December 2, 2021

Out of The Shadows: Reinterpreting a National Trust Historic Site

The Shadows-on-the-Teche is undoubtedly idiosyncratic, if not a little mysterious. The only site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the Gulf South and one of only four further south geographically than Virginia, the house sits in the city of New Iberia, Louisiana, yet its columns and gallery are more emblematic of a plantation ‘Big House’ than a city residence. Its original owner was not the stereotypical Southern gentleman, either, but a white woman—a planter and enslaver in her own right.

A group of people of various ages sitting on a bridge at a former sugar plantation on Weeks Island in Louisiana.

photo by: Shadows-on-the-Teche

A group of Freedpeople at Grand Cote Plantation on Weeks Island. This was the primary source of the Weeks fortune, and the location of the majority of the Weeks' enslaved population.

Its donor was equally non-conformative, eschewing gender normative activities of his era in favor of an art and domestic-centered life, restoring The Shadows and entertaining an varied circle of artists, writers, early historic preservationists and cultural figures, including many people from around the country who today may identify as LGBTQ+. And lastly, The Shadows—as with many antebellum homes—is a paradox: its beautiful architecture, lush grounds, and extensive decorative arts collection was all made possible by the enslavement of Africans and their descendants.

For all its complexity, interpretation at The Shadows for many years followed traditional models. Tours focused on the white proprietors David and Mary Weeks with a heavy emphasis on life as they and their descendants experienced it in the house. The considerable material available in the Weeks Family papers as well as The Shadows’ extensive collection were both applied to this interpretive framework, resulting in an experience that was well supported, but overwhelmingly exclusive in its focus and subsequently white in its narrative. A visit to The Shadows did not lack information, but was far from addressing the breadth of its history let alone highlighting the complexities that make The Shadows such an important historic site—a site of memory.

Two men  standing in front of a gazebo and landscaped area at the site of a former plantation in Louisiana.

photo by: Shadows-on-the-Teche

William Weeks Hall (left) talking with preservation architect Richard Koch in front of the Koch-designed gazebo. The new tour includes an interpretation of the site shifting into a public historic site.

A pair of pants and a vest belonging to an enslaved child on a black background.

photo by: Shadows-on-the-Teche

This set of clothing that belonged to an enslaved child is now a central part of the new tour.

Doing the Research

In 2020, The Shadows engaged Kenetha Harrington to revisit the Weeks Family papers, the site’s collection, and to locate new material that could be incorporated into the visitor experience. Attention to primary documents had always been the core interpretive value at The Shadows, and Harrington applied it in the search for those whose histories are integral to the site, but have been historically excluded. This included that of African descendants who lived and labored at the property both before and after the Civil War, as well as the role of the Chitimacha and Atkapan-Ishak, area Native American residents.

Harrington’s work departed from previous efforts in another way. Her research made crucial and deliberate connections, identifying and reaching out to descendant communities. Moving forward, The Shadows as a site of enslavement and labor was to be a contemporary consideration, rather than a historical footnote. Dovetailing Harrington’s work, Slavery and Freedom Intern Trevian Ambroise created “Beyond the Shadows,” a mapping project that articulated The Shadows' history and its legacies within the context of the larger New Iberia community.

Exterior of a small brick building that houses restrooms. It has green trim and is surrounded by greenery.

photo by: Shadows-on-the-Teche

This formally segregated restroom building at The Shadows was built on top of the foundation of slave quarters. It is now included in the interpretation.

With Harrington and Ambroise’s work, The Shadows moved forward towards the creation of an ethical and comprehensive approach to the site’s interpretation. The staff installed signage across the site, marking points of importance, bringing into the visitor experience material on work yards, domestic labor and urban slavery. These signs highlighted and interpreted later-20th-century points of importance.

One early visitor facility now interpreted was erected on top of slave quarter foundations and was segregated until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its inclusion in the site’s interpretation provides a powerful point of discussion on racial inequality, symbolic erasure of Black histories at historic sites, and the potential of these sites to be agents of change. Certainly, The Shadows’ commitment to both its history and its legacies is now, quite literally, part of the visitor experience.

Changing the Interpretation

In early 2021, The Shadows established an Interpretation Advisory Board consisting of educational and interpretive stakeholders in the New Iberia area. The Advisory Board contributed to invaluable discussions on content, meaning, and what amounted to The Shadows’ new institutional direction. Listening and engaging with their stakeholders allowed The Shadows to fully appreciate not only their interpretive responsibility in the community, but the ways in which they could further social and educational aims.

"Telling the Full History," a four-speaker series, is currently underway, bringing scholars to The Shadows and presenting on a number of topics, from Reconstruction in New Iberia to an in-depth look at those enslaved on the Weeks sugar plantation. It compliments and supports externally the work that The Shadows is engaging with internally, challenging preconceptions and established ‘history’ and serving as a space for discussion within the community.

A portrait of an enslaved woman named Charity. The image is sepia toned with the words "Wright & Garrison" and the location New Iberia, LA at the bottom of the plate.

photo by: Shadows-on-the-Teche

Charity, an enslaved seamstress at The Shadows, continued to live in the house during the Civil War when Union Troops occupied the first floor of The Shadows. In the story map put together by Ambroise, Charity's story includes an example of rebellion and resistance among the enslaved population.

In the fall of 2021, The Shadows opened for tours for the first time since its reinterpretation. The work of scholars Harrington and Ambroise, the guidance of the Interpretive Advisory Board, and The Shadows’ commitment to the value of primary source material shaped a presentation that is quite a departure from what has been previously shared.

In the new tour, those rightful inhabitants of the land which became The Shadows, the Chitimacha and the Atakapan-Ishak, are now acknowledged; the house is presented as it was experienced by enslaved people and their white enslavers; the institution of slavery as the dominating social structure—one intended to be perpetuated—is put forward as fundamental; and lastly, the narrative embraces the complexity of the Shadows’ own particular history. Here, a woman stood as enslaver and planter; here, an enslaved woman resisted her enslavement by testing the limits of her bondage at every point possible, turning survival into resistance.

It is a tour that challenges the visitor to step away from expected narratives and engage with one of the most interesting sites in the National Trust. But the reinterpretation of The Shadows is also something else, it is a first step. It shows us the potential for historic site engagement to have an impact beyond its property boundaries and well after the tour. As Trevian Ambroise wrote of the website, "While Beyond the Shadows seeks to provide additional details to the tours and future programming, I would not have compiled the digital resource without centering full histories [of the site]. In a sense, Beyond the Shadows is but a single step towards doing restorative work in communities."

Laura Kilcer is a curatorial consultant specializing in the development of ethical narratives at sites of enslavement. She is the editor of the recent collection of essays,Charting the Plantation Landscape from Natchez to New Orleans, currently available from LSU Press.

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By: Laura Kilcer

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