The past is never dead. Each successive generation reinterprets it according to their own values. While we’d like to believe that we’re getting ever closer to the elusive historical truth, these reinterpretations aren’t always for the better. The construction of monuments to honor Confederates in the aftermath of Reconstruction and the triumph of Lost Cause ideology that we’ve previously covered come to mind. The Old South nostalgia that permeates southern plantation tours is one of the most insidious extensions of these beliefs. These tours portray elite, white planter families as kindly and worthy of emulation. They marvel at the wealth of the southern planter class. Masters and mistresses cared for their slaves and their slaves cared for them. Every plantation was Tara from Gone with the Wind (before it burned down). Yet this version of southern history, sold to tourists and disseminated through books, pamphlets and other media, is a dangerous lie. By portraying a sanitized version of southern history, these public history sites erase the lives of enslaved African-Americans and perpetuate narratives of white supremacy.
During a research trip to Mississippi, I arrived for an early morning tour at Longwood in Natchez, Mississippi. Our all-white tour group started on the ground floor. We listened to specific details about the architectural design of the house, the biographies of the family members who lived there, and the expensive building materials needed for the octagonal structure. When our tour guide started discussing the actual construction of the house, suddenly things became very vague. The men responsible for the construction were “workers” who left when the Civil War broke out. The tour guide boasted that the first building on the plantation was the “Servant’s [sic] Quarters.” As if to demonstrate how much the Nutt family, who owned the house, cared for their slaves. Who else was going to build the house? I wondered. I was not impressed with the Nutt’s supposed generosity. While we all stared at the opulent dining room, our tour guide did not mention who was responsible for operating the massive wooden fan that cooled down the room.
It seemed like the entire mansion came into being as a result of immaculate conception. There were “workers” and “servants.” These innocuous terms glossed over the reality of the lives of the enslaved people who worked and died at Longwood. They had no names, no stories of their own. No reason given as to why they all left once the Civil War began. Perhaps it had something to do with the arrival of Union forces? The only paintings or photos inside the mansion were those of the white residents. Their clothes lay on the beds. Their dinnerware laid out neatly on the dining room table. The portraits of their placid faces and finely woven clothes hung on the walls. Our tour guide made it seem that the wealth of the Nutt family was worthy of admiration (and the price of admission) in and of itself. And it would be impolite to question where that wealth came from.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only person ever to feel uncomfortable about the erasure of African-Americans on plantation tours. In 2002, a pair of sociologists Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small toured over one hundred plantation museums in Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana. They found that plantation museums largely ignored the experiences of enslaved peoples and failed to contextualize them within broader discussions of race and national identity. Eichstedt and Small concluded that plantation museums idealize the lives of the white elite of the Antebellum South. Through this veneration of planter elites, these plantations make conscious decisions to hide the lives of the enslaved people who lived and died, raised families, ran away, stayed, overcame and succumbed to the traumas of bondage. They present a sanitized and ahistoric view of slavery and the South. Eichstedt and Small also point to the extensive of smaller number of African-American run sites that push back against these narratives. The recently opened Whitney Plantation in Louisiana focuses extensively on the lives of its enslaved residents. These efforts mark a good start to correcting these narratives.
At Longwood, I was also confronted with an erasure of the present. During my tour, a man in a wheelchair and his wife were part of my group. As we prepared to take the stairs up to the unfinished main floor, the tour guide informed the man that the building wasn’t handicapped accessible. If he wanted to see the interior, she explained, he could look images in the gift shop. The man insisted to his wife that she continue the tour, while he waited. After we finished looking inside, we walked down a small staircase that was added in the late 19th century right onto the main lawn. There was no excuse (preservation or otherwise) to exclude this man from the rest of the tour. When I later recounted this story to Maria, a friend of mine and a leading disability advocate, she was unsurprised. It seems that erasure was everywhere that day.