favorites]


I've visited a number of these places, as a kid, and there was usually a few token slave cabins to tour, but basically nothing about the brutality of slavery. I remember at least a couple that essentially bragged about how well they treated their slaves; you can imagine how terrible well was.

I think it's possible to imagine a tour of a plantation house that both appreciates the lovely building and teaches about the human cost, and it's a shame we don't do that.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:39 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


I was in the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville, Florida, which has dioramas set to illustrate some of the history of the area. One of these was a riverboat scene with allusions to gambling and a standing mannequin in a crinoline. A visitor commented to her children that she would have just loved to have lived then and had such an elegant lifestyle and such pretty clothes.

I mean I was gobsmacked, on the one hand. Also kind of enraged. There was no way that comment came from a place of ignorance about slavery and its effects. They just weren't felt to be of any relevance or import.
posted by glasseyes at 7:40 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]


We shouldn't forget that, but I don't see much point in deriding those who go to these places with no intention or desire to dwell on those awful events.

Going to a plantation with no intention to dwell on the past sounds like some combination of willfully ignorant and really distasteful, in my opinion.
posted by mhoye at 7:41 PM on April 22 [36 favorites]



Going to a plantation with no intention to dwell on the past sounds like some combination of willfully ignorant and really distasteful, in my opinion.

Then don't.
posted by codswallop at 7:49 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


If you want to get beaten over the head with things that happened generations before your ancestors died fighting for the North, there's always college.

I guess I'm not the target demographic for a plantation B&B, because I find the slave narratives and the remnants of slavery history much more interesting than looking at antiques in the big house or fantasizing about being at the plantation ball. I'm unaware of whether or not any of my ancestors fought in the Civil War, and if so on just one or both sides -- that's not a question that has ever seemed relevant to my life, though I know a lot of people take a lot of personal meaning from those narratives and identities.

I've never been on a southern plantation, but I have been inside both great houses and slave quarters in the Caribbean and there are places where you can feel the weight of that awful history and feel the hairs stand up on your neck. And, at the same time, you can appreciate the masterful stonework and architecture (and especially the sugar mills and factories), all built by slaves for the enjoyment and profit of their owners.

Going to a plantation with no intention to dwell on the past sounds like some combination of willfully ignorant and really distasteful, in my opinion.

And such a shallow way to experience a rich and complex history, honestly. There's no need to gloss over the past; it was a long time ago and no one visiting bears personal responsibility for what happened. Complexity adds to the experience, rather than detracting.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:51 PM on April 22 [17 favorites]


Willful ignorance is a common fault – too many people empathize with the boss and think how wonderful it would be to be rich. Forget empathy for slaves, I'd be surprised if anyone even asked how life was for the majority of white southerners who weren't rich and, often, were in some way competing with people who didn't pay their workers.
posted by adamsc at 7:53 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


I visited the The Robert E. Lee Memorial, formerly named the Custis-Lee Mansion, at Arlington. As I peered into the slave quarters heard a woman near me say "It doesn't look so bad."


That's our world here in the USA.
posted by cccorlew at 7:54 PM on April 22 [28 favorites]


Destrehan Plantation, mentioning in the article, which is one of the nearest plantations to New Orleans, has an exhibit on the 1811 Slave Revolt. When I visited I also heard a really interesting presentation on African-American herbal remedies by retired pharmacy professor Eddie Boyd.
posted by larrybob at 7:56 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


The reason why it matters how people engage with the physical artifacts of American slavery is because our society is still deeply troubled and divided by racial problems and racist beliefs. The creation of race-based slavery in the Americas in many ways created the idea of racism. Before that, slaves were in most European countries not explicitly racial: Europeans could be slaves, Arabs could be slaves, black Africans could be slaves (and all of them were slavers). Being a slave was obviously still a bad thing, but few argued that such-and-such "race" deserved to be slaves because of inherent physical and moral differences. But in the United States we justified the idea that race made one a slave, from birth. The attitudes that allowed Southern politicians to defend slavery and specifically the moral rightness of black people as slaves persist to this day.

The United States has never truly face its history.
posted by R343L at 8:01 PM on April 22 [22 favorites]


Sometimes people like a vacation spent looking at pretty things in an old pretty house.

If you want to get beaten over the head with things that happened generations before your ancestors died fighting for the North, there's always college.


This is a pretty stark simplification of historical tourism in the south. There are museums and other resources that seem to do a decent job of depicting the more complex history of the south. I just searched for "slavery museums" in the South, and found The Slave Relic Historical Museum, a museum in South Carolina. The blurb on their new blog summarizes the museum as such:
The Slave Relic Historical Museum is dedicated to documenting, preserving, interpreting, and celebrating the history and culture of peoples of African descent. Though victimized, exploited and oppressed, enslaved Africans in the Americas were active, creative agents in the making of their own history, culture, and political future. The Slave Relic Museum exhibits actual artifacts that were made and used by enslaved Africans from 1750 to the mid 1800′s.
There's no need to be "beaten over the head" with history, but to try to whitewash it all in favor of comfort is to forget where we came from. There are remnants of this history that persist, including slavery in another name - incarceration of blacks on trumped up charges to continue supporting Southern economies that relied on slavery to work, a practice that still continues though current use of prisoners for hire try to distance themselves from that association.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:02 PM on April 22 [12 favorites]


I would no more want to take a "romantic" vacation at a plantation B&B than I would want to take a "romantic" vacation at a former prisoner of war camp. Glossing over the brutal violation of human rights that took place on these sites is, just ... offensive is a mild term. Especially when there is still resistance to recognizing the true awfulness of slavery among certain people (including some mainstream politicians).

Ignoring that history is not neutral.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:04 PM on April 22 [36 favorites]


(I should also note that many Northern politicians supported slavery and nearly all justified a lesser place in society for black people as the "natural order".)
posted by R343L at 8:08 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Silence and avoidance is not the answer. That allows people who want to see a particular view of history where slavery is reduced to a footnote to promote their version and fund it. There should be outright protests and questioning and active opposition to this, not just turning your back.

And if you know someone who has had a romantic holiday at a plantation house without grappling with the history of it, they should be asked about it.

Singapore fails spectacularly to deal with its history. We've rebuilt and paved over everything in development, and what's left is carefully curated for the tourists and school children for the official history. Our beach where 30,000 men were massacred by the Japanese invaders has just a simple plaque. Our national library, built by humble public support when the colonials left, torn down. Now the cemetary where most of our pioneers are buried is to become an expressway over national protest. We had outright slave markets and when I bring that up with people, they're almost all surprised because it's never discussed, that we were built as a port for the British Empire, buildings built by imported slaves worked to death, that women and children were bought and sold on our streets.

Coming from a country where history has been systematically dismantled and homogenised into a politically helpful narrative - this matters so much. The articles linked have some really thoughtful responses about addressing this gulf.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:13 PM on April 22 [14 favorites]


The first frame of this FPP can be slightly modified so that it applies perfectly to the gilded age mansions in Newport RI:

Evil is not a word you hear, though, when you visit one of the many gilded age mansions dotting Bellevue Ave in Newport RI. Instead, these historic sites usually lure tourists with their stunning architecture and wealth of antiques, as the privileged members of the industrialist class denied themselves nothing. They had the finest china and silver of the 18th and 19th centuries; European-made furniture like 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 gilded age, and tours play this aspect up, connecting these objects emotionally to the stories of the wealthy owners such as the Vanderbilts and Astors. Many of these museum mansions let visitors walk away without considering that all of these exquisite things were accumulated through violence and a highly oppressed labor force.

The narrative is remarkably similar. I even pressed the issue with a tour guide many years ago. She made it clear that the script wasn't going there.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:40 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


If you want to get beaten over the head with things

Phrasing
posted by shakespeherian at 8:43 PM on April 22 [14 favorites]


Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

-- Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
posted by kirkaracha at 8:52 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


This seems totally nuts to me. As that first link alludes to, it's like a museum in Germany commemorating the Nazi era that doesn't mention the Holocaust, built on the grounds of a concentration camp.
posted by XMLicious at 8:53 PM on April 22 [12 favorites]


Why Aren't Stories Like '12 Years a Slave' Told at Southern Plantation Museums?

because the customers are white people in their 50's.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:53 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


the real way to play this as a plantation is to play up the benevolent slave masters and the escape attempts. just avoid the splitting families and whipping and rape.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:54 PM on April 22


Sometimes people like a vacation spent looking at pretty things in an old pretty house.

Ani? Is that you?
posted by kmz at 8:58 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


When I lived in Mississippi, I was a docent (one of many) during the spring "pilgrimage" where antebellum and plantation homes were opened for tours and many women (mostly women) were staged throughout the homes in period dress (hoop skirts, galore) to answer questions about the rooms, the objects, the families who lived there and the history of the home. Slavery was barely spoken of. I was in the 8th grade and stationed in a little in-between room that housed a little foot-pump organ. I think I was put there because I supposedly played piano. I was allowed to demonstrate but it sounded pretty bad.

The ways in which slavery as a history (at least at this time - late 80s) was not addressed was pretty astounding. It was treated as a fact, a sort of awful but inevitable fact. I sometimes think the "pride of the south" can be a little puffed up precisely because some of the history is so unbearably ugly.
posted by amanda at 8:58 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]


This seems totally nuts to me.

Me too, but then I remember that it's still culturally acceptable to argue that the Civil War was not really about slavery.
posted by rtha at 9:00 PM on April 22 [12 favorites]


I've visited a number of these places, as a kid, and there was usually a few token slave cabins to tour, but basically nothing about the brutality of slavery.

Almost all of those are reproductions, if they exist, because the originals were so shoddily constructed of such poor materials that they have long since collapsed and reverted to nature. Some places don't even rebuild them, so you can tour the whole place and see no visual reminder that people were enslaved there.

Ignoring that history is not neutral.

This is exactly it. History is constructed, not just recorded. People believed for generations that slaves enjoyed slavery because of propaganda created by slave owners and reinforced by organizations, like the many local groups that become the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that actively lobbied for history to be recorded in a way that was favorable to them. Not just tolerated slavery, enjoyed it. (They were most successful in getting primary and secondary school textbooks to perpetrate the States' Rights and "we treated our slaves like family!" myths.) Erasing that history is wrong.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:01 PM on April 22 [8 favorites]


Several years ago I took a tour at The Laura Plantation, a Creole plantation near New Orleans, and the tour guide didn't shy away from the topic of slavery.

The New York Times has an article about the plantation from 1998 and the man who rescued it, Norman Marmillion.

From the article: Now Laura is making money with more than 70,000 visitors a year. They are a new generation -- minorities, foreign tourists, young people -- who, Mr. Marmillion said, want the truth without the fluff. Sometimes, he added, we break cultural icons as we deal with sensitive issues of race, class and gender.
posted by 1066 at 9:10 PM on April 22 [8 favorites]


I think when a lot of us look at the past we identify with the people we wish we were, instead of the people we are.
I am pretty certain that fantasies about actually being a slave are pretty rare.
White people in particular aren't going to mentally go there.
The beautiful clothes, elegant household furnishings and grand balls in the Big House are a lot more fun than thinking about back-breaking physical labor, being whipped, raped, malnourished, forcibly converted, and sold away from one's relatives and friends, and being less valuable than a cow or a horse.
Having one's helpless babies even used as alligator bait.
If that were your fantasy life, you'd probably be considered in need of mental health assistance.
Have you ever noticed how people who believe in past lives and claim to remember those past lives were Napoleon, or a King, or queen? You rarely hear of people who were peasants or slaves in their past lives.
Peasants, the poor and slaves, and plain, hard-working people who are neither rich nor poor vastly outnumber the privileged even now.

No one wants to go on vacation to an old inn where people slept two or three to a bed, regardless of gender, or if they were even married to each other or friends, or something.
They'll go to that inn and have their own room, or share a room with their husband or wife, but not total strangers, as people did in the Civil War era.
Maybe a few strange people who do Civil War re-enactments will wear what people really worse then, although I doubt the ladies would FULLY follow the customs of those times.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:13 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Sarah Gudger, at 121 years old, was relating her memory of a meteor storm that she saw when she was about 17 years old. That must have been amazing, for her to describe it so vividly over a century later. For comparison, from around the same time as Sarah Gudger's narrative, this guy's relating his father's story about that storm, which happened before he was even born.
posted by asperity at 9:26 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]


Me too, but then I remember that it's still culturally acceptable to argue that the Civil War was not really about slavery.

In case anyone missed it: Daily Show episode from last month in which Fox's Andrew Napolitano promotes a book he wrote concerning this premise, at the end of which he faces off against Jessica Williams dressed as Abraham Lincoln and a panel of actual Civil War scholars including Eric Foner (who wrote the textbook used in my college "History of the Civil War" class), with predictable results.
posted by XMLicious at 9:28 PM on April 22 [5 favorites]


Me too, but then I remember that it's still culturally acceptable to argue that the Civil War was not really about slavery.

Relevant thread.
posted by homunculus at 9:48 PM on April 22


Why Aren't Stories Like '12 Years a Slave' Told at Southern Plantation Museums?

because the customers are white people in their 50's.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:53 PM on April 22 [+] [!]


They're actually often kids. I grew up in Virginia and went to many plantations as part of school, and also some of them had grounds for recreation. I noticed the one nearest my hometown (Sully Plantation) has been renamed "historic site," which is interesting. We definitely didn't get accurate stories about slavery as kids, at least not in elementary, but we had some idea of what went on there based on the name "plantation", and now it's referred to as "farm on historic site." Not sure how to feel about that.
posted by sweetkid at 9:58 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


"It's pretty much human nature to not want to be reminded about bad stuff in your past. Not an excuse, but it does seem understandable."

A) Bad stuff you did. I think most Black folks would rather Never Forget™, y'know, like the holocaust + 9-11.
B) It's only in the past for white folks. Black people are still living deep in the aftermath of slavery.
posted by Eideteker at 10:01 PM on April 22 [24 favorites]


I've been on a tour of Destrehan plantation. I was actually surprised by how little attention was paid to the plantation (and the system that kept it going) versus the attention paid to the fillips and frills and architecture. Did you know that the top floor is designed to let breezes pass directly through? And the water tower filtered and cooled water? Those things are interesting in their own right, but they might apply to any Southern mansion. They have nothing to do with Destrehan being the facade of an enterprise which treated human beings as livestock. It's a bit like the accounts from the children of ranking Nazis, who played happily in walled estates that were built on the grounds of concentration camps. How can you tell the story of Destrehan without telling the story of the rapes? Of families callously torn apart? Of perpetual labour, of beatings, of manacles, of lives weighed and measured and accounted as profit? It just astounds me.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:28 PM on April 22 [8 favorites]


I've been through spring pilgrimage at Natchez twice, most recently more than a decade ago, and down the River Road plantations in Louisiana a couple of years back. Natchez seemed pretty averse to dealing with the history of slavery other than in the most superficial way, which isn't entirely surprising since some of the families are still in the houses, or inherited the home from distant relatives. The River Road plantations seem to be split between the B&B/restaurant scene and the ones that address slavery more openly.

Watching that change since the 80s, when I visited the plantations with my parents, has been interesting on the historiographical front even without getting into the present-day politics of it.
posted by immlass at 10:58 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Despite the inequity between the wealthy white slaveowners and the rest of the white population in the South, the two groups often shared one uniting trait—racism against black people—which is a large reason why poor, white Southerners were willing to go to war to protect an economic system they didn’t benefit from. As Eichstedt and Small write in Representations of Slavery, “Racism—or rather, racisms of different kinds—was pervasive, and provided the glue to hold white society together.”

New boss same as the old boss.
posted by maxwelton at 11:15 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Sometimes people like a vacation spent looking at pretty things in an old pretty house.

And some people like to dress up in snazzy-looking Hugo Boss outfits for Halloween.
posted by dirigibleman at 12:17 AM on April 23 [9 favorites]


As a child and into adulthood, my parents dragged me to historic sites in the southeast US to look at the mansions and manicured battlefields with memorial plinths and bronze generals. Occasionally we saw interpretations of the slave quarters on the tours, which I remember mostly as tidy cabins with an occasional woman weaving a basket in the swept yard.

Then in my 30s, I visited Andersonville. It was just a field, for Chrissake, but the horror of that place moved me. Over the next few years I had a cascade of reevaluation that went from the war itself to the cause of the war, back to the slave-owning founding "fathers" forward to now. I'm revolted by how our history has been romanticized and continues to be so, and wish I'd been beaten around the head with the truth earlier. These sanitized sites don't make us better people.
posted by Banish Misfortune at 4:09 AM on April 23 [7 favorites]


I visited a bunch of River Road plantations in Louisiana a few years ago and was really struck as never before how much slavery contributed to these places, but it was hit or miss whether these things were discussed.

It would still be pretty incredible to visit these places and understand that all the beauty and ingenuity actually came from the slaves. In our mythology we only think of slaves as either working in the fields or the kitchen, not being architects and builders. I would very much like to know what their contributions were.

After Katrina I remember an article in the NYT about a group of plasterers in New Orleans with special skills that had been handed down for generations, beginning with slaves who worked on the plantation houses.
posted by maggiemaggie at 4:15 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


Ignoring that history is not neutral.

Oh, they don't just ignore it, they make heroes of those that committed treason to preserve the atrocity, and terrorists of those who tried to throw off their shackles. In many ways the US, and the South in particular, is going backwards when it comes to addressing slavery and racism. They may dress it up with talk about a "culture of honor" or "economic freedom" or "state's rights," but it's still a vigorous defense of owning people and inflicting incredible horrors on them.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:48 AM on April 23 [9 favorites]


I would never be interested in touring one of those plantations. Hell, when my wife dragged me through some of the Newport Mansions, it set off all my Oppressor Alarms.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:56 AM on April 23 [5 favorites]


And some people like to dress up in snazzy-looking Hugo Boss outfits for Halloween.

Here's one !
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 5:10 AM on April 23


A) Bad stuff you did. I think most Black folks would rather Never Forget™, y'know, like the holocaust + 9-11.
B) It's only in the past for white folks. Black people are still living deep in the aftermath of slavery.


Yeah, this is kind of my point - it's the white folks who own and run these restored plantations, is my guess, and so presenting exhaustive commentary on "Why We Suck" is something that I imagine they wouldn't want to be doing.

I'm not saying this is the way things should be, only presenting it as an assessment of why it has shaken down that way thus far.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:46 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, if you go to George Washington's Mount Vernon, nowadays there's at least as much about the slaves as about Washington. Don't get me wrong, covering up the (free and slave) workers' harsh lives would be a lie, but people go to Mount Vernon to learn about Washington, not the plantation system.
posted by easily confused at 5:47 AM on April 23


Calling slaves servants is disingenuous. A few years ago I heard a show from Clemson University (a land grant public university that benefits enormously from taxpayer dollars) on South Carolina public radio. It was about some restored plantation, as presented by a so-called "historian", who, if I remember correctly, taught at Clemson. The "historian" talked about Christmas traditions on said plantation and was all about praising the lavish decorations and feasts. She also said that "the servants" were given Christmas off.

I fired off an irate letter to the station, which advised me to write to someone at Clemson, who didn't respond. I finally wrote to the head of African American Studies at Clemson and he talked about having his students analyze the content of this radio show's broadcasts.

Many of these plantation museums benefit greatly from public funds and from tax exemptions. We can and should ask of these historical museums a more sensitive and accurate depiction of history. If enough people ask those hard questions I want to believe that things will change.

Meanwhile down here in South Carolina where I work large gated communities with armed guards at their gates and with almost exclusively white residents proudly call themselves plantations, like Hilton Head Plantation, built on land that was conned out of the hands of descendants of slaves.

P.S.: If you're ever in south coastal South Carolina be sure to visit the Penn Center, history done much more honestly.
posted by mareli at 5:54 AM on April 23 [7 favorites]


Here's the money quote from the Salon piece :

Among white Southerners, rich or poor, the universally accepted history was the version that would later find fame in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel “Gone With the Wind”—a book that sold millions, was translated into twenty-seven languages, and has probably had a more lasting influence on public perceptions about the South to this day than any other single work.


I think people would rather live in a movie than in reality.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 5:56 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]


Ugh. I'm hoping Drayton Hall is going to do better on this; I've heard some encouraging things but don't know anyone who has been yet.
posted by pointystick at 6:12 AM on April 23


When I was in Amsterdam I went to see a cute little house in front of a canal that has been preserved since the 40s'. Goddamn sanctimonious liberals kept killing my guilt free vacation time reminding me how some girl wrote a diary in that house about Nazis.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:12 AM on April 23 [6 favorites]


I'm surprised that Gone With the Wind didn't come up earlier in the thread. It's a big part of Southern tourism and the romanticized image of plantation life. You'll find it alongside the peach-themed junk in any tourist shop at ATL.

The only place that race has in that image is nice old Mammy, who cares for Scarlett very much.
posted by Fleebnork at 6:13 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


Article by Tony Horwitz, about how some descendants of slaves are looking at the plantations. Worth reading!
posted by mareli at 6:20 AM on April 23 [4 favorites]


This is such a weird post and thread. The very excellent slave narrative links are sort of hidden behind the "Why don't vacation destinations teach awful, bloody truth" link.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:51 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


the real way to play this as a plantation is to play up the benevolent slave masters and the escape attempts. just avoid the splitting families and whipping and rape.

this is exactly what happened when i toured southern historic sites with my classes as a kid. it was all about how "here, the help were treated well - while still slaves, they were seen more as family" and other assorted bullshit.

the education southern children are given is so pervasive that it was probably only in the last few years that i finally threw off the last of my "but it wasn't ~all~ about slavery" defenses. metafilter has honestly been a huge part of that - seeing how these arguments unfold, seeing links to primary documents that were edited in my text books - it really helped me unpack it all. i thought i had done a pretty good job of undoing the damage of my upbringing, but i still had that big step left to go.
posted by nadawi at 7:53 AM on April 23 [11 favorites]


but people go to Mount Vernon to learn about Washington, not the plantation system.

i've come to a point where i think it's irresponsible to talk about washington or any of the founding fathers without in the same breath talking about the system that vaulted them to power. the deification of the men who founded this country needs all the deflating we can muster.
posted by nadawi at 7:57 AM on April 23 [18 favorites]


I always find it very odd when african-american dialects are transcribed phonetically. It is so hard to read and is obviously done not in the interest of linguistics. Looking at old early 20th century newspapers I find this a lot. It is never seen when transcribing a white man's speech even when they have a very distinct southern drawl, unless of course it is done for humorous effect.
posted by JJ86 at 7:58 AM on April 23 [13 favorites]


I somehow also thought about the Anne Frank house while reading this, MisantropicPainforest. There is a big difference between that and a plantation house though. The Anne Frank house is a very sad reminder of the suffering of specific people during WWII, but is clear that "other people" were the agressors, the bad people, so, like most of our WWII reminders, it's more of a "look at this terrible thing that the terrible enemies did to us". The Dutch aren't any better than Americans at introspection when it comes to slavery and other big problems of our past (like violently conquering countries). We had a celebration of 400 years VOC a few years ago and it was shocking how there was almost no attention whatsoever for the very dark side of our "entrepreneurial past". Our former prime minister tended to praise the "VOC mentality" (he did that more than once so it was not just an unfortunate slip-up that he didn't think through). I doubt that when you were having guilt free vacation time in Amsterdam you came across any mention of slaves and brutality, even though thanks to slaves and brutality Amsterdam was such a rich city with such beautiful buildings that people like visiting today.
posted by blub at 7:58 AM on April 23 [3 favorites]


The most popular one near New Orleans is Oak Alley (about 40 miles upriver in Vacherie.) People have ostentatious weddings there.

The wikipedia page says they have a slavery exhibit since 2013:

In July 2013, the Foundation opened a new permanent educational exhibit, "Slavery at Oak Alley." Housed in six reconstructed slave quarters, this exhibit covers the entire history of slavery at Oak Alley, from the 1800s through emancipation.
posted by bukvich at 8:04 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


It is never seen when transcribing a white man's speech even when they have a very distinct southern drawl, unless of course it is done for humorous effect.

I wouldn't say never, but it is a hell of a lot less common, and almost never done to the same degree. Mostly you just get something like "Ah" instead of "I," that sort of thing.
posted by asperity at 8:04 AM on April 23


Ugh. I'm hoping Drayton Hall is going to do better on this; I've heard some encouraging things but don't know anyone who has been yet.
posted by pointystick at 6:12 AM on April 23 [+] [!]


I went to Drayton Hall a few years ago. There were some replica slave quarters, and there was some discussion about how labor intensive the rice crop was, and the cost of slave labor made that an economic problem. But it didn't feel at all like the focus was on raising awareness of the horrors of slavery. The focus was on how lucky it is that the big house and the grounds have been preserved so well.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:07 AM on April 23


I've also visited Laura Plantation (in Vacherie, Louisiana, about 2 hours from New Orleans). One of the reasons we went to Laura instead of, say, Nottaway Plantation (site of the whole Ani DiFranco debacle), was that locals told us that Laura had the most "honest" tour regarding slavery. The guide spent a lot of time on it, and didn't justify the landowners' actions or pretend the slaves were happy. The most striking thing about the Laura tour, though, was that the four former slave cabins were inhabited until 1970, and then the residents moved literally right across the road, where they still live. Several of the tour guides (but not the one we had) at Laura are descended from people who were enslaved there. I can't imagine how weird that is for them, but on the other hand, it's cool they have some control over the narrative now.
I think it's really screwed up that people go to plantations just to look at the pretty houses and play at being Southern gentry. The houses are beautiful, and tearing them down wouldn't solve a damn thing, but slavery is not an incidental. A plantation was an engine for exploiting human labor; that was their purpose. It's wrong to pretend otherwise, no matter how sparkly the chandeliers are.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 8:22 AM on April 23 [13 favorites]


People go there to envy the lifestyles of people who only lived that way because they owned other human beings. That seems like a very bad thing to be teaching people to covet.

As a native Tennessean and the son of a woman who considers herself a "southern lady", I also visited my share of these sorts of places. All I can say is that it didn't really occur to me that the wealth on display had anything to do with slavery until I started reading about the south in college. I'm not sure there is the connection there to make covetousness. You just think, "oh, rich rice farmer", you don't think "Rich rice farmer who made their living of the forced labor of others. Thus, bad, you don't get the full story, but, good because you don' think "Slavery was awesome. Look at this great house they had!".
posted by josher71 at 8:26 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]




I always find it very odd when african-american dialects are transcribed phonetically.


Obviously not quite the same phenomenon but:

You is kind. You is smart. You is important. Auuggghhhh.
posted by sweetkid at 8:26 AM on April 23


We could do with a little less self-righteousness here. Half the goods in my house were probably made by children or adults in very bad conditions for very little money in a country that is not mine.
posted by Melismata at 8:38 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


What, no mention of the hilarious/painful "Ask a Slave"?
posted by emjaybee at 8:52 AM on April 23 [5 favorites]


Half the goods in my house were probably made by children or adults in very bad conditions for very little money in a country that is not mine.

If you're interested in this, you can find out a lot more information about the ages, backgrounds, working conditions, and countries of the people who made your products.
posted by sweetkid at 8:57 AM on April 23 [5 favorites]


We could do with a little less self-righteousness here. Half the goods in my house were probably made by children or adults in very bad conditions for very little money in a country that is not mine.

Honestly, this attitude has always struck me as a great excuse to do jack shit about correcting injustice, because it assumes that [this injustice over here] can't be addressed unless [this other injustice here] is taken care of, and on down the rabbit hole. Can't fix it all, it says, so might as well just throw up your hands and do nothing. Blech.
posted by rtha at 9:05 AM on April 23 [17 favorites]


We could do with a little less self-righteousness here. Half the goods in my house were probably made by children or adults in very bad conditions for very little money in a country that is not mine.

If you really care about the unjust systems under which the goods you buy are produced, you can start your own thread, and we can discuss it, find resources, and attempt to discover together what we can do to minimize our participation in those systems and make the world better.

If you just want to use the suffering of children in sweatshops as an excuse to shut down the conversation about a different injustice, carry on, and keep buying your stuff.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:19 AM on April 23 [20 favorites]


I forget the name of it, but it's the ONLY pre-Civil War plantation I ever went to, it's a popular food destination jus outside New Orleans.

The slaves actually bought out their former owners and worked the property themselves. They made a fantastic buffet restaraunt there.

I did not know about the history of this place until my mother told me about it. Anyway, it was a very interesting experience.

I'm glad it's the only Big House I ever was in.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:21 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


I went to the Evergreen plantation (near New Orleans) last year. I've also been to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin.

At Sachsenhausen they mentioned the war, and the holocaust, but beyond that left us to explore the grounds. There was no explicit mention of families being broken up, torture, starvation, etc. To learn more about that we could visit the Holocaust museum (which we did).

At Evergreen they didn't avoid the topic of slavery, and pointed out the (intact) slave quarters. But they didn't dwell on rapes and whipping. I was aware of the terrible history of the place, but I also wanted to soak in the setting. Part of that was things like the live oaks lining the roads (we have nothing like that where I live), and yes, the plantation house and its furniture.

That's just me, though. I have friends that were seriously unimpressed that I would visit a plantation, and incidentally also that I would have visited the tenement museum in NY.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:34 AM on April 23


...found The Slave Relic Historical Museum, a museum in South Carolina. The blurb on their new blog summarizes the museum as such:
The Slave Relic Historical Museum is dedicated to documenting, preserving, interpreting, and celebrating the history and culture of peoples of African descent. Though victimized, exploited and oppressed, enslaved Africans in the Americas were active, creative agents in the making of their own history, culture, and political future. The Slave Relic Museum exhibits actual artifacts that were made and used by enslaved Africans from 1750 to the mid 1800′s.


It would be great for such museums to also have beautiful sections dedicated to "the finest china and silver of the 18th and 19th centuries; European-made furniture like 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"

That contrast, that contextualizing, that connecting of the dots sounds like it's absent from both the plantation museums and slave museums, but it's a key component of what, how, why, etc.

There are places where contrast is viscerally present (eg the Taj Mahal towering out of the squalor). People notice without being told. People think on it without being pushed.
posted by anonymisc at 11:51 AM on April 23 [1 favorite]


Pruitt-Igoe, from looking at the Wikipedia entry on Sachsenhausen it appears that if you wander around the grounds in addition to the quarters where prisoners slept you would see execution trenches, a pile of gold teeth extracted from prisoners, mass grave sites, the crematorium, and numerous plaques and monuments to the people imprisoned and executed there.

In contrast, a museum about the plantation era that limits itself to including a mock-up of slave quarters seems like it's intentionally eliding the misery and suffering of the victims of the plantation system who lived and died in the location the museum is based upon. If you have to already know about all that stuff to be aware of it because it isn't evidenced by the exhibits, the museum isn't doing much of a job at being a museum.
posted by XMLicious at 12:38 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]


There's the Kingsley Plantation, where one can see the owner's home, as well as the remants of slave quarters. When I was a teacher, I chaperoned on a trip of Historically Black Colleges with a bus load of young ladies and this was one of our stops. Between Edward Waters College and Bethune-Cookman (toured Mary McCloud Bethune's house too.)

It's a VERY different perspective and one I advocate.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:55 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


In contrast, a museum about the plantation era that limits itself to including a mock-up of slave quarters seems like it's intentionally eliding the misery and suffering of the victims of the plantation system who lived and died in the location the museum is based upon. If you have to already know about all that stuff to be aware of it because it isn't evidenced by the exhibits, the museum isn't doing much of a job at being a museum.

As far as I know they're not a mock-up, but original cabins (that have probably been repaired over the years, and were still occupied long after the civil war).

As for the rest I think it depends on what the museum's objectives are. Evergreen is a collection of historic buildings. The buildings themselves are the exhibit and the point ("Evergreen Plantation is the most intact plantation complex in the South with 37 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including 22 slave cabins.").
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:36 PM on April 23


Pruitt-Igoe, from looking at the Wikipedia entry on Sachsenhausen it appears that if you wander around the grounds in addition to the quarters where prisoners slept you would see execution trenches, a pile of gold teeth extracted from prisoners, mass grave sites, the crematorium, and numerous plaques and monuments to the people imprisoned and executed there.

In Sachsenhausen the point, to me, was the structures and artifacts there on-site from its time as a concentration camp (plus the soviet memorial that was added after the war). There wasn't a collection of personal stories like at the Holocaust museum, or an interpreter giving a detailed description of the conditions at the camp. At least that I can remember; it's been 15 years.

If Evergreen has more artifacts, beyond the cabins, that speak directly to its time as a slave plantation, then of course they should be on display as well.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:47 PM on April 23


Thank you, emjaybee, for mentioning that series. That is a hilarious look at the pervasive ignorance of people, but it's also very educational. Lizzie May tells it like it is.
posted by Kokopuff at 1:55 PM on April 23


They're actually often kids. I grew up in Virginia and went to many plantations as part of school, and also some of them had grounds for recreation. I noticed the one nearest my hometown (Sully Plantation) has been renamed "historic site," which is interesting. We definitely didn't get accurate stories about slavery as kids, at least not in elementary, but we had some idea of what went on there based on the name "plantation", and now it's referred to as "farm on historic site." Not sure how to feel about that.

This isn't limited to the South and field trips to plantations. In Southern California, kids go on field trips to missions like San Juan Capistrano and get a very sanitized tour, or at least they did when I was in elementary school. I only realized just how sanitized after my history classes in college, because those field trip tours sure didn't mention how disease ravaged the indigenous populations, how the close quarters of the missions only made it worse, how many indigenous women were raped by the Spanish, how they were overworked and exploited.

Instead, we wandered around a pretty mission, made a diorama or scale model of a pretty mission, and moved on. Putting harsh historical truths in context is apparently not good business for tourism, or considered appropriate for children, I guess.
posted by yasaman at 4:51 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


I liked the framing of this post because I think the addition of the narratives highlights just how empty the excuse is that slave history isn't "interesting enough" history to be featured in the plantations.

And you could easily link the beautiful artefacts of the planters back to slavery, by contextualising the rich cost of these things and for many of them, the actual artisans who made them, in the cost of human lives. A gleaming gold-rimmed porcelain dinner set feels different when you realise it was the equivalent of three young girls sold.

There's an app for your slave footprint today, based on the industrial exploitation of people. Should be even easier to do something like that for actual straight-out legal slaves historically.

A neat aside from reading this thread - I went to look up more about Singapore's historical slave trade, and discovered that the colonial founder, Raffles Stamford who tried to stop slavery here, had been refused burial in his parish church back in England because the local vicar's family had made its fortune in slavery in the West Indies.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:37 PM on April 23 [5 favorites]


The prison camps plantations just need clearer signage.
posted by pracowity at 11:46 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


I wanted to point a North Carolina state historic site, Somerset Place. The site director for almost 20 years, Dorothy Redford, is a descendant of slaves who lived and worked at the plantation. I've been on the tour and they really spend a lot of time on the slaves and what their lives must have been like.

One of the things that allows the site to do such a thorough interpretation of the slaves is that the owner, Josiah Collins, kept meticulous records and a lot of them survived.

I have an old brochure from Monticello from the 1970's and they refer to the slaves as "the antebellum work force."
posted by marxchivist at 5:59 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


It's not a former plantation, but the former headquarters of the Franklin & Armfield Co. in Alexandria, VA, the largest domestic slave trade company in America, is now owned by the Northern Virginia Urban League and operated as the Freedom House Museum.
posted by Partial Law at 8:01 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


Going back to the slave narrative part of the post, Ta-Nehisi Coates just pointed out Out of the House of Bondage, which uses female slave narratives from the house slaves of plantations to talk about the intersection of chattel slavery and patriarchy. (Coates also quotes some horrific stories in his post.) These are some of the stories that need to be told at plantations: the intimate violence that went on in the big house among the pretty things, not just in the fields.
posted by immlass at 8:21 AM on April 24 [7 favorites]


Ugh. I'm hoping Drayton Hall is going to do better on this; I've heard some encouraging things but don't know anyone who has been yet.

Pointystick, I know that Bentobox Humperdinck has already commented to this, and while I can confirm that there is an emphasis during the tour on how well the house has been preserved, I would like to add that when I went last year, they did call attention to the lengths that were gone to to ensure that the house slaves' were excluded from the living areas of the house except when their duties required them to be present. Seeing the narrow hidden staircase that was wedged between the walls of the rooms, and listening to the stories of how, during parties, one room might be closed off, while the slaves had to change out all the furniture in the room, while just using that narrow staircase to bring up and take down pieces from the basement, it's a real eye opener.

Out of all the stops along Ashley River Road, Drayton Hall is probably the best in this regard. Magnolia Plantation next door is the glossed over themepark version. Middleton Place down the road doesn't have the air of tourist trap like Magnolia does, but it doesn't really have anything that stands out as a visceral reminder of that period of history either.
posted by radwolf76 at 2:48 AM on April 28


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