Making sense of slavery on the plantation trail
An ethnographic look at how we remember slavery on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
By Sara Mason
Sara Mason is an assistant professor of sociology at Gainsville State College in Georgia. She spent a year working as a docent and conducting ethnographic research for her Ph.D. at a Georgia plantation.
“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” I never doubted the truth of this statement growing up in Madison, Georgia. Our town discovered the marketability of antebellum homes, and the past they represented, in the 1970s. Madison marketed itself as a bucolic historic town that escaped the flames of Sherman’s destruction by divine providence, protected by a patina of tweeness, with rows of antebellum homes marching around a quaint town square. As a girl I paraded around in frilly dresses at countless Madison Tour of Homes, my hair in ringlets, telling tourists that Sherman refused to burn Madison because it was too beautiful. Teachers at my school mourned the antebellum south as the good ole days. (At home, the fading agrarian past still stung as my father continued to run his peach farm in the age of agribusiness).
One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, we’ve substituted nostalgia for outright racism. And the alternating beauty and banality of the plantation makes the substitution, and the accompanying silence and refusal to consider the relationship of the past to today, all too easy. “Partly the silence is rooted in a paradox,” writes journalist Adam Goodheart in Preservation Magazine. “Some of this nation’s cruelest places can also be its most beautiful. Natchez does not look much like Dachau or Buchenwald.” Natchez, Mississippi, much like my hometown, is an area known for its southern moonlight and magnolia charm and antebellum plantation homes. It is a typical stop on itineraries of anyone interested in southern history and architecture.
Paradoxically, Americans have never been more interested in the past, a fascination that started well before the Civil War’s anniversary. Increasingly, our leisure time has been defined by this interest. Record numbers of Americans are attending museums and historic sites, reconstructing their family trees through researching their genealogy, watching historically based films and TV, and reading historically based novels.
As a doctoral student, I became a docent at the Archibald Smith Plantation Home, which locals called the Smith Plantation, in Roswell, a northern suburb of Atlanta. Smith Plantation, built in 1845, is one of three antebellum historic homes that are owned and operated by the City of Roswell. The house was originally the home of Archibald and Anne Smith and their four children, and three generations of the Smith family lived there before a surviving family member sold it to the city of Roswell in 1986. Smith Plantation opened its doors to the public six years later. Tourists still approach the house with surprise, expecting a palatial plantation with wide verandahs and fainting couches that one approaches by marching alongside a row of stately trees. They find instead a large farmhouse, also known as a two-story four-square—four rooms up and four rooms down with a wide central hallway—with a newer 1940s facade meant to mimic the grander homes found in Hollywood depictions of the South. There are no Corinthian columns or stories of lavish lifestyles.
Smith belongs to a genre of obscure museum homes important only because they witnessed an important moment in history. The tours of this genre of museum homes share a narrative too. An older white woman greets you at the door. The tour guides are increasingly professionals, but you might still find yourself with one of the people who led the charge to preserve the house as a historical monument. Tours are usually narrated in the third person, lacking the kitchy spectacle of first-person interpretation found at sites like Colonial Williamsburg. But it’s not uncommon for docents to wear the period costumes often seen on first person tours. For the docents who do choose to don period clothing there is a painstaking attention to detail and authenticity – truly faithful reproduction clothing is expensive, however, so many settle for a close approximation. When I began training to be a docent, I was strongly encouraged to wear period clothing because tourists like to see that. I had every intention of doing so, believing that it would increase my ethnographic chops, but the practice began to dwindle soon after I joined the staff so I never did. I was relieved.
Families who owned the houses typically star in the tour guide’s narrative. At the Smith plantation, the story begins in 1839 with the founding of Roswell and ends, somewhat unexpectedly, with Mamie Cotton, a Black woman who cooked and cleaned for the last generation of Smiths. By an odd twist of fate, Cotton was the last person to occupy the home, and the way we read her story is symptomatic of our unresolved relationship to the ugly history of slavery.
Silly costumes notwithstanding, this is serious business.
The appeal of this industry for state and local tourism officials lies in the spending power of the highly coveted heritage tourism traveler—one who is interested in a connection to the past. Heritage travelers spend an average of 30 percent more per trip than the average tourist, leading some industry insiders to label them the gold standard of the tourist industry. The growth of the industry has in turn led to an increasingly diverse tourist audience, including a growing Black tourist class.
Smith Plantation administrators and staff, recognizing the shift towards diversity, have been involved in a concerted effort, even enlisting the help of outside consultants, to develop an experience that will bring in a larger swath of visitors. Still, treating tourism as a market means that museum-goers are your customers, not your pupils. Questions of ethics and historical accuracy are supplanted by questions of consumer desire: Why are you here? That’s a question docents silently confront with a new tour group, gauging which story is right for visitors. Looking for a connection to a romantic past? A connection to severed roots? An entertaining story with a dash of local color? In the moment of answering that question, docents decide which version of the past they’ll supply as they lead a group through the plantation.
The heritage tourist, the thinking goes, is likely seeking a personal relationship with the past. They want history to reaffirm their own identities, to see themselves reflected in history.
A Black visitor may not be able to identify with a white slave owner in every way—actually, any number of visitors may not be able to make this kind of connection—but anyone can relate to everyday relationships and experiences like life, death, birth, and marriage serve as a basis of identification. On tours, stories about everyday objects encourage these connections. An old trunk takes on new meaning when connected to the Smith’s eldest son’s Civil War service. A Spode teapot is admired because Grandma has one just like it. A tray in the dining room becomes the basis of instruction: how did slaves prepare food? (Or it’s simply noted as an object of interest without further elaboration).
But when it comes to slavery, it is not always possible to focus on the mundane or the personal, precisely because slavery was not mundane and everyday. It was ugly and harsh.
When I first started training to become a docent I promised myself that I would talk about slavery on every tour, and not dismiss that side of history with a cursory mention. Despite these good intentions I soon found that tour dynamics are very complicated. Discussion is dictated by subtle and not so subtle cues displayed in the give and take between docent and tourist. And history is complicated too. Slavery isn’t easily digested in narrative vignettes over the course of an hour; sometimes I oversimplified.
A six-year-old child first challenged a too-easy narrative about slavery, much to my surprise, on a school group tour of third graders from a local Catholic school. My interlocutor tagged along on that tour with her 8-year-old sister. I’d been talking about the importance of the Smith family’s Presbyterian faith in their lifestyle, customs, and the founding of the community of Roswell. Toward the end of the tour she asked: “If they were Christians, why did they have slaves?” I was floored by her question, the abolitionist argument in a nutshell. I laughed uncomfortably, and tried to give a more complicated answer: Slaves weren’t viewed as human, in part because slaveholders chose to believe that they didn’t have souls. But I doubted a six-year-old could understand the very adult complexities of slavery or what were then considered the Christian rules of redemption.
Recognizing humans in terms like evil and good, however, is more difficult.
The complexity of individual humans clouds the simple wrong of the system of slavery. Archibald Smith, for instance, explored abolitionist thought, and even schooled his slaves with dreams of setting them free and sending them to Liberia. But that never happened. As docents, we don’t necessarily present this information in a way that suggests Smith’s intention ameliorates reality: he was a slave owner. People, however, bring attitudes about slavery and the South to the plantation, and those ideas affect what they understand as a takeaway point. Southern romantics may take Smith’s ideas as confirmation that slavery had a paternalistic element, as Southern apologists long contended. Docents, familiar as they are with the family that poured tea from the Spode pot, may think that too.
Docents (most of whom are white women) feel connected to the slave-holding family after attaching a humanizing story to the objects around their house. At Smith, the slide towards sympathy happens from the antebellum days right through the civil-rights-era history of the family. Mamie Cotton, a black housekeeper, moved into the home in the early 1960s to care fulltime for Mary Smith. After Mary died, Mamie continued to live in the home until her own death, the final occupant of the house.
Like most storytellers and readers, they wanted a happy ending, and a conclusion that included redemption.
Unfortunately in this story, the redemption was fiction. No evidence supports the claim that Mary had provided for Mamie in her will; much more likely is that Mamie’s presence in the house was part old school southern paternalism and part convenience: she became a caretaker for the house after her living charge died. Docents continue to tell this story as one of great generosity, because they want to see the Smiths as benevolent.
Tourists, many of whom are walking into the house of their antebellum equivalents, often have the same desire. One particular group, a tour of three women, spent a lot of time poring over a display devoted to slavery on the plantation. I pointed out a letter that was written to the Smith family from a former slave named Clarinda Richardson during Reconstruction. On the one hand, Clarinda uses a tone that suggests fondness for her former owners. She asks how everyone is doing, she refers to her “Dear Master,” and she asks the family to remember her and write to her as often as they can. Then at the very end of the letter she makes a striking request: “Please to send me my age.”
“Well it doesn’t sound like he was too bad,” one woman said. “They weren’t getting beaten.” The letter in fact makes no such suggestion. Another woman assumed that Clarinda wrote the letter, and that reflected Archibald Smith’s kindness and benevolence, because he must have allowed Clarinda to learn how to read and write. It’s actually likely that Clarinda dictated it to her daughter. I pointed out Clarinda’s ultimate question in the letter, when she asks the Smiths her age. What does it mean not to know how old you are?
I’d made many references to slavery on the plantation before we got to the display on slavery, none of which made the women doubt the Smith’s benevolence. But the birthday question gave them pause. Not knowing your birthday means not knowing the circumstances of your birth.
That kind of reflection is unusual. Tourism is about escaping our daily lives.
The reunification of the United States after the Civil War, historian David Blight says, came at the cost of discussing and healing the wounds slavery inflicted on the country. We still pay the price for this stunted discussion, adds historian Eric Foner: he calls the cost of reconciliation the “unfinished business of race.” Statements like these may be hard to swallow in our post-racial era. But the increasing pilgrimages to plantations, and tourists’ compulsion to rewrite a kinder version of history through identification with families like the Smith’s, is but one indication that we’ve yet to reconcile with our past.
Another indication of the absence of reconciliation is our lack of consensus. Take the difficulties that have hampered efforts to establish a National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia, first proposed by then-governor Douglas Wilder in 1993 and stalled since. Wilder attributes the delay to the recession, but it seems to suffer too from a lack of momentum, even as the Civil Rights Museum opened to much fanfare last year. Perhaps this is because we see the civil rights movement as a proud point of history – and a happy ending, a reconciliation – but slavery most certainly is not. There’s a profound lack of consensus about how to interpret slavery in relation to the present, maybe because we do not want to draw a line from slavery to the present. To do so would be to admit that the legacy of slavery lives on.
Ultimately, whether we claim it or disavow it, slavery is our past. Americans may visit the National Holocaust Museum and see it as a moving, and fitting statement about a shameful piece of history, but when it comes to slavery—which didn’t even happen in our lifetimes — we find it difficult to separate ourselves from the story.
As W.E.B. DuBois once noted, when we forget history, or alter it to suit are own interests, it “loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints noble men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.” And we need the truth.