April 19, 2015
When touring plantations, mentions of slavery are almost nonexistent. Often tour guides will refer briefly to “servants” and devote the rest of their time describing the opulence in which the white plantation owners lived, glossing over the ugly fact that enslaving other human beings enabled them to live in such comfort. For the purposes of promoting tourism and protecting the memory of ancestors, plantation life in Georgia tends to be presented in a way that minimizes or ignores the horrors of slavery.
David L. Butler conducted an empirical study of how often certain keywords came up in plantation tourism pamphlets. He and his peers requested pamphlets from plantations throughout the South. Out of the nineteen plantations from whom pamphlets were requested in the state of Georgia, seven obliged. Those seven participating plantations sent a total of eight brochures. In those eight brochures, there were only two mentions of the word “slaves” or “slavery”. Key words such as “original owners”, “architecture” and “landscape” were used much more often. It is interesting to note that, though slavery was rarely mentioned in the pamphlets, when it was, it was associated with the owners’ generosity (Butler, 167).
Why is only telling the story of the owners a problem? The plantation buildings still exist, but the legal institution of slavery does not. Some of these plantations are maintained by the descendants of the original owners. Why shouldn’t the information presented about the plantation focus on their ancestors?
Considering that the slaves did the lion’s share of work in keeping the plantations running, hardly mentioning them at all is not presenting history honestly. A plantation could not survive without the institution of slavery. The slaves’ narratives should not be ignored.
Butler’s research project showed that information presented during the tours had much to do with the current plantation owners. If the plantation was privately owned, slavery was usually not mentioned. This could be a result of wanting to protect the reputation of the owner’s ancestors, or reflect a lack of available information about the slaves. If a plantation was state owned, usually some research on the slaves had been completed, but may not make it into the information presented during the tour. Slavery might not be mentioned at all. A federally owned plantation, or one owned by a historical society was most likely to present some slave-related history. If the plantation was owned by a foundation, the topic of slavery was simply not dealt with. The foundation’s business was to boost a family’s reputation. As Butler states in Whitewashing Plantations: The Commodification of a Slave-Free Antebellum South, “A sure way to reveal a potential flaw in a person was to point out that s(he) was a slaveholder” (Butler, 169).
One may well ask why the topic of slavery should be so marginalized in a place that could not have survived without it. One reason may be that most people go on tours for pleasure; to escape the hum-drum of their own daily lives. Tourists are seeking to catch a glimpse of the opulence and romance depicted in the very influential movie, Gone With the Wind. As Butler states: “By presenting slavery, too much of the ugly, historical reality of daily life in the past would be brought into the picture.” In her article, A Heap of Us Slaves, Dr. Daina R.Berry shares many heartbreaking examples of slave life. It would be difficult to appreciate the full beauty of the vista views while reflecting on slave accounts like this one from Emma Hurly:
“I recollects good when Mr. Seabron Callaway come over to the place and bought my Grandma an’ some other slaves an’ took ‘em away. We jest cried an’ cried an’ Grandma did, too. Them white folks bought an’ sold slaves that way all the time” (26).
Also, plantation owners make a fair amount of money by renting their facilities for events such as weddings. Plantation weddings are associated with the fragrance of gardenias, wind whistling through ancient oak trees, and the bride and groom posing for pictures on the elegant columned veranda. Weddings are a celebration of two people choosing to share a life with the one they love. It might cast a cloud over the festivities to remember women like Molly of Hampton Point, who asked about her husband who had recently been sold. Her mistress informed her that the overseer had chosen Tony, another slave, to be her new husband. Forced reproduction was often employed to breed more slaves for the plantation owners. (28, 29).
The plantation tours do the past a disservice by focusing only on the white owners’ lives, rather than the lives of the slaves who, in general, greatly outnumbered them. Take, for one of many examples, the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site. On the Georgia Department of Natural Resources site, we read the following: “The plantation and its inhabitants were part of the genteel low country society that developed during the antebellum period.” I am certain that this statement is not meant to include the plantation’s slaves, who had little control over their lives, and were powerless to keep their children or spouses from being sold away from them. There were no laws in place to protect them from being beaten or raped at the whim of their master or overseer, as happened frequently. In Anthony W. Neal’s book, Unburdened by Conscience: A Black People’s Collective Account of the Ante-Bellum South and the Aftermath, we find Mollie Kinsey’s narrative of the rape of her sister, “just a small girl”. Her master would force her to “go out and lay on the table, and two or three white men would have intercourse with her before they’d let her get up” (64). If a girl or woman resisted, she could be beaten until she submitted. If her father, brother, or husband lifted a hand against his master or overseer to protect her, he could be tortured, mutilated, and killed (67). It was all perfectly legal. The slave woman’s body belonged to her master (Block, 137).
In Dr. Daina R. Berry’s work, Let the Enslaved Testify”, she includes Rosa Maddox’s narrative, recorded on December 2, 1937. Rosa stated:
“I can tell you a white man laid a nigger gal when he wanted her. Some them white men had a plumb cravin’ for the other color. Leastways, they wanted to start themselves out on nigger women. But master was a good man and I never heard of him botherin’ any nigger women. But they was some redheaded neighbors what had a whole crop of redheaded nigger slaves.”
“Genteel” implies dignity and respect, of which the slaves were granted little. So, to say the plantation’s inhabitants were genteel members of society is misleading. The Hofwyl- Broadfield Plantation Historic Site website goes on to praise the beauty and charm and promises you a “magical experience”. The only nod to slavery in the entire text is this: “As we stroll through moss laden Live Oak trees hear the stories of plantation owners and the African- Americans who worked here”. “African-Americans who worked here.” Well, that does sound a lot more romantic and “magical” than referring to them as “slaves” or “people being forced to toil for someone else’s gain”.
Surely the plantation owners’ stories deserve to be told? They were just men and women of their time; not necessarily bad people. Not all slaveholders were overtly cruel. The way they lived was an important part of history.
Undoubtably, the owners’ history is interesting and worthy of note. However, considering that on most plantations, the slaves laboring in often shockingly bad conditions greatly outnumbered the privileged white family reaping the benefits of their labor, the information being presented is grossly unbalanced. There are more descendants of the slaves who worked at the plantation than there are white descendants of the owners. There are many, many people who are interested in an accurate account of their ancestors’ pasts. According to Thirkelle Harris Howard, coordinator of multicultural affairs at Kansas State University College of Human Ecology, around 85% of African-Americans are descended from the slaves brought from Africa. Howard states that between 140 to 385 years ago: “About 400,000 to 600,000 Africans were brought to America as slaves, although I don’t think anyone really knows for sure how many, because records were frequently not kept.” Basing her estimates on census guidelines, she thinks over half of those slaves reproduced. 30% of Georgia’s population is African-American. Certainly, such a large demographic deserves historical representation.
What about money? If we demystify plantation life, won’t there be a great loss of revenue? Surely, people will be less likely to book plantations for weddings or attend festive events, such as the Annual Hofwyl Plantation Christmas, complete with a visit from Santa Claus. While there may well be a loss of income from venues, accurate historical representation of plantations will draw a different crowd. Could the plantation owners be overlooking a chance to draw more visitors? Educators will be more likely to visit, and bring school groups. African Americans will be much more likely to visit a place that does not tell only the “whitewashed” version of events. In David K. Shipler’s book, A Country of Strangers, he contrasts what two tourists see when looking at the same view. One tourist is white and is there to take in the plantation’s charm. The other tourist is a descendant of slaves who wants to learn more about his ancestors:
A double image shimmers beneath the towering trees. One is for those who do not consider the history; beauty shrouds the shame. The other is for those who recognize that they have come upon the site of a great crime and can feel the shiver of remembrance…The canal they create is a lovely river of sorrow; it marks the divide in America between those who can see the beauty and those who feel the chill (Shipler,147).
While it is understandably tempting to focus on the picturesque, romanticized aspects of plantation life, glossing over the injustice of slavery does everyone, past and present, a disservice. It is wrong to ignore the suffering and injustice that took place merely so tourists can take in the lovely scenery without feeling bad, and a state can downplay its indefensible history. It is necessary for us to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors and be confronted by the painful, ugly facts, so we can prevent them from happening again.
Butler, David L., Ph.D. “Whitewashing Plantations: The Commodification of a Slave-Trade Antebellum South.” SLAVERY, CONTESTED HERITAGE AND THANATOURISM. N.p.: Hayworth, 2001. 163-75. Whitewashing Plantations: The Commodification of a Slave-Trade Antebellum South. Acadamia.edu, 2015. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
Berry, Daina R. “Let the Enslaved Testify.” Not Even Past. Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin, 25 Feb. 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.
Block, Sharon. “Lines of Color, Sex and Service: Comparative Sexual Coercion in Early America”, 137.
“Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site | Georgia State Parks.” Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site | Georgia State Parks. Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources State Parks and Historic Sites, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2015. <http://gastateparks.org/HofwylBroadfield>.
Howard, Thirkelle H. “Student Researches Slavery Legacy in African-American Families.” Student Researches Slavery Legacy in African-American Families. The University of Kansas, 18 Feb. 2005. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
Neal, Anthony W. Unburdened by Conscience: A Black People’s Collective Account of the Ante-Bellum South and the Aftermath. Lanham: U of America, 2010. 64-68. Print.
Shipler, David K. A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America. New York: Knopf, 1997. Print.
White, Deborah Gray. “Slavery”. The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History. Ed. Wilma Pearl Mankiller. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Credo Reference. Web 2 Apr. 2015.
“Demographics of Georgia (U.S. State).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Jan. 2015. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.