October 18, 2021

Repair Work at Sites of Enslavement

Reconsidering Celebrations at Sites of Enslavement, Part 3

In 2020, I began the work of organizing the National Trust’s historic sites with histories of slavery into the Sites of Enslavement Working Group. The group, which is made up mostly of plantation site staff, has been meeting monthly since last summer. They comprise staff in a variety of positions, including CEOs, directors, special events managers, and curators.

We discuss journal articles, Teen Vogue opinion pieces, difficult visitors, racist incidents, podcast episodes, strategies for ethical plantation wedding hosting, and how to build equitable and lasting relationships with Black and Indigenous communities despite generations of distrust, hurt, and past failures. We spend a lot of time talking about the histories that lead us to our current situation—why and how plantation museums have such a negative association in the minds of most Black people and increasingly in broader public opinion.

For decades, the National Trust sought to provide its portfolio of properties with opportunities to refresh and reinvigorate their research and interpretation on the history of slavery. However, shifting priorities, budget constraints, board or visitor pressure, and staff turnover made deep, meaningful change to the interpretation of many of our sites complicated and onerous.

Add to that the constant struggle to recruit and retain staff of color to work in a field where visitors of color continue to deal with racially awkward or racist comments and behaviors from other visitors or staff, whitewashed histories, and the childhood memories or stories from loved ones about negative experiences at plantation museums. Even Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch has spoken about how his history buff father avoided taking his family to plantation museums and Civil War sites.

By June 2020, as the rallies for Black Lives, the murder of George Floyd, and the seemingly ever-present media coverage of Americans demanding to hear and see the full story at plantations reminded us, we still had a lot of work to do. The Sites of Enslavement Working Group considered the ways in which our work has fallen short and began collaboratively working on new plans.

From Challenge to Opportunity: A New Vision for Interpreting Sites of Enslavement at the National Trust for Historic Preservation

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

James Baldwin

The National Trust’s plantation sites and other sites of enslavement are without a doubt aesthetically beautiful properties. But they also have violent histories that in many cases have never completely been reconciled with the people who were and continue to be most negatively impacted by slavery. While some of this work was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have spent the last year working with our Sites of Enslavement Working Group to develop a new vision and strategic initiatives for interpreting historic sites with histories of slavery.

This is not a feel-good campaign or a quick fix. This is repair work. Race-based slavery and its legacy of racism caused a rupture before the start of this nation, and it continues to reverberate, including at the National Trust. As the National Trust President and CEO Paul Edmondson said in the organization’s June 12, 2020 statement for Black Lives:

“Historic places of all types and periods should be places of truth-telling and inclusivity.

Historic preservation must actively advance justice and equity for all people.

Historic preservation organizations have an obligation to confront and address structural racism within our own institutions.

We have much to do at the National Trust and in the preservation movement to align our work with these facts, and we must do it—and we will do it—with a sense of urgency.”

And so, in 2021, we answered the call for change with a holistic new vision for the stewardship of sites of enslavement by creating SHINE (Stewarding Sites of EnSlaved History through INterpretation and Education), an evolution of the Sites of Enslavement Working Group. This dynamic group has steadily ramped up its work over the last year. We continue to meet monthly for the foreseeable future as the needs of historic sites with histories of slavery evolve. Moreover, the problems currently faced by plantation museums were developed over hundreds of years, so our proposed solutions and best practices are developed with the recognition that this work is often challenging, there will be obstacles, it will take time, but it must be done thoughtfully and with a sense of urgency. We understand that success is defined not by boards, donors, and directors, but by descendants of enslaved people.

Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery

Success in our work of stewarding and interpreting sites of enslavement cannot be defined by majority white institutions and white staff members, no matter how well educated or thoughtful. The biggest challenge historic sites of enslavement face when they interpret their histories is racial bias in primary and secondary sources and in many cases all-white curatorial and/or interpretive teams. This situation leads to blind spots and challenges with cultural sensitivity even in the most progressive organizations. We also recognize that having a single or tiny minority of voices of color in an institution will not bring equity to the organization or create true opportunities to advance the interpretation of racial histories.

photo by: Andrew Shurtleff/AP Images for James Madison's Montpelier

A group of participants engage in a breakout session during the National Summit on Teaching Slavery in February 2018. It is through this summit, with funding from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and James Madison's Montpelier, that Dr. Michael Blakey and participants in the summit developed the Engaging Descendent Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites rubric. The rubric is now a model for other historic sites.

In light of these challenges, the National Trust’s SHINE Working Group uses the Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites rubric to guide our work, and each site is exploring new opportunities to engage, seek feedback from, work for, and work in collaboration with Black and Indigenous community members at all levels of the institution.

The rubric was developed by a group of educators, public historians, slavery scholars, activists, and descendants of slavery in 2018 after the Teaching Slavery convening at James Madison’s Montpelier. The project was sponsored by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Specifically, SHINE has been using the rubric’s best practices since September 2020 to organize strategic and long-term progress toward improved research methodologies, storytelling, and equitable collaboration with descendants of slavery at each site. This rubric has been incredibly useful in helping site staff break down the changes they need to make into accomplishable goals while charting their progress.

And starting in 2021, the sites were partnered up so that they could work together in small groups and keep each other focused and moving forward. The working groups will meet annually in December so that each site can share their grades for the year, talk through their biggest challenges, celebrate successes, and make plans for continued progress in the new year. As institutions that serve the public, we are accountable to our visitors and so will publicly share a report on the progress of our group after the December 2021 meeting.

The rubric was also an impetus for one of our historic sites’ biggest achievements. In June 2021, the board of the foundation that oversees James Madison’s Montpelier voted to change its bylaws and provide the Montpelier Descendants Committee equal co-stewardship authority over the museum and James Madison’s estate. That meant that for the first time in the nation, an organized group of descendants of enslaved people would have equal governance of the estate of their ancestors’ former enslaver and authority over its interpretation.

Evolving Guidance for Sensitive Interpretation and Use

After the robust conversation that occurred at the Plantation Weddings Symposium in late 2020, it was clear that National Trust sites would also have to tackle the weddings and event rentals issue head on. The symposium caused us to look at how we can better connect special events to site histories and reconsider policies, practices, and marketing copy used to promote our historic sites as event venues.

The core components of this initiative involve auditing each historic site’s storefronts on all the major wedding and event rental websites, plus the About Us or history pages on our branded websites and any other marketing or tour content material that prospective renters might see before booking an event at the site.

African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund intern Lizzie Mekonnen and I performed the audits, and Lizzie has outlined her recommendations as part of this series, including the eight guidelines we developed for writing marketing copy that tells the full story. Since our March 2021 meeting, the Sites of Enslavement have been steadily and consistently revising their websites, marketing materials, and storefronts to reflect these changes, and we look forward to continued feedback and editing.

Beyond weddings, we also saw clear interest and need for more opportunities for preservation and public history professionals, scholars, and descendants of slavery to continue meeting to discuss best practices for the ethical stewardship of sites of enslavement. In that vein, I facilitated a panel discussion for the International National Trusts Organization (INTO) at its biannual preservation conference about interpreting sites of enslavement in the Atlantic world in May 2021. The panel included speakers from an 18th-century slave trader’s home in England, a slave castle in Senegal, a group of historic sites of enslavement in St. Kitts, and National Trust Historic Site Drayton Hall. Despite coming from different points on the globe, each site had similar challenges with the politicians, culture warriors, donors, and visitors as the sites evolved in their interpretation of slavery.

The session was so generative that INTO and the National Trust are working together to organize a convening of sites of enslavement from around the world at the 2021 and 2022 PastForward conferences and INTO’s 2021 conference in Antwerp, Belgium. This collaborative initiative now called RISE—Reimagining International Sites of Enslavement—will also be organizing thematic virtual convenings throughout 2022.

Reinterpreting the legacy of slavery is an ongoing project, but so is history. I am proud to be part of an organization that recognizes the necessity of telling the truth about our collective past, including the most challenging histories. We look forward to continuing the conversation about plantation weddings, history, and public memory, as well as collectively crafting best practices for representing slavery to future generations.

We have our own work to do … individually and as an organization. We have an obligation to use our skills as storytellers, as advocates, and as stewards of the past to apply the tools of preservation in service of [telling the full story]. “Telling the full story” is not just a catch-phrase; it is a necessary part of our mission, and we will continue to bring focus to these important efforts.

—Paul Edmondson, CEO, the National Trust for Historic Preservation

In the next story in the series, Dr. Angelita D. Reyes, Ph.D shares the history of antebellum weddings between enslaved men and women.

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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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