The Stories Told at Southern Plantation Museums

We can learn about slavery in America by reading books, researching the internet, and by watching movies like 12 Years a Slave. But if you go to the places where it actually happened, those historical Southern plantations that have been preserved, the narrative is very different. Plantations that are open to the public are usually privately-owned, often by the same family that ran them in antebellum days. They depend on tourist dollars that come from tour admissions, souvenirs, and from those who stay the night. And on those tours, you might never learn a thing about slavery.

In a lengthy article at Collectors Weekly, history professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander, sociology professor Jennifer Eichstedt, African American studies professor Stephen Small, and cultural and historical geographer E. Arnold Modlin tell us about slavery, the plantations where it happened, and the continuing whitewash of the institution by the museums there now.

Focusing on “antebellum splendor” appeals to white Americans who buy into the myths of the Lost Cause movement, which emerged immediately at the end of Civil War. This movement portrayed the cause of the Confederacy as noble and the wealthy, white Southern enslavers as genteel aristocrats, the embodiment of grace and chivalry. In this narrative, the noble Southerners—who were fighting to defend states’ rights and not the institution of slavery—were unfairly attacked and ravaged by immoral Northerners. Also, African Americans, unable to take care of themselves, were happy to be enslaved and were treated well by their masters.

The article also contrasts these plantations with the historical tours of World War II concentration camps in Europe, and discuss what can be done to reconcile the presentation of their history with the first-hand accounts of those who suffered through it.

(Image credit: Arnold Modlin)

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