The Plantation Tour Disaster: Teaching Slavery, Memory, and Public History

The Plantation Tour Disaster: Teaching Slavery, Memory, and Public History

Plantation tours offer an abundance of learning opportunities, but they can also offer a stereotypical, even anachronistic, portrayal of slavery and life in the Old South. For instance, a tour guide at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site near Brunswick, Georgia, stated during a tour that “in the holiday season, one of our volunteers comes dressed as Vivian Leigh.”[1] Such a statement may come as no surprise, since readers familiar with Representations of Slavery know that plantations continue to ignore and literally whitewash the story surrounding their properties.[2] However, some plantations have made a significant effort to incorporate the story of slavery into their tours. Regardless whether a plantation does or does not cover slavery, they provide an interesting mechanism to teach about the institutions of the Old South, collective memory, and public history. For this post, I will focus on visits to a series of plantations that happened in the course of my College on the Move-Living History Tour program, which takes students for roughly two-week trips to explore historic sites.

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Picture of Latta Plantation’s big house. A rebuilt cabin resembling a slave cabin sits in the very back corner of the property next to a pig pen. Photo by author.

Besides the above-mentioned experience at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site, the tour guide said not a single word about the institution of slavery or the slaves who worked the nearby rice fields. Such a state of affairs is certainly discouraging since many plantations continue to outright refuse, even when asked, to engage slavery. During our first tour in 2015, we visited the Alexander H. Stephens State Historic Site in Georgia. Here, the tour guide continuously referred to the slaves as servants, because they were like family to Stephens.[3] At Latta Plantation, near Charlotte, North Carolina, during our 2016 tour, students inquired toward the end of the tour about the slaves who had worked on the plantations, since the tour guide had not mentioned anything on the subject. The tour guide asked the students to wait until the African-American family, who had been on the tour, left, at which point, he answered in vague and circumscribed terms.

While morally and ethically unacceptable in today’s world, the refusal to talk about slavery offers a great teaching opportunity. A central avenue for addressing slavery’s presentation at such sites is in seeking to understand the role of stakeholders. Public history, as a field, prides itself on listening to stakeholders and their desires when putting together exhibits.[4] However, what happens when your stakeholders at the time of creation were the United Daughters of the Confederacy (as in the case of the Alexander Stephens home), or when you have an overwhelmingly white, potentially neo-Confederate audience? How can historians balance historic accuracy and stakeholders’ desires?

Thankfully, there are exceptions to the rule and some plantations have made extraordinary efforts to incorporate the story of slaves. While Whitney Plantation in Louisiana has received extensive media attention, the plantation remains a work in progress.[5] The visitor experience depends heavily on the capability of the tour guide, which unfortunately did not work out favorably for my group. It also relies on the eradication of some errors, such as the 1868 iron box on display to give a perception of slave pens (see below) and the occasional spelling error on signage. Considering the plantation relies heavily on the narratives compiled by the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, and its memorial walls lack context, there are an abundance of teaching opportunities regarding slavery, memory, public history presentations, and oral history. How can curators deal with memories collected seventy years after slavery? Should they display objects of the era, or replicas?

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The 1868, Pennsylvania-made jail at Whitney Plantation, which the signage explains as: “The flat steel bars on the doors are typical of the bars that appeared on doors of slave pens in the large auction houses during slavery.” Photo by author.

Just to the north of Whitney Plantation lies the fabled Oak Alley Plantation, which frequently serves as the popular image of the U.S. South. Aware of a negative reputation, according to the slavery tour guide, Oak Alley determined to change and include slavery in the house tour, but also to offer specialized slavery tours. The guide tells many stories about the enslaved people on the plantation, making a conscious effort to tell the story of their plantation’s slaves and avoid generalizations. The guide explicitly avoided talking about material that they had no evidence for at Oak Alley.

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Three of the reconstructed slave cabins at Oak Alley Plantation. The first cabin on the right contains a sharecropper furnishing, while the other two contain an exhibit space on plantation slavery. Photo by author.

In order to present the physical element of slavery, the plantation reconstructed six slave cabins to go along with their new emphasis. Two of the cabins are furnished to represent slave homes, with a frame bed for the house slave and a mattress on the floor for the field hands. The other two cabins illustrate the post-emancipation residences of freed people. The final two cabins contain an exhibit, including a polished wood piece acknowledging the names of all the slaves on the plantation; there are shackles, farm tools, clothing replicas, and text panels explaining the institution. Oak Alley is an excellent teaching example where external pressures, reputation, and the growing diversity of visitors and stakeholders required a different story, unable to embrace a big house, planter narrative. Even more, by complicating the plantation narrative with the inclusion of slavery, these locations have to face the question of what happened after slavery.

Besides the two Louisiana plantations, on the East Coast another jewel has recently emerged: McLeod Plantation on James Island near Charleston. The plantation features an empty big house and the tour does not even set foot into this building. Instead, extremely well-trained tour guides, equipped with iPads for pictures, lead tours literally around the outside of the house to the six remaining, original slave cabins.

The slave cabins at McLeod Plantation. Photo by author.
The slave cabins at McLeod Plantation. Photo by author.

The guide personalizes the story of slave suffering, including their work and day-to-day life. The slave cabins not only tell the story of the slaves, but also their descendants. Most impressive about McLeod Plantation is the fact that descendants continued to reside here well into the 1990s, despite the lack of running water and innumerable building code violations. The story of freedmen, freedwomen, and post-emancipation suffering within Southern society during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era are impressively illustrated by the home firebombed in 1954. The charring is still visible on the floor.

Obviously most of us do not reside anywhere near these plantations to take students on a regular tour. However, we might have plantations around our own home institutions or we can utilize the web to digitally visit these locations with students. Plantations provide an opportunity to tackle not only the Old South’s social, economic, and political situation, but also to explore issues of post-emancipation social and economic change, class distinctions, the adjustments from slave to free society, and finally memory, tourism, and public history. Considering most people, including our students on future vacations, will get their history during plantation tours, it is crucial to illustrate the complex history of these sites and how slavery continues to be an overlooked subject in the public mind.


[1] Statement made during a visit in March 2015 at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site, Brunswick, Georgia.

[2] Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002); James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: New Press, 2006).

[3] This is in part confirmed in Thomas Edwin Schott, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 65-66, which calls Stephens a benevolent slaveholder.

[4] Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006): 15-38.

[5] David Amsden, “Building the First Slavery Museum in America,” New York Times Magazine, accessed February 26, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/magazine/building-the-first-slave-museum-in-america.html?_r=0; Debbie Elliott, “New Museum Depicts ‘The Life Of A Slave From Cradle To The Tomb,’” All Things Considered, accessed February 27, 2015, http://www.npr.org/2015/02/27/389563868/new-museum-depicts-the-life-of-a-slave-from-cradle-to-the-tomb; Jared Keller, “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” Smithsonian, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/inside-americas-auschwitz-180958647/.

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Separatism and the Language of Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

3 Replies to “The Plantation Tour Disaster: Teaching Slavery, Memory, and Public History”

  1. Perhaps you should consider volunteering in a docent program. The view from the front porch is quite different than the office of curator. I’ve been both and would like to share two points.
    1. Most docents are volunteers or interns giving their time from reasons ranging from a grade to love of history and everything in between. They are one person in front of disparate groups of people several times a day. It is stressful to engage everyone, remember a 30-45 minute tour, protect the historic resources and answer dozens of questions from individuals with PhDs in history to those without the slightest idea or interest in the subjects. What to cover in that time? Architecture? Social history? Gender politics? Race? Economics? Agricultural advancement? Local history? Family history? Ghost stories? It isn’t an easy field to navigate. The last thing a docent wants to do is upset or anger a guest. It is much safer to stick to sunny, breezy stories and leave the harder subjects to professionals. Can you blame them?
    The second point is the ugly truth that historic houses must cater in large part to the will of members and visitors to stay open. Very few will pay to see a realistic but visually boring house. Every year Chritmas tours, Valentine teas and ghost tours keep the lights on and restoration projects funded. Families will usually choose entertainment over a lecture. Historic homes compete for the same dollars as theme parks. It is a juggling act to give people what they want in addition to what academics think they need. If you find the recipe, let us know.
    Meanwhile, criticism of interpreters is cheap and easy. Creating an environment that encourages docents to share information in a way they and their guests feel more comfortable is where the real work lies.

  2. I am trying to help my 13 year old son build a LEGO replica of a southern plantation so I am researching on the diagram of a slave plantation — deciphering the real from the fake sites is getting harder and harder. There seems to be a growing trend to downplay the number of slaves that the South had. It’s quite scary to research.

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