Watching “12 Years a Slave,” which won the Oscar for best picture this year, 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 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.
For an example of such a museum that revels in its extravagance, but glosses over its uglier past, take Nottoway Plantation 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 opening 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, New York—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.
“We, as a nation, got away without being forced to come to our knees and say, ‘Oh my God, we really did that.’”
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 are 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.
“One man said, ‘If somebody told me I had to be a slave again, well, I would just take a gun and kill myself,’” recounts Newby-Alexander, who is also the author of several books on African American history and the director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for the Study of the African Diaspora. “He didn’t need to say any more. In that one statement were all the horrors. When our nation denies those horrors, it pulls us all down.”
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.”
“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,” or using passive voice to talk about the enslaved people’s labor. 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.
“A lot of people treat a plantation not as sacred ground, not as a place of pain, but as a park.”
Following up on this research, Newby-Alexander’s colleague at Norfolk State University, E. Arnold Modlin, a cultural and historical geographer, has been examining how plantation-house museums tell their stories over the last six years. His master thesis at East Carolina University focused on how tour guides presented the plantation narrative. Now, he’s working on a dissertation for Louisiana State University on how the tourists who visit plantation houses also influence that narrative.
“Effectively, what Eichstedt and Small found was that the tour guides talked nothing of slavery or if they did, they’d only mention it three times,” Modlin says. “And it would often be such things as well, ‘This person owned so many slaves,’ or ‘This is a slave cabin we have over here’—very minimal information when compared to the tour as a whole. According to my research, it’s still a huge problem.”
Modlin is collaborating with his former thesis advisor, Derek H. Alderman at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, as well as geographers, historians, and other researches from universities around the South researching “what place the enslaved have in the current marketing and interpretation of plantation history.” This project is part of Race, Ethnicity, and Social Equity in Tourism (RESET), an initiative that’s studying inequity in the current American tourism industry. Modlin’s project just received a grant from the National Science Foundation.
“The brutal reality is that humans didn’t have control over their lives. Slavery was harsh, nasty, dehumanizing.”
Speaking of his RESET colleagues, Modlin says, “We all tend to have, for a lack of a better way to put it, an activist agenda. It’s not good enough to just go back and say, ‘Well, this is what’s being said at plantation houses.’ Let’s do something about it. If nothing else, if you shout loud enough, ‘This is a problem, and this is why,’ then the hope is people will actually react and start affecting some change.”
Focusing on “antebellum splendor” appeals to white Americans who buy into the myths of the Lost Cause movement, which emerged immediately at the end of Civil War. This movement portrayed the cause of the Confederacy as noble and the wealthy, white Southern enslavers as genteel aristocrats, the embodiment of grace and chivalry. In this narrative, the noble Southerners—who were fighting to defend states’ rights and not the institution of slavery—were unfairly attacked and ravaged by immoral Northerners. Also, African Americans, unable to take care of themselves, were happy to be enslaved and were treated well by their masters.
“The Cult of the Lost Cause is still popular among groups who want to perpetuate a narrative that makes them feel good about their advantages,” Newby-Alexander says. “It makes them feel good about continuing to call people the N-word and continuing to speak disparagingly about one ethnic group over another. It comforts them to believe that they were doing black people a favor by raping and pillaging and forcing them to work until they dropped dead in the fields.”
“One man said, ‘If somebody told me I had to be a slave again, well, I would just take a gun and kill myself.’ He didn’t need to say any more.”
The biggest mouthpiece for the Lost Cause is the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind,” based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer-winning novel. The title card lays it all out: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…”
The visually stunning film focuses on the Civil War’s impact on a Southern anti-heroine, a spoiled belle named Scarlett O’Hara, who states from the outset she has no interest in “talk of war.” Early in the war, her first husband is killed fighting for the Confederacy, and instead of grieving, she pouts about mourning traditions that keep her from dancing. Even though you barely see the O’Haras’ enslaved population at work, after the war, Scarlett and her sisters end up picking their cotton themselves and fret about their rough un-ladylike hands. Scarlett has her ever-loyal Mammy make an elaborate dress from the drapes of their war-torn plantation. Mammy, while a gross caricature, is much more competent than the O’Hara’s other devoted female house slave, Prissy, who is afraid of everything, from cows to hospitals. Scarlett has no qualms about slapping Prissy in the face when she’s failed to complete a task.
When it was released, “Gone With the Wind” busted box-office records. At the 1940 Academy Awards, the film received 13 nominations and won eight competitive Oscars and two honorary awards. The actress who played Mammy, Hattie McDaniel, became the first African American to win an Academy Award. (A more accurate portrayal of the antebellum South, “12 Years a Slave” was nominated for nine Oscars; at 2014 ceremony on March 2, 2014, the slave narrative won three awards: best picture, best adapted screenplay, and best supporting actress for Lupita Nyong’o as the much-abused Patsey.)
The themes of “Gone With the Wind” are “reflected in these houses,” Modlin says of the Southern plantations he’s studied. “If you tour enough of them—I’ve toured more than 100—a constant narrative is this tragic loss. And yet, it’s a tragic loss for whom? Again, we’re making the conscious or subconscious decision—as a region, as a nation—saying, ‘This is who we want to identify with in the past,’ and not thinking about how the loss of that slavery-based plantation system meant the freedom of 4 million people. What we could frame as loss could also be framed as the first steps of gain, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard that narrative at a plantation house.”
Partly, that’s because the tour guides themselves might be descendants of the slaveholders. “A lot of these interpreters have no shame,” Newby-Alexander says, “because they are actually related to the families, so they’re trying to protect themselves. They’re trying to protect what their families did and their legacies. They have a very specific agenda.”
In reality, these “knights and ladies,” or enslavers that lived like royalty in large plantation houses, were a small minority in the South, even among free, white people. According to research by historian Drew Gilpin Faust, only 24 percent of white Southerners belonged to slaveholding families, less than 12 percent of white Southerners had fewer than five slaves, and only 3 percent held enough slaves (more than 20) to constitute a plantation. In American Slavery, historian Peter Kolchin notes that in 1860, white slaveholders, less than a quarter of the white population in the South, controlled 93.1 percent of the region’s agricultural wealth.
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.”
Even today, visitors touring plantation-house museums are generally expected to admire the rich, white enslavers and sympathize with their plight. 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?”
“Then, as you get into places like bedrooms, we hear very personal stories about the planter, such as the death of a child or the loneliness of a planter mistress,” he continues. “Loss comes up quite frequently. Most of these people going through the tour are, much like myself, white, middle-aged folks that often have children. I remember the first time I heard the story at Destrehan of 4-year-old Lydia Rost dying from yellow fever. I’m standing there in the back of the group, having to turn my head. I’m trying not to cry because I’m thinking about my daughter, the thought of losing her. You have that bed that Lydia died in right there.
“I was identifying with her, and each of us on that tour were,” Modlin says. “What we didn’t think about was that the Rosts, at that moment, had somewhere around 100 to 200 enslaved individuals, maybe more, working right there on that property, in one of the worst years of a yellow-fever outbreak. With a couple hundred folks, some of the enslaved families had to be struggling with the loss of their children, too. Yet, we aren’t told that story, and we don’t identify with them because we don’t hear it.”
Modlin just finished two chapters for his dissertation on the importance of touch in plantation-house museums, which he hopes to turn into a book. He explains, “The plantation museum has always been about more than just talk, and even about more than what we just see. It’s an experiential event: You feel the house under your feet, you touch the furniture, and in some cases, you smell the mustiness of the place. All of that is playing into how we remember years or decades later touring a plantation house, and yet none of that stuff really gets us thinking deeply of slavery.
“When tourists walk through a plantation house, while we don’t touch everything, we could,” he continues. “Indeed, if you look at tourists really close, when the tour guide isn’t around, they do. They touch beds, they touch cabinets, other things. You can easily walk out of the place thinking I could or did touch the dishes that were on the table. In a couple of places you could also stand in the space of a slave cabin. But in many ways, touch inside the plantation-house museum misleads us from what the felt experience of slavery was like back in the antebellum period and before.”
Even if the tourists stop to think that the enslaved people working in the house, who took care of all the cleaning, maintenance, and other chores, actually touched these antiques more than the owner did, they still don’t connect to what it was like to live as a slave. For the enslaved, touch was a means by which they were controlled, Modlin says.
“Touch is really what maintained slavery.” he explains. “It was actuated touch, where somebody was forcibly and violently touched, but also the ability to deprive people of touch that maintained the power of planter over slave. As an enslaved individual, if you get out of line, if you became that person that’s too vocal or caused too much trouble, you could permanently be deprived of touching your family by being sold away from them.
Modlin still gets depressed when he reads the WPA accounts of former slaves. One that stands out to him was a woman recounting a story from her mother, who was sold away from her parents when she was 4 years old.
“The first time I read it, my daughter was 4, and as much as I tried not to, I still pictured her and the thought of never being able to see her again in my life,” he says. “During the transition, the enslaver allows the father to walk with the daughter for a little while with the new masters. He doesn’t just walk beside her, he’s actually holding her, even though she’s old enough to walk by herself. It was so they could experience touch one last time. Even with that, the woman couldn’t understand why, after putting her in the wagon, her father would not turn back and look at her one more time. He’s just gone through this emotionally exhausting experience of literally carrying his daughter, who’s been sold away, for the last time. That’s not a touch-related experience you will ever leave a plantation house with.”
Instead, 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—much the way Prissy is depicted in “Gone With the Wind.” 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.
“They don’t want to acknowledge the ugliness that they participated in, the beatings, the theft of labor, the evilness of breaking up families.”
“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,” Modlin says. “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.
“Yet that same narrative comes up,” he continues. “Effectively, she was saying that if this planter class hadn’t looked after the sharecropper and/or slaves, this is what these children-like people would have sunk to—the simplest, lowest, messiest way of living. We’re still blaming people on their circumstances, not on the role the Southern slaveholders had.”
On the other side of the coin are the plantations that boast about the contributions and autonomy of the enslaved population. In South Carolina, rice plantation tours often rightly attribute their success to the rice-growing knowledge and skills the enslaved people brought from the Senegambia region of West Africa. Often, they suggest, as the essay called “Slavery and Rice” at the Hopsewee Plantation web site does, that the enslaved workers on rice plantations had more freedom than those at other kinds of plantations.
“He’s just carried his daughter, who’s been sold away, for the last time. That’s not an experience you leave a plantation house with.”
“Unique to rice slavery was the ‘task system,’” reads the text. “Rice slaves negotiated with their overseer through a ‘driver’ slave. Once the driver and overseer agreed on a reasonable amount of work for a given week, the slaves set out on the task. After completing the work, any remaining time belonged to the slaves. During this period, they were free to work their own gardens, ﬁsh, and some even hunted wild game—though hunting was very rare. In contrast, cotton plantations employed the ‘gang system’ with no concept of free time.”
This Hopsewee essay cites University of South Carolina history professor Daniel C. Littlefield, the author of Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina, but they leave out this tidbit from his National Humanities Center study guide: “Work was harder because preparing the land for [rice] cultivation usually meant claiming marshlands or swampy regions. One needed to construct dikes to hold water and sluices to let it off. These dikes required considerable effort to build and maintain, in the company of snakes, alligators, and other vermin, using only picks, shovels, axes, and other hand tools. Slaves had to plant, weed, and harvest in soggy, sickness-inducing fields. … Fields of standing water brought mosquitoes and the diseases they carried, which the enslaved had to combat, along with hungry rodents that invaded the fields and burrowing ones that attacked the dikes.”
The Hopsewee site talks instead about the enslaved people feeling a “degree of responsibility” and an “air of autonomy,” thanks to the task system and the use of their own planting techniques. “To even say that is offensive because the task system was actually very harsh,” Newby-Alexander notes. “If you watched ‘12 Years a Slave,’ that was what Epps used, the task system. They all had to bring in a certain amount of cotton, and if they didn’t, they were beaten. The gang system was when you typically had a slave driver watching the enslaved workers, who was in charge of driving their pace. Either of those systems was horrible.”
For modern Americans, it’s tempting to frame the circumstances of African American slaves in terms of the capitalist American Dream, which says that anyone can rise above their circumstances with a little ingenuity, hard work, and wise money management. And that’s a problem, Modlin says.
“We want to think of the opportunities presented in America for people to rise, so we often overstate the opportunity for enslaved individuals to escape that circumstance through hard work,” Modlin says. “We can go back historically and see individuals who through hard work, sheer luck, and sometimes even the empathy of someone who might be connected to them in the white community, were able to get out of slavery. Because of that, sometimes we think that door was open a lot further than it really was.
“The thing that always worries me when I hear those stories is that there is still that subtle blaming of the enslaved for their lives,” he continues. “Usually it’s, ‘These people were able to save some of the money they earned from their hard work.’ That implies that the other millions of folks who never escaped slavery weren’t working hard enough or weren’t saving. In reality, they never had those opportunities.”
While the slaves working under the task system were not under the watchful eye of a driver every single minute of the day, that doesn’t mean the amount of work they were expected to accomplish was reasonable.
“The task system, over time, got more and more severe,” Modlin says. “There are some studies that have indicated what was expected in the early colonial period in South Carolina, when it came to the amount of land that would be covered within a week or within a day by an enslaved hand grew, compared to later in the antebellum period, just before the start of the Civil War. What might have been a quarter of an acre in a day grew to a third of an acre. It was like capitalism always has been: Figuring out more and more ways to get more and more out of those people who, whether forced or by choice, were producing labor for the economy.”
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 as if everyone participated in this process and they were all beneficiaries because they had the ability to contribute their skills,” Newby-Alexander says. “I’m thinking, ‘But they got nothing from all their hard work. They didn’t get any compensation. Instead, they were beaten mercilessly if they didn’t do certain things. How is that a good thing?’ But see, once again, because a lot of these plantation houses are privately owned, they’re able to get away with a lot of that foolishness.”
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.”
“It went beyond beating and killing somebody, but doing it in a way that almost fetishizes violence.”
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.”
At plantation-house museums, tours or material owning up to regular violence committed against the enslaved people that lived there is rare to nonexistent. “Part of the reason these houses continue to exist is that each one of them makes the argument that they were unique and special in some way and deserve to be preserved,” Modlin says. “But they don’t want to be so unique that they acknowledge the ugliness that they participated in, the beatings, the theft of labor, the evilness of breaking up families.”
For example, Jean Noel Destrehan, the patriarch of the Destrehan Plantation—the one with such a compelling emotional narrative about the owners—was involved in the judging and punishing of the enslaved people who were suspected of involvement in the River Road Slave Revolt in 1811.
“Some of the ways they punished enslaved individuals for the revolt were horribly gruesome,” Modlin says. “It went beyond beating and killing somebody, but doing it in a way that almost fetishizes violence. Like, ‘Let’s see how gruesomely we can do this, and then leave marks on the landscape in such a way that other individuals are reminded days later that this person rebelled and this is how we reacted.’ It’s hard to think that these were even humans that did this to other humans. Yet, that isn’t a major part of the tour.
“Instead of hearing that narrative strongly, we hear about how Jean Noel Destrehan was one of the individuals that was connected to bringing Louisiana into statehood,” he continues. “Indeed, they even show you a document on site, that has the signatures of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, appointing Jean Noel Destrehan and other men to help with this transition process. You don’t think that his other job as a government official was to participate in brutally killing even his own enslaved individuals.”
Masters at plantations also didn’t consider the rampant sexual violence against enslaved African American women and girls to be a crime. The web site for Laura Plantation in Louisiana states, “In 1830, Laura’s grandmother, owner of the plantation, went to New Orleans and bought 30 teenage girls to have them impregnated. Ten years later, she had what she called her ‘crop of children’ and built for their families 65 cabins, 4 of which still stand today on the plantation.”
While the word “rape” is not used on the web site, Modlin says it did come up when he physically toured the grounds. Even then, he says Elisabeth Duparc, grandmother to Laura Locoul Gore, who is the “Laura” of Laura Plantation, is singled out, when in reality, the whole family benefited from the abundance of free labor.
“The ongoing rape of black women was a standard practice,” Newby-Alexander says. “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.”
The children born into slavery started working, “sometimes as early as 4 or 5, fetching water and being the playmate of the little white kid, being given a responsibility of being the playmate but then being responsible for what their white playmate did even though they were still a child, becoming, essentially, their babysitter,” Newby-Alexander says.
Often, young girls were simply sold into prostitution. Newby-Alexander says “12 Years a Slave” leaves out the piece in the book where the Eliza, the woman devastated by the loss of her children, learns her daughter, Daisy “was destined for the houses of prostitution that catered to child prostitution in New Orleans. It wasn’t illegal because she was black.”
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 in 2009, 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,” Wade writes. “They showed us some documents listing the slave ‘inventory’ at its peak, they talked about laws regarding slaves and how they differed from laws elsewhere in the U.S., they revealed that the Br’er Rabbit stories were originally collected from slaves there, they discussed the extent of the sugarcane fields, and they allowed us to walk through this reconstructed two-family cabin (mentioning that slaves were allowed to have gardens).”
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 plantations-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.
In North Carolina, “some of these sites are doing substantially better when you count the number of times slavery is mentioned on the tour,” Modlin says. “But we even when you mention it 10 times, 20 times, in one case, almost 50 times, somehow we still haven’t deeply connected slavery to that site. We still aren’t there.”
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. And even when any plantation house web site does discuss slavery, visitors often have to click through three or four page levels, from the Welcome page to the History page to, finally, a page about slavery.
Tourists can play a vital role in forcing plantation-house museums to talk about slavery. Modlin says that he’s found that tour guides have often done their own research, and are happy to answer questions when they can. “If you have taken a couple of U.S. history classes like Americans who went through public school have, you’ve heard about slavery. And you’re going to associate that with the Southern plantation, so we can’t really give any American a pass if you walk through the house and don’t ask, ‘Well, what about the slaves that were here? What did they do?’”
“A lot of these interpreters have no shame because they are actually related to the families, so they’re trying to protect themselves.”
Unfortunately, diaries and documentation from the point of view of the enslavers far outnumber similar records from the enslaved. Most enslaved people were never taught how to read or write, and even if they were literate, few had access to writing materials—so they relied on an oral storytelling tradition. “The enslaved weren’t in a position of recording their true feelings for us here in the future in ways that they felt safe,” Modlin says. “Instead what we’ve got is the filtered written record from the planter. That record is always going to be incomplete as to the true feelings of the enslaved.”
When Modlin returned to the Hope Plantation in North Carolina recently, he found the curators had installed a re-creation of what they imagined a slave cabin looked like in the basement. “I remember the part-time manager telling me, ‘We added this room because the tourists kept asking about the slave experience, and we had nothing as a visual aid.’”
Often tour guides operate under the assumption that their largely white tourists only want to hear about the Old South in the best light possible. “When we think about our past, we obviously want to clean it up and forget all those ugly things,” Modlin sats. “But at the same time, I think there’s this idea of having an authentic experience and facing the fact that history is full of ugliness. Sometimes tourism is not all about escapism, instead it’s about true reflection.”
“In many ways, touch inside the plantation-house museum misleads us from what the felt experience of slavery was like back in the antebellum period and before.”
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.”
But not all African Americans want to avoid these sites. According to Smithsonian.com, Joseph McGill, Jr., is a descendant of slaves who works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston, North Carolina, and participates in Civil War re-enactments as a black soldier fighting for the Union. He’s also made it his goal to spend a night in every onetime slave dwelling still standing in America.
Modlin gives the example of Dorothy Redford, who is the manager of Somerset Place in North Carolina.“Dorothy is an African-American woman who toured the plantation and started setting up displays about slavery there,” he continues. “Eventually, she was asked by the state to run the place. Her interaction with that plantation was by choice, but even she found initially there was this questioning by individuals in the local African American community, saying ‘Why would you choose the plantation as a place to have family reunions and other things like that?’ It is, partly, about re-staking a claim to the place.”
The reason that no Southern plantations today look like concentration-camp museums from the German Holocaust is that America has never been forced to face its demons. It’s hard to acknowledge that many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and that when they wrote “all men are created equal,” that sentiment didn’t extend to African Americans, who were seen as subhuman.
“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.”
For 75 years after 1776, while slavery was being abandoned in the North, it continued to grow in the South. In 1854, the Republican Party was founded in part on the idea that slavery was incompatible with “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and it began to work to prevent the spread of slavery into new western states. Republican Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated president in 1861, and quickly, the seven Southern states that contended owning slaves was a state-based Constitutional right declared secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America.
The United States government rejected the secession, and in April 1861, the Confederacy attacked the U.S. Army base at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which led to a four-year Civil War. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves. In April 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. In all, it would take three constitutional amendments between 1865 and 1870 to define the meaning of freedom for the South’s former slaves.
“Even though the Civil War was traumatic, the most violent war to happen on our territory, it ended with a whimper, at least when it came to slavery,” Modlin says. “For a brief period in the early part of Reconstruction, you did have an attempt to help African Americans attain the positions of power they deserved, to potentially redistribute power across the South.
“But what quickly emerged was this idea of, ‘Let’s forget this. It was an ugly moment,’” he continues. “The Civil War itself is viewed as an ugly moment in the eyes of the nation. Instead of deeply reflecting on the wrongness that led to it, which is what had to happen in Germany after World War II, we, as a nation, skirted past that. Within a decade of the war ending, you could make a strong argument that things were no better for formerly enslaved individuals, other than that, on paper, they were free. Through such institutions as the plantation store and sharecropping, the white planter elite was still, brutally at times, in power.”
The biggest difference between the German Holocaust and the American institution of slavery was that slavery lasted 250 years, whereas the violence of the Nazi genocide was concentrated between 1933 and 1945. But, Modlin says, “antisemitism was an issue across large parts of Europe for centuries.”
“In the case with Germany, at the end of World War II, you ended up with this broken nation,” Modlin says. “Whereas, we, as a nation, got away without truly being forced to come to our knees and say, ‘Oh my God, we really did that in such a brutal way,’ to the point, maybe, that it would shake our understanding of what America is. Even today, I don’t know if we’re ready to have that conversation yet, which is sad.”
Newby-Alexander agrees. “One of the things that we didn’t do in this country after the Civil War is acknowledge the horrors of slavery. Then, we let people talk about how slavery wasn’t so bad. This is the part of our nation’s history that people don’t want to talk about. When they do, they want to marginalize it as if it’s just ‘black history’ as opposed to American history. It’s important that we stop having these separate narratives because this is part of our collective path.”
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. “The first thing is that we have to understand there’s not really a finish line we can cross. Even when plantations start adding more mentions of slavery, we’re still not going to be where we should be. While recognizing we won’t be there, how can we get closer? How can we make this a progression?”
While researchers continue to work with plantation-house museums to put pressure on them to change their narrative, Modlin urges tourists to watch movies like “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained”—Quentin Tarantino’s stylized 2012 fictional film about an escaped slave seeking revenge—and then go into plantation houses prepared to ask the hard questions.
“Every tourist that goes through a plantation house who doesn’t ask about slavery is participating in the forgetting of slavery,” he says. “After ‘Django Unchained,’ plantations 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.” To learn more about Race, Ethnicity, and Social Equity in Tourism (RESET) visit the initiative’s web site. Newby-Alexander also recommends visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. in 2015.)