Never mind the slavery, have you dipped a candle yet?

Via Corrente, we hear that plantation house museums in North Carolina rarely mention slavery at all, let alone include the experience of slavery or the material conditions slaves endured on their regular tours.

A new study from East Carolina University shows that, at many North Carolina plantations, talk of slaves takes a backseat to discussions of architecture, furnishings and gardens. . . . According to the study, which examined the Web sites of 20 North Carolina plantations, seven don’t mention slavery in their promotional materials. Only three were making strong efforts to reflect the slave experience. 

“These plantations were not just about their white owners,” said Derek Alderman, a geography professor who led the study. “As we come to terms with the legacy of racism in the United States, we have to recognize, whether we like it or not, that there was brutality that happened in the old South.”

candledippingNow, it would be easy for all of you groovy, liberal, non-Southerners to roll your eyes and chuckle and slap your foreheads in mock disbelief at the racist fools who run North Carolina house museums.  But I think that the problem diagnosed so accurately by Professor Alderman is a problem in many house museums and historic sites all over the country.  This story raises the important question of what historic sites and house museums are for:  are they opportunities to dip candles, admire high-style material culture, and imagine our (white) selves playing dress-up?  Or are they opportunities to learn more broadly about the lives of all people in a given period of history and how they related to one another?

As a professional historian, I’d say that the latter is a worthier goal than the former.  But let’s be clear:  it’s not just southern public history sites that “whitewash” history.  Something I’ve observed in my travels across the country, stemming from my interest in borderlands warfare in the colonial Americas, is that some of the most wretched and/or totally hapless European or Euro-American forts or missions–the fort at Pemaquid, Maine, for example, or Fort No. 4 in New Hampshire, or Jemez Mission in New Mexico–have been excavated and/or lovingly (and sometimes imaginatively) re-created in the twentieth century, whereas the Indian villages or forts that laid them to waste and and long outlasted them have not been.  (Jemez Mission includes some reconstructions of the foundations of Indian dwellings outside the mission, however.)  Jemez Mission was reconstructed by the Works Progress Administration, and reflects in many ways the prejudices of history as it was practiced in the 1930s.  It seems like it’s time to revisit the assumptions that undergirded these public history projects from thirty, fifty, and eighty years ago.

pemaquidI appreciate and am deeply grateful to the people who undertook and supported the reconstruction of these places, and I recommend them all as worthy stops for whatever time you can spare.  They are careful and intelligent reconstructions, and they are maintained by the volunteer and/or underpaid labor of individuals who care a great deal about local history.  But rebuilding only Euro-American sites that were destroyed centuries ago by Native peoples sanctions a vision of American history where white people rule by right in the present, and brown and black people melt away when they’re no longer convenient to remember.  What would American history look like if public history in the United States featured just preserved or reconstructed slave ships, slave cabins, and Indian villages, instead of the Mayflower II, the Powel House, and Old Sturbridge Village?  (These are just “for instances”–I don’t mean to pick on anyone here.)  What might happen if public history sites included the history of everyone?

Historic Stagville Plantation, north of Durham, has learned that. Visitors increased from 6,000 in 2007 to nearly 13,000 in 2008, said site manager Frachele Scott, who made slavery a key part of the tour when she arrived in 2007.

Stagville, now owned by the state, was one of the South’s largest plantations, encompassing 30,000 acres and 900 slaves.

Nearly half its visitors now are black, up from a tiny fraction in 2007, Scott said. One group came from Senegal to see where their ancestors were taken.

New audiences?  Paying visitors?  Who would want that?  For the record, Plimoth Plantation has developed a nice Wampanoag Homesite, and Colonial Williamsburg has made dedicated efforts to include African American history and the history of slavery in their village and museums.  These are clearly marquee public history sites in the United States, with enormous paid staffs and budgets compared to your average house museum, which usually gets by with one paid staff position (if they’re lucky.)  But, I don’t think that the inclusion of more, different, and frequently disturbing and unpleasant history is something that always requires a large budget or a Rockefeller money.

What do you all think?  Who’s doing it right out there, other than Frachele Scott at Stagville Plantation?

22 thoughts on “Never mind the slavery, have you dipped a candle yet?

  1. When we visited last summer, the Wampanoags were talking amongst themselves about the bad traffic on I-95 that morning. The Plimoth villagers got a bit more into the role-playing, talking about how odd it was to see women in shorts and that would not have happened back in England (which wears a bit thin after the third repetition, really).

    In Columbia SC, there’s an organization which owns (and runs tours of) a few historic houses in the city that are in a few-block radius. I think it was the Robert Mills house that had a letter on the wall in which the sale of a slave was mentioned, and the tour guide pointed it out specifically; there was also a room of the house which detailed the slave quarters, and displayed artifacts of theirs. While that was nice and inclusive, I most liked visiting the Manns-Simon cottage, which was bought long ago by a former slave who became a midwife and moved from Charleston to Columbia; she married, bought a house (and other property in the neighborhood), and her family added on to it over the years. That one particularly impressed me because it didn’t fall into the typical black history category of “oh, yeah, slaves lived here too”. It was easier to understand Celia Manns, who was obviously very tough and resourceful, making a life for herself and becoming a success; I don’t manage to feel any personal inspiration from horribly rich landowners in huge mansions. I recommend the Manns-Simon Cottage for its story, and the Robert Mills House and other mansions for their bric-a-brac.


  2. I once, long ago, visited a living museum in Western Canada. By coincidence, I knew somebody who had been familiar with the actual history of the people portrayed in the museum. Many of their stories had been explicitly sanitized for the visitors’ protections, including the murder of a local man who was exposed to have had sex with another man. The past is so much more cheerful if we simply forget conflicts that were brutal and violent.


  3. Erica, thanks for the recommendations in SC. As for the Wampanoags: while the Plimoth English re-enactors do their thing “in character,” I agree with Plimoth Plantation’s decision not to have the Wampanoag re-enactors do their shtick as though they are 17th century Wampanoags. 17th C Wampanoags would be speaking Algonquian anyway!

    And, GayProf: yes, we want our history sanitized and conflict-free! (This is where the modal values of the upper-middle class really show themselves, no?) Conflict? Brutality and violence? Have you seen the fabulous china collection over there?


  4. The re-enactor places really have an issue. Do you hire a black person to be fake-whipped down the street of colonial Williamsburg? I visited the farm where Booker T Washington was born, and was shocked to see they were selling photo postcards of little black boys dressed up as raggedy slave children. Is doing it badly better than not doing it at all?

    The Santa Barbara mission is kinda funny–lots of text clearly describing what certainly sounds pretty much like slavery but multiple “but this wasn’t slavery” addendums.


  5. Great post. Here’s another example in honor of Lincoln’s birthday today: Farmington Historic Plantation in Louisville, Kentucky, has a new permanent exhibit on Lincoln’s connection to the Speed family as well as slavery at the plantation. I haven’t seen it myself, but several fellow attendees at the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in 2008 spoke very highly of the exhibit. Farmington hopes to develop more interpretation of field workers as well as house slaves.

    As house museums struggle for funding sources and continued relevance, some are drawing from the examples of “sites of conscience” such as concentration camps, internment camps, tenement houses, etc. See also the influential work of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which takes a hard look at their institutional foundation.

    In one respect, Southern plantations houses are perhaps better suited to act as sites of civic dialogue about the history of racial injustice in America, because they provide an opportunity for surprise attack! All of those visitors who show up hoping to see the wallpaper patterns and furniture will get more than they bargained for.


  6. In one respect, Southern plantations houses are perhaps better suited to act as sites of civic dialogue about the history of racial injustice in America, because they provide an opportunity for surprise attack! All of those visitors who show up hoping to see the wallpaper patterns and furniture will get more than they bargained for.

    I dunno. Do you think people really show up at a Southern Plantation tour for wallpaper patterns and furniture? The increase in tourists at Stagville Plantation suggests not.

    The assumption that white tourists are so steeped in, yet oblivious to, their own racism that they would be shocked! to find out slavery was going on here! just bugs me. IME, it’s part of a class-based bias around matters of race that really, really bothers me.


  7. Your discussion of candle-dipping, Historiann, appears to acknowledge an additional problem that public history sites need to address: the problem of audiences that span the whole range from very young children to the completely adult.

    At least candle-dipping asks children to labor, even if it’s only play labor and they can go back to their homes or schools and be glad they don’t have to engage in the same laborious practices as children of the past!

    But seriously, the problem of “whitewashing” history seems likely to be caught up at least in part in concerns about what we ought to expose “sensitive, innocent” children to.

    I’m frequently happy to work in education at the college level, where I can assume (usually) that we can deal with sensitive or painful issues like adults.


  8. Tom–great question. I think you’re right that protecting tender eyes and ears is frequently an excuse, but I personally don’t think we need to shield children from the authentic past. There are some details they may not be able to process, but there is a lot they can relate to.

    I’m planning to read Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson to a classroom full of kindergarteners in a few weeks, for Black History Month. It’s a book about Henry “Box” Brown, and his quirky and heroic escape from slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia. More importantly, the story starts with him as a child being sold away from his mother, and the turning point in his life is when his enslaved wife and children are sold away from him. The fear of losing your family is something younger kids can relate to, and it illustrates an important and horrifying fact of slavery: human beings are turned into objects for use, trade, and sale.

    I read the same book to a preschool class last year. Their eyes were very big at the end of the story, but they really got it. Some of them talked about the book months later, but I had no complaints from parents.


  9. _The New History in an Old Museum_ by Richard Handler and Eric Gable (Duke U. Press, 1997) is an interesting take by two academic anthropologists on the question of how one established [and very much establishment] site–Colonial Williamsburg–has handled some of these issues. I used it in my first Colonial America class here to some good effect, and regrettably have let it slide away from the syllabus rotation. Years before that I was contacted/contracted by a historic house museum in Camden, NJ, which had been owned by members of one of the town’s 18th century elite Quaker and definitely slave-holding families. Their house was now deep in an African American neighborhood, and few white suburbanites visited any more. Some neighborhood people did, and it was finally embarrasing the historical society that their interpretation was so irrelevantly sanitized with respect to the interest of the new audience. So I got a paid gig to assemble an interpretive record of the family with definite attention to the problem of slavery. For me, alas, it was pretty much of a hit-and-run gig, and I didn’t get much idea of what impact the research may have had. But years later I got an e-mail from a newcoming executive there who said that the “new management” I had worked for eventually got tired and stale and that the place had fallen into slumber again. But she said that she had just arrived and dug out my report and was really excited by it. This was gratifying to me, but I have to say I still haven’t been back to check on the impact.

    In this area (Western Pennsylvania) there is a great deal of popular interest in “underground railroad” questions, which is poignant, but I think to some degree goes in the direction of selectively absolving the ancestors. Consideration of the ongoing strains in Philadelphia at Independence National Historical Park–not just with regard to the fairly well known issue of the President’s House controversy–but also with the simultaneous (and inadvertent) archaeological excavation a few blocks north of a free African neighborhood, is also relevant to these questions.


  10. Other places will no doubt follow suit if there’s money to be made, but it also raises the issue of exploitation. In Poland there is a big business of tours and museums that cater to Jewish “tourists” searching out their roots. Having seen some of them, it gave me a very uncomfortable feeling. Something queasy and not quite right. In one of those museums, a former synagogue, there was a Polish teacher with her students showing them the religious artifacts on display. It was kind of a “see the quaint costumes of the extinct people who once lived among us”. I wondered how Native people feel when their artifacts are thus on display. I didn’t much enjoy it.


  11. Yeah, I dunno Historiann. Even as a kid I did not really like the whole historic house shtick. I thought the first person reenactors were really cheesy. All I wanted to do was read a book.

    Last August, I went backpacking on the Grand Portage trail up in northern Minnesota with a buddy of mine (another history PhD). It was interesting to see the fort, and check out the museum in the visitor’s center. The interpretive materials in the museum were great and so was the film. But the reconstructed fort, the Indian village, the third person interpreters (reenactors)… still left me bored. I thought the historic kitchen garden was neat though.

    The best part was hiking the portage and talking with my buddy about it, since he had done some stuff on the fur trade in grad school and knew the literature. (Plus he brought along a recent monograph about the portage to read while we were camped out at the falls.) So we were not pretending to be voyageurs, but it was interesting to follow in their footsteps a little bit. Except for the mosquitoes.


  12. Museums come in all types in the U.S., from those administered by the National Park Service, to state-owned sites, to county and local historical societies, to private entities. Not only do these institutions have differing missions and audiences, they have articles of incorporation, donor agreements, boards of directors or trustees, etc. It’s difficult if not impossible for some institutions to incorporate new or different interpretation dependent on their founding documents.

    And considering the federal government’s stimulus package explicitly excludes that any monies go to museums, whatever the size of the organization all museums will be hit hard. (Ohio Historical Society’s budget was cut 20%, and that’s in addition to previous budget cuts.)

    All that aside, I certainly agree with the idea of a history of everyone. But please don’t diss entirely high style material culture as somehow representing the wrong, outmoded, or racist approach. As a scholar of American material culture who was trained in the decorative arts tradition of the 1980s, I can testify that issues of race, gender, class, age, and ethnicity in material culture studies have been core concerns. When I look at eighteenth-century imported wallpaper, I think about the global trade on which it depended. When I see a silver teapot at a mansion, North and South, I consider the servant, black or white, who had to polish it. That is to say, even within high-style material culture are interpretive strategies with which to engage more than the owners’ biography. Nevertheless, as long as houses in American culture are so tied with biography and greatness–presidential birthplaces and homes represent this idea in the extreme–there will be resistance to inclusive history when you pay an admission fee.

    The study of North Carolina plantations “examined the Web sites of 20 North Carolina plantations,” and found that “seven don’t mention slavery in their promotional materials.” Further, “only three were making strong efforts to reflect the slave experience.” I’m not sure I would give full weight to a study based only on a museum’s Web site. Too many museums and historical societies haven’t the money or personnel to create Websites that fully represent outreach or account for special programs.


  13. Historymaven, thanks for your expert testimony! You’re right that the websites don’t necessarily represent what’s going on on the tours and inside the plantation houses. Fair enough. And I certainly didn’t mean to impugn material culture–as you note, asking who had to clean and maintain an object opens up the kind of history on display.

    My post here was mostly a plea for public historians to be bolder in thinking about the kind of history they can present in their institutions, and (perhaps above all) to discourage non-Southerners from thinking this is a Southern problem, rather than an American one. As Indyanna’s coment shows, you never know when an old report or paper you wrote for an internship might be dusted off and put to good use…

    Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments–Maren, Emma, Indyanna, Lilian, and Matt L. I think Lilian and Matt L. raise good questions about the discomfort or anxiety that commemorations or re-enactors may elicit–I’ve experienced similar emotions. That said, I like your “Method History” expedition Matt! (Except for the Mosquitoes, as you say.)


  14. Most plantation museums here have long since knocked down the slave cabins and do not include discussions of slavery in the tours. The point of the visit is not history but nostalgia.


  15. What a wasted oppportunity. But, re-creations are good in my opinion–think about all of those long-destroyed forts that people in the mid-20th C believed were so important to rebuild as if to say, WE WON SUCKAHS!


  16. Oh, I’m sure there are enterprising public history students chewing over these questions, or similar ones, at this very moment. Commemoration and history and memory stuff has been big for quite a while now in U.S. history.


  17. Nice post.

    It seems pretty clear that people go to historic sites for the same reasons they buy history books–t have their existing opinions and impressions confirmed and to pick up a couple of new facts that fit their existing mental framework. People want a nice “old-timey” experience that will make them appreciate their flat panel TV all the more.

    As historians we want to push this interpretation and we should. But as Dance says above, do you really want to see slave reenactors being whipped?


  18. That’s a good question I didn’t address in my comments earlier. I think slave auctions are something they’ve done at Williamsburg, to a great outcry both positive and negative. Maybe that citation Indyanna left here addresses that–I’m not sure.

    I think African American re-enactors can dramatize the horrors as well as the mundane hard work of everyday life without an actual whipping–corporal punishment was only one means of turning a human being into an object. I think at a lot of public history sites, it would be a great step forward to depict African and African American people in any capacity whatsoever.

    Something that I think would be very affecting for adults would be to depict enslaved children at work. That would be a way of making a point about the exploitation of labor, and one that would be accessible and appropriate for all ages, but without the potentially salacious or exploitative elements of a re-enactment of corporal punishment.

    And, thanks for the link and your compliment.


  19. These tours of houses are kind of about historical fantasy. If you visit all the California missions, no mention is made that they were essentially plantations the catholic fathers created for the Indian “children.” Each mission has a giant mass grave for all the Indians who died working on this plantation, no individual grave markers for them. Most people seem to not even be able to process this huge mound of evidense right in front of their eyes.


  20. James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia is trying to do it differently. We just completed a $24-million architectural restoration of the mansion, and are now staring on Phase II: the furnishings and decor.

    When a person walked on the Montpelier plantation during Madison’s time, they would see around 100 black faces and 5 white faces. Our interpretation needs to convey this. To this end, we are excavating slave spaces—the outdoor kitchens and slave quarters; we have held two slave descendants reunions to try to gather oral and documentary histories previously neglected; we are publishing a monograph on White House slave Paul Jennings, who was with Madison when he died, next year (and just held a lecture on research-to-date to overflow crowds); and we are including interpretations of slave life in our mansion tours; we include slave life in our brochures and website. We do not use costumed interpreters.

    We are doing these things because we think it is appropriate to interpret the actual history—good and bad—so all can learn the true facts. But, I was, of course, interested that you also thought it might increase visitation…

    We also have very few African-American visitors, and would love to increase this number, but have failed to do so to date. I believe it is because they think these places portray a sanitized history and do not recognize that their ancestors were held as property. Any thought here??

    Thanks for a thoughtful discussion.


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