October 18, 2021

From Plantations to the National Trust’s Sites of Enslavement

Reconsidering Celebrations at Sites of Enslavement, Part 2

Intergenerational, race-based chattel slavery, including the forced indenture and enslavement of indigenous Americans, has existed across the four corners of our subcontinent since at least the 1500s. In 1860, there were 46,300 plantations in the United States and countless other sites of historical enslavement, including colleges and universities, municipal buildings, private homes, ships, military installations, reservations, and houses of worship of nearly every faith and denomination.

The legal institution of slavery officially ended in 1865, but it was then modified into other forms of forced labor such as sharecropping, forced contract labor on farms and inside homes, prison labor, and sex trafficking, all of which continue to mostly ensnare historically vulnerable groups such as people of color and recent immigrants. This transmutation in our collective history means that the story of race-based oppressive social and legal practices that occurred at and around the National Trust’s 11 sites of enslavement (more on these later) likely did not end with the last guns of the Civil War or the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Today, there are close to 4,000 plantations and other places with histories of slavery that exist as museums, historic sites, and other publicly-accessible accommodations such as special event spaces, bed-and-breakfast establishments, or vacation rentals. Yet according to dozens of studies over the last 30 years, the majority of historic sites with histories of slavery, including privately owned and either state- or foundation-run sites, minimize, trivialize, or are completely silent on their histories of slavery in their online and print marketing materials (Cook Lee).

Interior of Belle Grove Plantation

photo by: Ron Blunt

The interior of one of the rooms at Belle Grove Plantation, one of 11 sites with histories of slavery in the National Trust portfolio. In 2019, Belle Grove completed an exhibition that explored the site's history of slavery and shared primary source images from its archives.

In the same vein, most historic sites in the United States, including National Trust Historic Sites, were originally preserved as monuments to the well-known, wealthy, and elite. They showcased expansive rooms of expensive items to help visitors catch a glimpse of an often-imaginary past. In 2002, after years of qualitative research on 83 plantation museums in the South, scholars Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small found that:

“Most of the sites we have explored in depth tell a story of American history that centers around whites, males, and elites, and that these sites erase or minimize the presence, labor, and lives of enslaved Africans and African Americans. … These sites work to construct and maintain public white (male-dominated) racial identities that both articulate with and bolster a sense of (white) pride in a partial history of freedom, democracy, and hard work. … Slavery and African Americans are presented as almost incidental to the growth of the South and, by extension, the United States.”

Nearly 20 years later, their statement still rings true at many historic sites of enslavement across the country. The histories of colonization, expulsion, genocide, war, slavery, segregation, wage suppression, gender violence, lynching, discrimination, union-busting, racism, and nearly any other negative thing that someone from history could have committed, advocated for, or been an accomplice to have largely been cleansed from the master narrative so that visitors can focus on beautiful objects, majestic mansions, and passive portrait faces.

That is, unless the violent parts of history can be leveraged for entertainment and thus further profit. For example, sites make exceptions for ghost tours and other forms of dark tourism where violence, even against enslaved people, children, and women, is used to shock and titillate visitors. Sadly, despite pressure from public history and tourism studies scholars, changing public opinion, and the notoriety of historians who are doing more inclusive work, our field continues to struggle with presenting the full true story, warts and all.

Plantation Museums Are Not Neutral

Protests and complaints against celebratory events such as weddings or holidays at plantations are nothing new. Black descendants of slavery in the U.S. and Caribbean have issued formal and informal complaints about these kinds of events and the idealization of plantations since at least the early 1900s. They have also criticized the promotion of plantations as nostalgic, romantic venues to host celebratory Gone with the Wind-style events. “Black people don’t have happy memories of the antebellum period and plantations, where our ancestors were beaten and tortured,” Color of Change’s Ogunnaike said in early 2020. “It’s important the reality of what happened in these spaces is present, versus a romanticization of human rights abuses.”

Sadly, it is not just the history but also present problems with interpretation and exhibits at many plantations around the country that exacerbate a long history of negative feelings in much of the Black community. One historian described plantations as “icons of romance premised on the fragile privilege of [white] racial innocence, historical oblivion, and educational denialism.

Unlike with science and math, we have no national standards for teaching the history of slavery. So for many generations of students to this day, their only educational exploration of this history occurred at a plantation museum, making these sites powerful arbiters of public memory in the United States that are, like other museums, seen by the public as being more credible sources of information than newspapers and federal agencies. And it means that National Trust sites, especially our sites of enslavement, are an integral part of our nation’s K-12 and adult education system. It is our responsibility to tell the truth in the places where history happened.

photo by: Woodlawn and Pope Leighey House

An undated, historic image of Woodlawn Plantation, the first site in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's portfolio of 28 historic sites.

Even though change is happening, too many plantations across the country continue to focus on the idealized lifestyles of the plantation owners, erase the site’s history of slavery or ghettoize it to one-off or slavery tours, or only include the stories of enslaved people in “affectively unequal” or stereotypical “loyal slave” presentations.

As art historian La Tanya S. Autry frequently reminds the field, “Museums are not neutral.” Historic sites have always made political decisions about where to focus research funds, whose stories to highlight in tours, or who to center in an exhibit. The marginalization, minimization, caricaturing, or erasure of the stories of enslaved people at plantation sites and other spaces with histories of slavery, where they were the majority of the population, continues to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many Black visitors today.

It also implicitly communicates to all visitors whose histories are deemed important and worthy of respect and honor versus who was not interesting enough to bother naming in the tour script. There is at least 30 years of visitor research that shows that Black visitors’ “perceived fear of racial discrimination, realized and potential” directly influences what historic sites or communities we choose to visit or completely avoid (Butler).

The National Trust Historic Sites of Enslavement

Interpreting slavery and race is by no means easy, but it is a critical and critically mischaracterized foundational component of our national story. It is also essentially important for the National Trust to continue telling the full story, not just of our historic sites but of our organization as a whole.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a portfolio of 28 historic sites. Of those, 11 were built by enslaved laborers and craftspeople, were home and work sites to enslaved people, and were certainly funded by buying, selling, and stealing (with violent enforcement) the manual, intellectual, and sexual labor of Black women, men, and children. One historic site in the portfolio was built by and for formerly enslaved and free born Black people in New England, and at least three other houses were famously owned by individuals from slave-owning families.

Slave cabins on Montpelier's South Yard.

photo by: Montpelier Foundation/Jennifer Glass

View of the re-constructed slave cabins at Montpelier. Over 150 years ago, these cabins were cleared away, but starting in 2014 they were reconstructed as part of Montpelier's renewed commitment to telling the full story of the enslaved people thanks to a gift by David Rubenstein. The full story of the individuals enslaved by James and Dolly Madison was not always a central focus of this National Trust Historic Site. In 2021, however, the site's board voted for co-stewardship between the descendent community and the Montpelier Foundation.

The very first property that the National Trust acquired for its portfolio was Woodlawn, formerly an outparcel of George Washington’s massive plantation complex, in Virginia in 1951. That was soon followed by Decatur House in 1958, an urban townhome in Washington, D.C., a plantation compound that was built for one enslaver and then subsequently owned for 26 years by a financially successful domestic slave-trading family.

Then came the Shadows-on-the-Teche in 1959, an urban Louisiana sugar plantation complex. During the transition from family home into publicly-accessible historic site—prior to National Trust ownership—remnants of the brick slave cabins were used to build racially segregated restrooms that segregated during the early years of the site, and the last traces of slavery were cleared to make way for lush open lawns, views of the bayou, and a garden sanctuary.

As the Jim Crow laws fell nationally, and a last wave of Confederate memorials were erected, the National Trust saved an increasing number of plantation sites from ruin, private sale, or destruction and redevelopment. However, all the slave dwellings were removed to enhance picturesque views or renovated to the point of nearly erasing the site’s original purpose or repurposed as office, storage, or retail spaces.

In total, the National Trust’s 11 sites of enslavement are surprisingly diverse. They include a house of worship in New England, urban homes, countryside estates and plantations in the mid-Atlantic and Deep South, and an adobe home in California. These buildings and their connected artifacts, documents, cemeteries, slave dwellings, landscapes, and stories can be used to explore a vast range of powerful human stories, including those of a skillful enslaved master sugar maker; a shrewd female enslaver and businesswoman; a talented seamstress who was often reprimanded for sewing her enslaver’s clothes incorrectly; and biracial siblings who were manumitted by their father and then lost a lawsuit over their rightful inheritance to their slave-owning half-brother.

There is also the story of the author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights who believed slavery was an “evil” that “dishonored” our national character but sold his human property to pay personal bills. His Quaker wife sold even more people, destroying families in the process, to pay their son’s immense gambling debts.

And yet these sites also reveal stories of persistent demands for freedom, including a man who stole weapons, food, and his family from slavery, or another man who purchased his son by mail and provided detailed directions that would convey this precious cargo safely to freedom. Or an enslaved woman who sued her owner, a former vice president of the United States, and eventually was able to win freedom for herself and some of her children.

And we cannot forget the thousands who were born and died in bondage to the owners of these sites, or the thousands who served as domestic or agricultural contract workers and sharecroppers after Emancipation, especially those whose stories are yet to be researched and shared with the public—part of the multitudes that can be found within each historic site of enslavement in the National Trust’s portfolio.

Weddings and Events at National Trust Historic Sites

Today most of the National Trust’s sites with histories of slavery host weddings, and all our sites have spaces that can be rented out for a variety of gatherings that have little or no connection with the site’s history or educational purposes, including conferences, luncheons, fundraisers, art fairs, family reunions, or other celebratory events. Our sites also offer annual or one-off special events like oyster bakes, dog shows, wine or beer walks, horse racing, art fairs, haunted Halloween theater programs, and holiday festivals.

Prospective renters and event hosts come to these sites because of their aesthetics, the size of their spaces, the amenities, and sometimes a connection with the past, either real or imagined. As a result, National Trust Historic Sites generate, in some cases, a substantial percentage of their annual revenue from special events.

As we’ll discuss in the next installment, the National Trust had already begun to wrestle with the complicated issue of commodifying historic spaces where intergenerational violence and displacement happened. But with the call for change from Color of Change adding necessary urgency to our work, we spent 2020 seriously organizing our staff and tackling the history of slavery in a new way, with results that might help illuminate a path forward for other historic sites grappling with these issues.

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David L. Butler, "Whitewashing Plantations," International Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Administration 2, no. 3-4 (2001): 163-75, https://doi.org/10.1300/J149v02n03_07.

Elon Cook Lee. See scholarship of Derick Alderman, Stephen Small, Jennifer Eichstedt, David L. Butler, James Oliver Horton, and Christine Buzinde.

Elon Cook Lee is the director of interpretation and education in the Historic Sites Department at National Trust for Historic Preservation.  

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