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What should we do with plantations?

The lavish estates where Black people were enslaved usually whitewash their history. Here's how these places might begin to redeem themselves.

The outbuildings of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.
The outbuildings of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.Photo Courtesy of Whitney Plantation

Black Lives Matter signs have popped up nearly everywhere. In June this slogan, or judiciously crafted approximations of it, began flooding my email inbox in the form of company statements that fell into a gray area between corporate responsibility, virtue signaling, and free advertising. During a 4th of July road trip to Vermont after I turned onto the wrong highway and found myself lost in New Hampshire, I saw the slogan painted in massive letters on the front of an aging barn. I thought then that a barn in a white, rural area took the prize for the most unexpected placement of a rallying cry for the fight against anti-Black racism, police brutality, and the lack of funding for social services. But the strangest place I have yet encountered the political mantra is the home page of a lavish Southern plantation house museum.

Berkeley Plantation, a National Historic Landmark that bills itself as “Virginia’s Most Historic Plantation,” is situated along the James River in Virginia, a colony and then state that enchained thousands of African Americans to produce lucrative tobacco crops before feeding, in the early 19th century, a massive forced migration of nearly one million Black people into the formerly Indigenous cotton lands of the Old Southwest. Berkeley Plantation’s home page features the romanticized lexicon and imagery that tourists anticipate and scholars of plantation tourism have long catalogued and criticized: genteel white owners, ornate architecture, splendid gardens, fine antiques, and decorous housewares. At Berkeley, the wealthy former residents who are extolled include Virginia Governor Benjamin Harrison and two of his descendants who became president, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. The idealized domestic setting is enlivened, the home page text promises, by “enthusiastic guides in period costume.” Visitors here, the website suggests, will step into an Old South fantasy that obscures how slavery in its myriad grotesque realities shaped the site economically, socially, politically, and culturally. But in this moment of public foment, the Berkeley Plantation website now fronts a bold banner across the top of the screen proclaiming: “Berkeley Plantation believes that Black Lives Matter.”

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I was stunned to see this claim appearing above photographs of grounds once maintained by enslaved people and formal parlors with slaveholder portraits hanging on walls. It struck me as the most supreme irony, and even as a cruel joke, that an estate built on the chewed-up and spat-out lives of Black people was now purporting to cherish Black existence. Given that we live in a time when not saying something of this sort exposes businesses and cultural institutions to the scrutiny of public opinion, this plantation was disingenuous at best and opportunistic at worst, I thought.

Then I clicked on the banner and discovered a direct statement indicating the harm done to Black and Native people on those grounds. The statement opens with an affirmation, “We believe that Black Americans, Indigenous People and their descendants deserve justice,” and continues with an admission of responsibility as well as an aspirational action plan. “We recognize that enslaved people were present at Berkeley plantation,” the statement reads. “We are working with researchers and historians to uncover all aspects of this site’s past and there is much work and responsibility ahead to make this site a place for healing and awareness.” I was persuaded that Berkeley Plantation’s current operators care about this past and its legacy.

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Nevertheless, they are stewarding a racist landmark among an entire class of public memorials — plantation homes and landscapes — with a grandeur and impact equal to or greater than the Confederate statues currently being toppled or secreted away in our summer of national reckoning with anti-democratic symbols. As Patricia J. Williams stated in a September 2019 piece in The Nation on plantation weddings: These iconic homes and landscapes are “monuments to slavery.” The relevant question is not whether any site staff believes in their hearts that Black life is valuable — but rather, what caretakers of plantation sites and visitors to these historic places will do differently as a result of this belief.

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Visitors took a close look at a slave cabin at Whitney Plantation.
Visitors took a close look at a slave cabin at Whitney Plantation.Doug Warren for The Boston Globe

NUMEROUS STUDIES OF plantation tourism, such as Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small’s classic 2002 sociological study, “Representations of Slavery,” have found that plantation sites (especially those that are privately owned) tend toward Eurocentric portrayals of the past that participate in a process of “symbolic annihilation” in which Black presence is ignored or marginalized. Geographers E. Arnold Modlin, Derek Alderman, and Glenn Gentry argued in the journal Tourist Studies that even when plantation museums incorporate African Americans into tour narratives, they often do so in a distant manner that reduces Black experience to a cold recitation of population numbers, ages, and work tasks, rather than elevating Black residents to the level of white owners through stories that induce empathetic responses in visitors. The National Science Foundation has funded a team of geographers and historians headed by David Butler to conduct the most systematic study to date of a famous cluster of cotton estates known as the River Road Plantations spanning the Mississippi-Louisiana border. The team members are finding, as detailed in the Journal of Heritage Tourism, that even at sites that have made an effort to interpret enslaved people’s presence, features of the built environment, such as the location and size of the front-facing “big house” in comparison to “slave quarters” in the rear of a property, emphasize elite white experiences to the detriment of others.

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Tourists who enter these landscapes often carry romanticized notions of the Old South that find affirmation in the spatial arrangement of the plantation that aggrandizes white mastery. I have found in my own research on ghost tourism in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia, recounted in my book “Tales from the Haunted South,” that a handful of privately run plantation sites and walking tours market Black suffering in the form of horrific tales of sexual abuse and murder trivialized as ghost stories. It is heartbreaking and noteworthy, as well, that plantations can be heritage sites for white supremacists. Dylann Roof, who killed nine people participating in Bible study at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015, visited South Carolina plantation sites in the months leading up to his racially motivated attack.

Whitney Plantation tour guide Mikhala Iversen answered questions from visitors.
Whitney Plantation tour guide Mikhala Iversen answered questions from visitors.Doug Warren for The Boston Globe

Plantation tourism has changed slowly but substantially over the last decade, particularly with the 2014 opening of the innovative, privately owned Whitney Plantation in Louisiana that consciously centers African and African American experiences and with the 2015 opening of the McLeod Plantation in South Carolina, which is operated by Charleston County and interprets Black experiences before and after the Civil War. These sites are models for how the plantation museum experience has been reimagined, and yet, they have remained in the minority of Southern estate museums. The gradual shift at Whitney and McLeod has provoked resistance from white visitors who have expressed resentment at tours that address racial subjugation. Most plantation sites dependent on tourism dollars and public funding have tended not to risk the discomfort of their majority white visitors by highlighting Black experience and the trauma of slavery. In this fraught context, the Berkeley Plantation statement that openly engages contemporary racial politics seems rather courageous.

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As public debate continues about commemorations to the Confederacy in the built environment, we should ask what is to be done with the hundreds of monuments to a pre-Civil War culture of racialized power that proliferate across the Southern landscape — and indeed, the Northern terrain — in the form of the plantation and country estate. How do we turn these homages to slavery into stages for meaningful dialogue? Not, I would suggest, by pretending they do not exist or taking aim with the wrecking ball.

The latter approach seems to have been adopted this July in South Carolina on the former Oaks Plantation of 18th-century ricing patriarch Arthur Middleton, where, according to The Post and Courier, a late 19th-century plantation revival home built on the original grounds was recently demolished by the corporate owner under the cover of night. Instead, we should push ourselves as visitors and stewards of these sites to reinvent them as spaces of facilitated conversation at the nexus of multiple social histories, as places of homecoming and meaning-making for descendants of the enslaved, and as sites where managers and tour guides of color have equal employment and advancement opportunities as well as shared authority to research and incorporate fresh interpretations. This vision might include any number of concrete actions. Among them could be a reversal of how visitors enter and experience physical places. Rather than entering a mansion first, tourists might be welcomed into the comparatively humble quarters to learn about the unfree population who built the wealth of others but also sustained their own lives and families.

Jim Smith and Paula Barry of Conway, Mass., examined names of Louisiana slaves recorded on the 18 monument walls in the Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall at Whitney Plantation.
Jim Smith and Paula Barry of Conway, Mass., examined names of Louisiana slaves recorded on the 18 monument walls in the Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall at Whitney Plantation.Doug Warren for The Boston Globe

Visitors might be invited to walk fields and survey outbuildings where many enslaved people spent the bulk of their time, to traverse any remaining wooded areas where enslaved people secretly met to practice their faith or temporarily escape corporal punishment, to tarry in work yards and kitchens where unfree workers practiced the range of skills necessary for supplying the white household. This approach would reveal not only the human strivings of Black and Indigenous people, but also the intricate, intimate, and violent relations that entwined the worlds of enslaved and enslaver.

With greater attention to plantation grounds, tour guides might even bring visitors into active, productive engagement. Volunteers could tend reproduction gardens of the type some enslaved people kept and, as the historian Peter Wood has often urged, “plant gourds!” The fruits of such gardens might be donated for the benefit of local community food security, connecting physical sites and histories of slavery (including the scourge of hunger that was often part of that trauma) to present-day social issues. Sites might attract diverse visitors with planned conversations, book clubs, poetry readings, and overnight stays — along the lines of Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project — that openly link past histories with current racial, economic, and political challenges. While such approaches may disabuse tourists of romantic notions about life in the United States prior to the formal end of racial slavery, they yield other and deeper satisfactions: earnest historical investigation, hands-on learning, social connection, and civic contribution. This dramatic summer of mass protest may represent an unprecedented opening for plantation sites to find receptive audiences for this tough work of collaborative reinvention, and indeed, some are already doing so.

FOR EXAMPLE, PUBLIC visits to the Royall House and Slave Quarters, an 18th century estate in Medford, Mass. (home to Governor John Winthrop as well as Isaac Royall, whose fortune built on slave labor and commercial trade helped to establish Harvard Law School), begin in the quarters. Board Co-President Penny Outlaw continually interweaves the activities of Blacks with those of white residents even as the tour moves into and through the main house. Recently, the house museum hosted a poetry reading with Malcolm Tariq, prize-winning author of “Heed the Hollow,” and featured an Instagram Live event with activist and performer Alok Vaid-Menon. Kyera Singleton, the first African American woman to lead the site as executive director, planned these virtual events. Singleton told me about her museum’s special charge in these times: “I cannot stress enough that the Royall House and Slave Quarters is a museum that seeks not only to get the history of slavery right, but also to function as a site of memory. It is a place that memorializes the lives of enslaved people. We do that quite simply by centering their lives, their experiences with violence, and their resistance. I believe one of our strengths is the ability to help people reckon with our current political moment by being honest about slavery and the legacies of enslavement today.”

The Broadway actor Robert Hartwell also had reinvention in mind when he purchased an antebellum house in Great Barrington, Mass., originally built for the Russell family that owned a local cotton manufacture. Hartwell said on Instagram: “I wish I could’ve told my ancestors when they were breaking their backs in 1820 to build this house that 200 years later a free gay Black man was going to own it and fill it with love and find a way to say their name.” Given that Massachusetts began taking steps to abolish slavery in the 1780s in response to Revolutionary-era ideals and legal suits brought by enslaved people, Hartwell’s home was probably not built by unfree workers. Nevertheless, New England mills routinely procured cotton grown and harvested by enslaved people in the South. Northern entrepreneurs shipped textiles woven from that cotton across the Atlantic Ocean to European markets and back down South to cheaply clothe the very people whose stolen labor had produced the lucrative raw material. Hartwell’s personal association of his house with that entangled history reminds us just how close the cultural memory of slavery is for many African Americans.

Black Lives Matter protests, however imperfect, have ignited widespread recognition that symbols we have long accepted as features of local landscapes wear down our potential to weave a new national fabric even as they archive physical evidence of our troubled racial history. Retiring, reimagining, and repurposing misplaced symbols that glorify racial oppression have the potential to open psychic and civic space for the descendants of enslaved people to finally call this nation home.

Tiya Miles is a professor of history at Harvard and the author of five books. Her latest, “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake,” is forthcoming from Random House in 2021.