Most Slave Plantation Tours Omit the Horrors of Slavery

by | Dec 8, 2021 | Racism (Us vs Them), Human Rights & Justice

These statues of enslaved young boys are part of a modern-day depiction of southern plantation life at the Whitney Museum in Louisiana. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Most Slave Plantation Tours Omit the Horrors of Slavery

by | Dec 8, 2021 | Racism (Us vs Them), Human Rights & Justice

These statues of enslaved young boys are part of a modern-day depiction of southern plantation life at the Whitney Museum in Louisiana. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Even now, discussions during plantation tours among visitors can often turn into visceral debates over whether the history of slavery should be told or ignored.

Republished with permission from The Conversation, by Kelley Fanto Deetz, University of California, Berkeley

Located on nearly 2,000 acres along the banks of the Potomac River, Stratford Hall Plantation is the birthplace of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and the home of four generations of the Lee family, including two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee.

It was also the home of hundreds of enslaved Africans and African Americans. From sunup to sundown, they worked in the fields and in the Great House. Until fairly recently, the stories of these enslaved Africans and of their brothers and sisters toiling at plantations across the Southern U.S. were absent from any discussions during modern-day tours of plantations such as Stratford Hall.

Even now, with new tours and an exhibition highlighting enslaved Africans and African Americans who lived at Stratford Hall, discussions during plantation tours among visitors can often turn into visceral debates over whose history should be told or ignored.

These tensions are part of an ever-growing work of criticism directed at sites that continue to omit the history of the enslaved community. Of the 600 plantations scattered throughout the South, only one, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, focuses entirely on the experiences of the enslaved.

As a public historian and the director of collections and visitor engagement at Stratford Hall, I can attest that visitors have vastly different expectations when they visit this historic landmark. Their questions reflect their own interpretations, curiosities and political biases, often to the detriment of obtaining a richer education on every aspect of plantation life — the good, the bad and the ugly.

Awkward Questions

Museum professionals at plantations hear it all and must balance viewpoints that are diametrically opposed to one another, such as the romanticized notion of antebellum gentility and the constant fear of terror and violence of the enslaved. Visitors’ expectations often collide with reality, creating tense moments on tours. Some visitors want answers and stories that sit comfortably with their ideas of slavery and of America as a whole.

“Were the Lees good slave owners?” is a frequent question.

A view of Stratford Hall Plantation in Virginia, birthplace of Gen. Robert E. Lee, circa 1950. Photo by Authenticated News/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Many visitors comment on how the slaves were treated like family, or how their housing doesn’t seem that bad. Some would rather skip the whole slavery thing altogether and just comfortably learn about the decorative arts and the often luxurious lives of the white families who lived there.

But history is not comfortable. Though he lived at Stratford Hall only during his early years, Robert E. Lee was a slave owner in his own right. The majority of the nearly 200 enslaved people Gen. Lee owned were inherited after his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, died in 1857.

For every question about the kindness of the enslavers are others seeking detailed descriptions of abuse and terror.

“How much abuse happened here?” is one such question.

The answer is clear about the innate inhumanity of slavery. Abuse ran rampant, everything from rape and dismemberment to separating families. Enslaved people lived in constant fear. Violence was always a threat, in one form or another.

These questions plague many historic sites. Museum professionals are then saddled with spending more time explaining the lack of specific evidence of abuse on their site—or examples in their records—and spending less time talking about the ways enslaved men, women and children used their culture and community to persevere in a system built on violence and terror.

Violence was not all enslaved people experienced on plantations. Questions that focus heavily on the treatment of the enslaved—and not the people themselves—erase their humanity and ignore their agency.

Enslaved people on South Carolina plantation in 1862. Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora

It also reduces their entire existence into a byproduct of white behavior and, worse, diminishes their cultures and their contributions to both the site and the nation as a whole.

Tour guides are pivotal in providing richer, more inclusive educational experiences. Yet we regularly endure personal attacks and offensive commentary. Historical interpreter Dontavius Williams works around the country at plantation sites, and, despite his authoritative expertise, Williams, 38, has told me and others in the field that he has been called “boy” on several occasions.

Many African American interpreters also have to address statements about how slavery was good for their ancestors.

Inclusion Is Not Exclusion

The visitors’ role is to learn from the staff and engage in ways that generate constructive conversations. Facilitators like Williams are trained in encouraging such talks, regardless of the visitors’ preconceived notions, political agendas or fixed notions about slavery and other confirmation biases.

What brings a more nuanced and balanced tour are questions about who made the furniture, who cooked the food, what people ate, how enslaved people persevered in spite of enslavement or which West African traditions survived in the Colonies.

This inclusion does not equate to exclusion. Visitors can learn of the white family, the decorative arts—and the enslaved community.

Historic sites are not Disneyland, U.S. history is not fantasy and plantations are inherently uncomfortable places. If tourists ask the deeper, more nuanced questions, they will get answers that challenge preconceived ideas and render a more complete understanding of our nation’s history.The Conversation

The Conversation

The Conversation

The Conversation is a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. We publish trustworthy and informative articles written by academic experts for the general public and edited by our team of journalists.

1 Comment

  1. RN

    You note that ” ‘How much abuse happened here?’ is one such question.
    The answer is clear about the innate inhumanity of slavery. Abuse ran rampant, everything from rape and dismemberment to separating families. Enslaved people lived in constant fear. Violence was always a threat, in one form or another.”

    The implication is that the rape, dismemberment, separation of families, etc., are the factors proving that slaves were abused. In fact, even had those people been treated lovingly, fed well, kept intact with their families, given respect and financial recompense, the fact is that they were PROPERTY. This alone is a horrific abuse.

    It’s heartening to see the facts surfacing about the abominations perpetuated upon an entire culture and community in our country’s history. Not until we are honest about our sins can we begin to make things right.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Related Articles

Jun 27 2022

40 Ways the GOP Has Become a Clear and Present Danger to Our Country

Here is a list of vital things to remember when deciding who and what to vote for in upcoming primaries and on November 8th.
Jun 26 2022

School Board Candidates Who Criticized the Hiring of a Black Educator Lose Their Elections

Educator Cecelia Lewis was attacked in Georgia’s Cherokee County and neighboring Cobb County by white parents making baseless claims that she was bringing...
Jun 26 2022

A Supreme Court Scholar Explains the Larger Impact of Dobbs, AKA the Overturning of Roe v Wade

There is a much darker aspect to the “Dobbs” ruling. In overturning Roe, the majority’s opinion offers a new and weaker standard for overturning the past...
Jun 25 2022

The Supreme Court’s Overturn of Roe v. Wade Turns Back the Clock on Democracy Itself

It’s not a ‘democracy’ when minority-elected presidents nominate Supreme Court justices who overturn constitutional protections and give state governments the power to...
Jun 24 2022

From Fiction to Fact: The Handmaid’s Tale Is Becoming a How-to Manual

Now that we have witnessed the demise of Roe v. Wade at the hands of a Trump-stacked Supreme Court, the story of The Handmaid’s Tale begins to loom large...
Jun 22 2022

Post Roe v. Wade: Senators Propose Ideas to Protect Abortion Access and Clinics on Federal Land

Facing a congressional stalemate, Democratic senators have asked the White House to consider a bevy of executive actions to protect abortion care ahead of an expected...
Jun 21 2022

Senator Ron Johnson Implicated in Fake Elector Certificates Scandal

Trump and his MAGA allies planned, promoted, and paid for a seditious conspiracy to overturn an election they lost, and Ron Johnson attempted to deliver it to D.C. on a...
Jun 21 2022

Texas GOP Platform Features Anti-Gay Hatred, Trump’s Big Lie and Secession

The Texas GOP platform formalizes the false idea that Joe Biden is illegitimate, hatred of the LGBT+ community, white supremacy, paranoia of immigrants and the idea...
Jun 20 2022

Indian Boarding Schools: A Dark Lesson in American History

Confronting the harsh legacy of Indian Boarding Schools, the United States has taken steps to establish a Native American Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s a...
Jun 19 2022

Juneteenth Is Now a Holiday, but America Is Still Waiting for Full Emancipation From Slavery

We wake up in a nation where Juneteenth and MLK Day are both national holidays—yet where an entire political party is working to prevent the teaching of the ugliness...
Subscribe for Updates!

Subscribe for Updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This