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.”
Now, 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.
I 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?