More to the Tour: Slave History at Virginia's Plantations

Aug 7, 2015

In addition to museums, battlegrounds and presidential homes, tourists find history at dozens of plantations that are open to the public. 

Often they learn about the big, elegant homes at the heart of those properties – about the people who lived there, but how do mannerly tour guides introduce the harsh subject of slavery?

While their friends were haunting the beaches of Florida or otherwise celebrating spring break, three students from the University of Mary Washington joined geography professor Stephen Hanna and students from two other schools to visit five plantations on Louisiana’s River Road.

“Up until ten years ago, it was the Gone with the Wind narrative.  We learned a lot about white owners and their furnishings and their architecture, and if slaves were mentioned they were ‘servants’ – period.”

Now, however, Hanna says many have begun talking about the slaves who made plantations possible – like the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.

“This is one of the few plantations that has a slave-centric narrative.  The whole focus is understanding the experiences of the enslaved working on a plantation,  rather than being sort of after thoughts.”

That tour does not begin in the big house.

“You start with the wall that commemorates the people who were enslaved there  and tells you a little bit – whatever they can find about their backgrounds and then  you move in and learn about the slave cabins, you learn about how hard the agricultural work was, and then you go to the kitchens and you learn about the domestic enslaved men and women, and then you spend the last 15 minutes of an hour and 45 minute tour in the big house, where you learn what often 10, 11, 12-year-old children had to do to get a hot bath ready for the lady of the house.”

Hanna thinks it’s important that visitors learn about slavery and bring that new found knowledge to our thinking about modern day social problems and race relations in this country.

”Basically three of ten whites of the millennial generation still buy into the idea that African Americans are lazier than whites.  Almost four in ten said that blacks were less well off due to their lack of motivation.  When we forget about slavery, we forget about the roots of those stereotypes.  We forget about how those were forged as justification for enslaving men and women, and the other thing, by forgetting about slavery we forget that slavery extracted wealth from these individuals for generations.”

Students Xavier Griffin and Meredith Stone found people at the plantations did want to know about the lives of American slaves.

“There was a little hesitation, of course, because It’s an uncomfortable topic for some people.  I understand that.  People really care about the emotions of the enslaved, and people want to know more than the original woodwork in the house, and I think that’s really telling of the changing relationships in America.”

What’s more, the world can get a better understanding than what Hollywood has to offer – whether it’s Gone with the Wind, Twelve Years a Slave or Django Unchained.  Student Ian Spangler says tourists came a long way to do that.

“People coming down from Canada – people coming across from France and Germany, states that were very far away within the U.S. and all of them were coming here to these plantation museums to sort of  see these histories and theses stories, and they’re very excited about it, but I think that’s very reflective of how big a  microphone these plantations have and  how much they affect how we perceive history today.”

The researchers will share their findings with plantation operators in Louisiana, then begin visits to properties in South Carolina and Virginia with a grant from the National Science Foundation.