Why I Visit Sites of Slavery

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Commentary Race

Why I Visit Sites of Slavery

Dr. Cynthia Greenlee

Erasing plantations from the landscape or simply lambasting them doesn’t get rid of slavery; it just rids us of its most uncomfortable and most visible symbols.

When I was house shopping in my native North Carolina, I discovered a cute bungalow in a neighborhood with a most unfortunate name. Let’s call it Emerson Plantations. No doubt some marketing executive had visions of Tara replete with (imaginary) fields of fluffy cotton harvested by gangs of happily enslaved people who toiled from dawn to dusk. I declined to support that fantasy with a 30-year mortgage.

Yet, as a historian and a descendant of enslaved people, I make a point of visiting slavery sites around the world. I’ve been to Ghana’s Elmina Castle and Stagville Plantation, miles from my house, among others.

When I enter such properties, I first brace myself for profound sadness. I think about my paternal great-great grandmother, Myra, enslaved on a small mountain farm. Myra Stepp bore her slaveowner more than a dozen children. Only one of those children, my great-grandfather John Myra, was born into freedom. After emancipation, Myra’s former owner left her with only a few pots to fend for herself. And I think of my maternal great-great grandfather, Mose, probably a skilled carpenter who was valued at more than $1,000 in the will of his South Carolina slaveowner. In freedom, Mose became a substantial landowner by 1869, and my family still owns much of that property.

I then steel myself for deep anger when such historical sites ignore the lives of the enslaved. I prepare myself for what I call acts of “constructively disruptive tourism.” I question guides about slavery’s invisibility in their scripts or, even worse, when they use thinly veiled Lost Cause rhetoric that slavery wasn’t all that bad.

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So I understand the furor over beloved feminist indie songwriter Ani DiFranco and the creative retreat she was planning at the former Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana. Nottoway is the largest surviving antebellum plantation in the South. With 53,000 square feet, its own bowling alley, and semi-modern bathrooms, the house’s floor space is roughly equal to that of the White House. You can experience the grandeur during an overnight stay or book your wedding reception there. (Start at the Gold level: $85 per person, minimum 50 guests.)

Running that massive estate required a small army of enslaved people—more than 150 of them in 1860. Original owner John Hampden Randolph used human flesh as his capital. Enslaved Nottoway residents catered to the house’s residents, and they provided the muscle and technical know-how behind the Randolph family’s sugar production.

Critics railed at DiFranco’s choice of venue, saying that a retreat on a site of slavery, one that some say has insufficiently acknowledged its past as a site of slavery (full disclosure: I have not visited Nottoway), revealed a deep insensitivity to history and racism. These plantations, after all, are not just pleasant architectural remnants. Often literally built by the enslaved, they were the ultimate in exploitative workplaces, sites of subjection and resistance, and generations-long crime scenes.

Bloggers and pundits then seized on DiFranco’s lackluster apology as yet another example of a clueless white feminist who is tone-deaf to her own privilege. DiFranco contributed to one of 2013’s oft-repeated refrains by white feminists: “Why are these angry/bullying/aggressive women of color feminists picking on me?” She expressed genuine surprise that so many people could get so mad. (She later issued a second apology on her Facebook page.)

I find it hard to believe DiFranco’s wide-eyed act. Yes, Americans gloss over what historian Edmund Morgan called the American paradox—that slavery and inequality were integral to creating a republic ostensibly founded on freedom. We know that slavery rarely makes for comfortable dinnertime talk or history classes. But we talk around it constantly with the seemingly annual fights over how to remember or teach slavery; a persistent education urban legend says that the State of Texas decided to describe slaves as “unpaid interns” in its textbooks. Our language of partisan outrage relies on comparing the most controversial of American policies and challenges—Obamacare, abortion, massive national debt—to slavery. Slavery was so bad that it provides the grist for our most extreme metaphors, though we can’t wrap our minds around its historical realities.

I can’t agree with DiFranco’s critics who have tarred all historical sites with the same racist brush. Scholars of slavery, archaeology, cultural preservation, and public history have moved many plantation museums from an Old South, top-down history. In 1994, colonial Williamsburg in Virginia staged a mock slave auction, a move that prompted heated criticism from Black residents who feared that this soul-wrenching history would be trivialized as entertainment. Years later, Williamsburg launched revamped enactments that put audience members in the roles of the enslaved, events so powerful that “enslaved” audience members sometimes tried to wrest faux guns away from their oppressors. Historic Stagville in Durham, North Carolina, treats its reconstructed slave cabins as integral, not peripheral, to the plantation, and its staff have engaged in years of research to identify, document, and collaborate with the descendants of those who toiled there. Longtime historic preservation officer Joseph McGill continues his Slave Dwellings Project, in which he locates and sleeps overnight in extant slave lodgings. The project aims to illuminate enslaved lives and rescue these structures—which often look like ramshackle eyesores—from disrepair, demolition, or historical amnesia. (You can see McGill and me on a slavery-related episode of PBS’ “History Detectives.”)

That’s not to say that all plantations are making an effort, or that all the efforts hit the mark. Historical interpretation matters. On a recent trip to Tryon Palace, a colonial governor’s residence in New Bern, North Carolina, I asked my tour leader to clarify the term “servants.” Other tour participants didn’t know the term included captured indigenous people, enslaved men and women of African descent, and indentured servants who signed away years of their lives in labor.

But the message was underscored when the tour continued to a detached kitchen where an African-American interpreter in period dress baked bread over an 18th-century-style hearth. Tryon Palace also stages reenactments of Jonkunnu celebrations, and its website has no qualms about including content about white resident John Stanley’s son with an enslaved woman in its information.

No doubt some of these landmarks paint a picture that privileges the slave owners, see benevolence rather than brutality, and attract mainly white audiences. Still, it’s far too easy to point a finger at historic plantations for their seeming devotion to hoop skirts and a whitewashed Southern history. Get rid of these plantations, and you wipe away a part of American material culture and part of slavery’s history.

Rather, let’s push existing sites to have a more accurate, inclusive view of history. Take time to visit a site of slavery, and if you don’t like what you see, post a Facebook update with details about your questions and complaints on your wall and the site’s Facebook page, if it has one. But, more importantly, contact that site’s manager and make your voice heard.

Ani DiFranco did get one thing right when she wrote, “Let us not forget that the history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country, not just at old plantation sites.” Indeed, visitors to antebellum Washington, D.C., could step outside the capitol and reach a Maryland Avenue slave pen within minutes. Erasing plantations from the landscape or simply lambasting them doesn’t get rid of slavery; it just rids us of its most uncomfortable and most visible symbols.

Slavery is not that far away from my branch on the family tree, and I feel these historical sites belong to me. Though I have joked half-seriously that African Americans should get lifetime free admission, I enter these sites with a serious purpose. As a historian, I visit these museums to check the stories they tell. I don’t mind being “that” visitor who hijacks the tours with corrective interpretation. I am that brown face that may give guides pause when they launch into a selective version of history. I don’t mind walking into the office of curatorial and programming staff to complain about representations of slavery.

But, more than anything, I go to honor those who never got off the plantation.