Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Are Plantations Slave Labor Camp Museums?

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on March 2, 2015

Over at the Freedmen’s Patrol blog, there’s a discussion of a new plantation museum in Louisiana, and how it contrasts explicitly with the way such sites are traditionally presented to the public:


We marvel at the luxury. Docents tell us about the paint on the walls. [At Monticello] they point out where Jefferson knocked a hole in the floor of his foyer so the weights for his clock could go down as far as they needed to. You spend a few dollars to get in and a few more at the gift shop, making your offering at the patriotic shrine. . . . I think that the [subject of] slaves came up in passing at Monticello, with the docent waving off vaguely toward their quarters, but one goes to such a place to learn about the white dead president rather than the black dead slaves that gave them the wealth to fund their careers. Less famous plantations run to much the same experience. You can rent them out for weddings or parties. . . .

We take it for granted that the Holocaust Museum in Washington looks like a murder factory on the inside. We do just the opposite for plantations.


Powerful stuff that’s well worth your time.




19 Responses

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  1. freedmenspatrol said, on March 2, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks, Andy.

  2. Robert Moore said, on March 2, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    “Well worth your time” can be debatable, Andy.

    It appears the author hasn’t been to Monticello in a while… speaking from another decade. For one, Monticello is currently building a slave cabin on Mulberry Row. Apart from that there is a good deal around the place that reminds visitors of the slave labor there… including tours specific to Mulberry Row. The new visitor center, by the way, set up better opportunities to visit the slave cemetery.

    While there are sites out there that fit “Freedman’s” bill, the author might want to specify those and not project to other sites that are better measured in another way

    • woodrowfan said, on March 2, 2015 at 6:39 pm

      I thought the same thing. Maybe it was the particular docent this author followed…

    • Craig Swain said, on March 3, 2015 at 7:06 am

      I would echo what Robert has said here. I find Freedman’s assessment to be loaded with generalizations and short on specifics. Another site which has incorporated the “ugly facts” of the slaveocracy is Montpelier. The docents deliver a well crafted, if I may say so, program that leaves the visitor wondering how to reconcile Madison’s well established position in regard to the Constitution and Bill of Rights along side his status as slave-owner. Such is EXACTLY what makes those sites worth visiting. Likewise, at a smaller, level, Oatlands, just outside Leesburg, VA where I live, has a rich program interpreting the lives of slaves through emancipation, reconstruction and beyond.

  3. Bob Nelson said, on March 2, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Thirty years ago — perhaps more — my wife and I visited New Orleans and took a “plantation tour.” Am quite sure that the Whitney Plantation in Wallace was one of those we visited. And IIRC there was little or no comment about slavery except to point out that the slave cabins were “over there.” The change can easily be seen by going to their web page — — where you’ll note that the photo at the top of the page is of the slave cabins. Very different and a very positive change IMO. Now if we could just get the heritage folks to get off their crusades — displaying the Confederate Battle Flag, the “Lost Cause” and “Black Confederates.” Nah, ain’t never going to happen. Good post, Andy.

    • chancery said, on March 5, 2015 at 7:44 pm


      I’m curious about your recollection of visiting the Whitney Plantation in around 1985. According to the museum’s website, agricultural operations ceased in 1975, after which the plantation ceased to be maintained and deteriorated rapidly. According to the N.Y. Times article, by 1995 it was “little more than a series of decrepit buildings entangled in feral vegetation.”

      Of course that doesn’t mean that the Whitney could not have been on a “conventional” plantation tour operator’s itinerary; it would simply be another interesting milestone on the plantation’s transformation from slave labor camp to slavery museum.

      • Bob Nelson said, on March 6, 2015 at 11:24 am

        Let’s see. We got married in 1967, moved to Coloma MI in 1970. The trip to New Orleans would have been in the mid 70s — most likely around 1976. Hard to remember all the details at my age. LOL

        • chancery said, on March 6, 2015 at 7:02 pm

          That was a long time ago for all of us. :->

  4. freedmenspatrol said, on March 2, 2015 at 9:00 pm

    Glad to hear Monticello is doing better. As I said in the post:

    “I’ve gone to such a place twice, both in Virginia. Neither Monticello nor Mount Vernon told me much about the slaves who built them. In this I understand that I had the typical experience, at least as of a decade or so back.”

    But that said, I’ve put an addendum on the post making it more explicit.

    The metrics we use to assess the presentation of historical sites are inevitably somewhat personal, but I’ll set myself down as one who thinks the actual sites where slaves enriched famous historical figures should be presented chiefly with reference to their experience. We have sufficient shrines elsewhere for the big names and their noteworthy deeds. Where better to learn how they lived their lives and made their fortunes than where they did both?

  5. Neil Hamilton said, on March 3, 2015 at 1:48 am

    Thanks for posting this, Andy.

    Appreciate it.


  6. Lyle Smith said, on March 4, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    What should slavery be called off the Plantation? Was it not slavery too? Did slave labor stop at some white man’s property line?

    Slave labor camp is an ahistorical term that historians should steer clear of. Should plantation tours focus on educating the public on slavery? Yes.

  7. chancery said, on March 5, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks for posting this Andy. In addition to checking out the Whitney Plantation’s website, I recommend reading the N.Y. Times article mentioned in the Freedmens’ Patrol post. The article includes a fascinating account of the museum project, and a thoughtful discussion of the difficulties involved in remembering slavery, which was “both at odds with America’s founding values — freedom, liberty, democracy — and critical to how they flourished.”

    • chancery said, on March 5, 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Apologies for the repetition to anyone who read my similarly boosterish comment at Civil War Memory.

  8. Reed (the original, accept no substitutes) said, on March 5, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    I lived and worked near Colonial Williamsburg for much of the 1990s and would stroll through the historical area from time to time.

    While CW had a well-earned reputation for whitewashing (pun intended) issues of race and slavery that was just as egregious as that of any other Southern history site, by the late-1980s or so I think they were getting serious about changing direction and telling a more accurate story of black lives in CW’s circa-1775 era. (Even so, my African-American friends and acquaintances were dubious, at best, when discussing the relationship of CW and black folk. I got the distinct impression that—to put it bluntly—CW was a museum about white folks and “their” history, and had little relevance for modern-day African-Americans. Perhaps this has changed since I left.)

    One of CW’s major efforts in telling a more accurate story of the black colonial American experience was the reconstructed slave quarters and living history program at their nearby Carter’s Grove plantation. But I don’t think this exists anymore, as CW divested itself of Carter’s Grove some years ago.

    CW’s online site has more info about their current African-American themed programs. I haven’t been there in quite a while, so I have no idea how effective these are. I do remember that the introduction of a re-enacted slave auction as part of CW’s living history programs was the cause of much passionate debate in the mid-1990s.

    And one side issue that may affect any historical site that wants to deal more honestly with slavery is that of recruiting interpreters. Here’s a 2013 article in the Washington Post about how much difficulty CW still has recruiting modern day African-Americans to portray enslaved period characters:

    Sorry for the long links. I can’t figure out how to embed.

  9. admin11states said, on March 8, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    While I understand the point of Freedmen’s article (which I did read in full on his blog), (1) I do not think the mass extermination of millions of Jewish people can be appropriately compared to slave labor on plantations and (2) I concur with others’ assessments that his viewpoint might have been impacted by the particular docent/guide/etc.

    As to item (1), as Freedmen points out, we expect holocaust memorials to abstain from subtlety and appear as “murder factor[ies]” because that is precisely what the holocaust was; mass murder, slaughter, extermination, unfathomable genocide. The holocaust is indeed aptly named. Yet, as abhorrent as slavery was, comparing the manner in which holocaust memorials and plantation tours are presented is simply an inaccurate comparison. Also, it cannot be ignored that slavery was legal in the United States. Detestable, unimaginably cruel, sickening…without question, but legal, going back to our nation’s independence.

    As to item (2), while I generally do not seek out “plantation tours,” I did happen to go on one a few years ago outside New Orleans, LA. Specifically, it was the plantation “Laura,” which had a unique characteristic of being a female-ran, Creole-operated plantation. While no expert on plantation tours, at no time did I feel that “subtlety” was being demanded or exhibited, nor did I experience any side-stepping of just what that plantation was about. Slavery, the slave quarters (those which remained anyway), the treatment they experienced, were addressed honestly and openly. Again, perhaps it was the guide which offered our group’s tour. Nonetheless, it was not swept under the rug in any fashion.

    Just as a final passing thought, speaking of “subtlety” and sweeping things under the rug, has anyone ever toured the Henry Ford Museum? Or the Edison-Ford Estates? How “in-your-face” is Henry Ford’s virulent anti-Semitism presented? Is it addressed, discussed and displayed as the holocaust “murder factor[ies]?” How many copies of the Dearborn Independent were displayed for public viewing? How thoroughly was the relationship between Henry Ford and Adolph Hitler (and Hitler’s fawning adoration of Ford) discussed, or that Ford received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, or that Ford factories assisted in the build up of Germany’s armed forces which in turn were used against Allied forces? When it comes to “subtlety,” the image most learn of Henry Ford is that he was a captain of industry, the “inventor” of the automobile, etc., which, ignoring the contributions of Karl Benz, is correct only to a degree. But little to no mention is made of Henry Ford’s true colors. A quick sidebar, speaking of WWII, how often are people told of the forced internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry (Americans…focus on that) into camps on the west coast of the US? Not really a big topic of the WWII memorial I went to in New Orleans.

    Again, I bring these things up only to illustrate that there are in fact other “downplaying” treatment of many aspects of our nation’s history though, again, I am uncertain as to the level of “downplaying” going on across our nation’s plantation tours. But, what it clearly evinces is the need, if not duty, to educate and inform one’s self on their own.

    Thank you for a truly enjoyable blog and for pointing me to Freedmen’s Patrol as well.


  10. freedmenspatrol said, on March 8, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Thank you for your reply, S. I don’t think we’ll agree on the precise degree of appropriateness in comparing the Holocaust to slavery, but I take it from your comment that we can agree both are terrible atrocities best remembered in full. There are certainly many other such episodes which have also been marginalized or forgotten in popular memory. Because I wanted to focus on the museum’s approach, I chose the most familiar atrocity for most of my readers to make the comparison.

    With regard to those other horrifying episodes, I can’t comment on how Henry Ford is remembered in Dearborn or thereabouts even though I live in Michigan. I’ve never visited his museum. It’s rather far from where I live and doesn’t address an area of American history that much interests me. I would like to say that the Dearborn Independent’s anti-Semitic articles are printed on signs as tall as a grown person, impossible to miss. I’d like photographs of Ford with Hitler, if any exist, and quotes of Hitler’s remarks about Ford, Ford’s union busting, and all the rest on prominent display. To be honest, I’d like the place planned so you have to go through these displays and learn about all the rest before you get to see an automobile. But if the museum reflects what we learned about Ford in my history classes back in the 90s, then I expect it runs heavy on the hagiography and scant on the history.

    The same applies elsewhere. We don’t need help remembering flattering things, exciting machinery, or beautiful homes. We need help remembering the misdeeds we have chosen so often to forget. For many people, visiting a historical site might be their only real contact with the history of the subject after leaving school. As such, it surely behooves us to expect such places to confront us with just those uncomfortable facts. If they do not, and do not impress the severity of the horrors connected with them, to visitors then those visitors will likely go home convinced that they’ve heard the full story and not look into the matter any further. Not everyone will look into such things on their own. People are busy and not all of them want to spend their free time researching history.

  11. Foxessa said, on March 16, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    My husband and I were invited by John Cummings to a private tour of the Whitney Plantation almost exactly a year ago, give or take a few days. I described it, with photos, back then, on my blog.

    He’s kind of an amazing sort of person, Mr. Cummings.

    The place itself is extremely impressive: a gigantic art work memorial to all the slaves he can learn of, particularly the children, who died in Louisiana, in slavery.

  12. Foxessa said, on March 16, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    P.S. The current trend in slavery studies is to call the plantations “prisons” and labor camps. They sure operated that way. Monticello is a terrific example, of the constant monitoring and surveillance and physical coercion (torture, Edward Baptist out-and-out calls it in his The Half Has Never Been Told). I’ve been to Angola Plantation Prison, and really the plantations back then were quite like Angola. And at least as brutal.

    Two years ago I took the Monticello Mulberry Row tour walk, complete with docent, in company of a friend who lives locally, and has been to Monticello fairly often, starting as a school child. That was the first time he’d even heard slavery really mentioned — Mulberry Row being where Jefferson’s people “who labor for my happiness” were housed, hidden from view by the Mulberry trees. The docent didn’t pull any punches about slavery being soft and easy on Mr. Jefferson’s Monticello. There are even books now in the shop’s bookstore about Monticello’s slaves including two the currently best known titles: Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain and Annette Gordon-Reed’ — which quite delights me as AG-R went to war against MotM!

  13. Foxessa said, on March 16, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    Whitney’s Cummings, however, is fairly blind to what other people know and have been doing in these areas in the last 25 years or so. He knows what he knows and he’s a very wealthy and powerful fellow, and does not receive much push-back from anyone about anything, so . . . . We tried to tell him of what was being done in various places such as Mount Vernon and Monticello, and even Williamsburg, but he was not interested in what other people have to say or what they do. You are there to listen to him tell you what is what. He’s consumed and has been consumed with the Whitney project, and when one is that consumed in creation, one tends to get tunnel visioned. I know I do. The scope of the Whitney is so vast that there isn’t room in the creator’s mind for anything but his own vision. The thing is, though, he’s made it come into being.

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