Southern Plantations Should be Slave Memorials - Not Storybook Theme Parks, or Trump Businesses
The Trump brothers, Eric and Donald Jr., have embarked on a new business venture to open luxury hotels in Mississippi as part of an effort to cash in on the state's blues music culture. These hotels will be far removed from commercial airports or interstate highways and will be in a majority black, economically depressed area "surrounded by cotton and soybean fields," according to the Washington Post. To complete this outrageous picture, the hotels will reportedly be designed to resemble an "antebellum plantation."
Let's put aside the hubris and audacity of the Trump family to attempt to do business in a majority black area, especially post-Charlottesville. Instead let’s consider this key question: why are plantations still being conceptualized by white America as anything other than centers of black enslavement, torture, rape, murder, and intergenerational trauma? One answer: white supremacy.
Picture Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. Its website advertises it as a “tranquil retreat in the heart of Plantation Country,” offering guests the option to stay in cottages offering "all the creative comforts of your own home.” Many Southern plantations, including Oak Alley, also offer wedding packages for those interested in spending the happiest day of their lives drinking champagne over the graves of families forced into bondage to construct the lavish grounds.
In a promotional video titled “Plantation Parade”—a reference to the route tourists can take to visit four adjacent plantations, including Oak Alley—the narrator begins with a tone of reverence:
“Once upon a time, on the banks of the Mississippi River, a storybook world unfolded. A world of romance and riches, of beauty and struggle. Through toil and dedication arose vast working farms and extravagant mansions that would become the most opulent plantations in North America.”
The video goes on to explore the architectural “majesty” of the four plantations, with a few vaguely negative adjectives like “tragedy” and one reference to “those who were enslaved here” thrown in.
It is appalling that in 2017, the mass human rights violations that created the Black underclass continue to be hidden away under the guise of ornate architecture and visions of fanciful white Southern belles in exquisite gossamer gowns drinking sweet tea in the parlor. But it’s also not surprising in a country where the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is at all controversial, where black people continue to be murdered by police with impunity, and where the KKK and neo-Nazis proudly march in the streets to terrorize communities under a president who declares there are some “good people” among them.
There has been much talk of refusing to continue glamorizing and celebrating the Confederacy with Confederate flags, statues and monuments, many of which were erected post-Civil War in times of high racial tension to buttress white people's wounded egos. This same dialogue needs to reach the most intimate remaining corners of the Confederacy: the very homes that white enslavers lived in. These are the properties where white people meted out forced labor, torture, sexual violence, and the ripping apart of black families daily.
America was literally built on the backs of enslaved Africans, indigenous tribes forced into death marches, the backbreaking labor of Chinese men who built the railroads, and the colonized people of Hawai'i, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. White Americans continue to ignore this history, and one of the ways we deny it is through perpetuating an idea of plantations taken from Gone With The Wind rather than the actual historical record.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley wrote for The Root in 2015 on her experiences touring Southern plantations as a black woman. Describing her tour at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina, D’Oyley writes, “Every time the tour guide made a sweeping gesture alluding to the grandness of a room, I wondered about the enslaved men and women who were forced to work for free to make such luxuries possible." She continues:
“As the other visitors, all of them white except for a friend accompanying me, oohed and aahed, I wondered if they were picturing themselves heading back in time and imagining what life would have been like then. As a black girl with a great-grandfather born into slavery, I know how I would have lived: enslaved, considered property, doing backbreaking work for no pay, subjected to the demands of Massa and Missy, and living under the threat of violence at any time.”
At the Magnolia Plantation, D’Oyley reports, touring the slave quarters requires going on a separate tour from the main house, which only four out of about 30 members of her group bothered to take. The white female docent referred to the quarters as “duplexes” and gushed about how well-treated the enslaved black families were. At the Hermann-Grima House in the French Quarter of New Orleans, another white docent referred to enslaved people mostly as “dependencies” and “domestic workers.” She admitted, according to D’Oyley, that “the current owners of the home don’t really like the docents to talk about slavery.”
What are we teaching our children when they visit these plantations on school trips? At the Latta Plantation in Huntersville, North Carolina, one of the many educational programs offered to students is the “Civil War Soldier’s Life,” which offers a viewpoint "that neither favors nor discredits” the Union or Confederate sides. What lessons do white students take away in an environment that essentially refuses to “take a side” on human bondage, rape, torture, and murder, and how are black students supposed to process such a field trip?
As D’Oyley writes, “There’s been a failure not just in what white Americans are taught about slavery but in what African Americans learn, too. That’s not by accident.”
Plantations weren’t “storybook worlds” for black people; they were living nightmares and centers for generating the intergenerational white hoarding of stolen labor and riches that continues to manifest today as the racial wealth gap. To ignore this fact, and to set up these historical sites like adorable boutique hotels is to desecrate the memories of the millions whose lives and humanity were sacrificed in the name of white profit.
So what should happen to these plantations? One answer can be found in the work of the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, less than 10 miles from Oak Alley.
The Whitney Plantation’s website advertises it as the "only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery” and “a site of memory and consciousness…meant to pay homage to all slaves on the plantation itself and to all of those who lived elsewhere in the US South.” Some of the highlights include the Wall of Honor, a memorial wall with names and other documented information about each person enslaved on the property; the AllÃ©es Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a memorial with 216 granite slabs inscribed with the 107,000 names of enslaved people in Louisiana as recorded in the Louisiana Slave Database; and the Field of Angels and Children of Whitney statues, dedicated to the memory of enslaved children.
Educating and working to ameliorate the centuries-long repercussions and legacy of slavery for black Americans should be the central reason for preserving plantations, not for enabling fantasies of white women wearing dainty lace gloves. If plantations are to be operated for the public, let them be museums of the horror of American history and how that history has set the stage for the present. Let the slave quarters be highlighted on tours instead of treated as an uncomfortable footnote. And may any proceeds that exceed the maintenance of the grounds and payment of staff be put back into supporting the local black economy, such as through donations to black non-profits, as one humble step toward reparations.
Now is the time to build on the momentum of the recent gains made by boldly pushing back on our white-washed legacy of racist terror. Only by confronting our demons will we craft a future worth celebrating.