Deborah Lustig: Good afternoon. Welcome to today’s event: “Confederate monuments are just the tip of the iceberg: Plantation museums in southern heritage tourism.” I’m Deborah Lustig, associate director of the Institute for the Studies of Societal Issues, the sponsor of today’s event. This is out first event of the semester and we’re excited to have our new interim director, Stephen Small, share his research with us.
Before we get to that, I want to announce our next event. Alfred Young from the University of Michigan will be speaking on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 3 p.m. PST. The title is “From the edge of the ghetto: The quest of small-city African Americans to survive post-industrialism. And this is an event we had to cancel in the spring, and we’re happy to do it this fall. If you want more information about that, as well as the event sponsored by ISSI and all our centers, please visit our website.
The format of today’s event is that after I introduce him, professor Small is going to talk about his work with us. And then we’ll have a Q&A led by Monique Hosein, a doctoral candidate in public health here at Cal. Monique was also part of our graduate fellows program at ISSI. So, if you have a question, please use the Q&A to post that at any time and Monique will ask as many as possible on your behalf.
And now, it is my pleasure to introduce professor Stephen Small. As I mentioned, he’s interim director of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. And he is also a professor of African American studies here at Cal. He earned his Ph.D. in sociology at UC Berkeley, where he was a graduate student trainee in what is now ISSI’s graduate fellows program. So, we’re very pleased to have him take on this leadership role and be back with us. His publications include numerous journal articles as well as chapters in edited volumes, and he’s also the co-editor of three books: Global Mixed Race, New Perspectives on Slavery and Colonialism in the Caribbean and Black Europe and the African Diaspora. His most recent book, 20 Questions and Answers on Black Europe was published in 2018.
He’s currently writing a book with professor Kwame Nimako on public history, museums and slavery in England and the Netherlands. And his very related project is yet another book, tentatively titled Inside the Shadows of the Big House: 21st Century Antebellum Slave Cabins and Heritage Tourism in Louisiana, and he’ll be sharing material from that project today. So, now let me turn things over to Stephen.
Stephen Small: Welcome everybody. Thank you. Thank you to Deborah, to Max and Monique. And thank you to everyone for taking part in today’s presentation. It’s my first presentation as interim director of the institute, so I hope I can do a good job and give you an idea of some of the things the institute does and has achieved. It certainly has benefited me, since I was a graduate fellow more than 30 years ago.
Okay, so, “Confederate monuments are just the tip of the iceberg:”
In the U.S. today debates around confederate monuments, statues and the Civil War, have pushed the history of slavery and its ongoing legacies to the forefront of public consciousness. These debates are taking place against the horrific backdrop of murder and violence against African Americans, often in the name of white supremacy. There are thousands of monuments to the Confederacy across the U.S. South in government, public and private buildings and in cemeteries. There are also schools, street names and a vast number of private houses that honor overwhelmingly male Confederate heroes and events. For many people, especially in the U.S. South, the monuments function largely as positive and celebratory identity symbols and heritage sites.
It’s also clear that a significant number of people embrace these monuments to provoke, antagonize and aggravate Black people, and as means to express their unreserved belief in white supremacy. Recent surveys indicate that a majority of Americans want these monuments kept in place. Several politicians have defended these monuments, many others simply kept silent, while a few politicians have acted to remove them.
Yet specialists of the public history of U.S. slavery and the Civil War know that Confederate monuments are little more than the tip of the iceberg. A far more extensive and impactful infrastructure of physical sites dedicated to creating a distorted, problematic and even mythological memory of U.S. the Confederacy and Southern history stands steadfastly in place. I call this the plantation museum heritage infrastructure. An infrastructure that consists of thousands of heritage sites comprised of mansion houses, outbuildings, work spaces like kitchens, and so-called slave cabins. These are physical structures that can be found in all Southern states; they can be visited guided and unguided tours; and they attract millions of domestic and international visitors each year.
Since the 1990s, I’ve personally visited more than two hundred plantation museum sites in 10 states, including the biggest, (Nottoway Plantation), the most visited (Oak Alley Plantation), and the most photographed (Boone Hall). For one of our books, my colleague Jennifer Eichstedt visited several that belonged to U.S. presidents, including Mount Vernon and Monticello.
I’ve visited so-called ‘slave villages’ in Florida and Louisiana, ‘slave streets’ and ‘slave quarters’ in South Carolina. I’ve even visited ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in Maryland, though I don’t have a photo to share with you today.
Despite apparent differences across the states, they share some striking similarities in their narrative and visual strategies. Since 2005, my primary focus has been on Louisiana, especially those that have slave cabins, and for reasons of time that is the state I’ll discuss today.
Louisiana has some of the biggest and most visited sites in the U.S. today. During slavery Louisiana produced more than 90% of sugar in the U.S., it had some of largest plantations, and in the Antebellum period had a higher concentration of millionaires on the River Road, who had become rich from slavery, than any other state.
Information at these sites focus on architecture, interiors and furnishings and decorative gardens. All narratives privilege gendered white elites — with detailed descriptions of the social roles, experiences and aspirations of elite white men that were plantation owners, and like presidents, governors, senators and senior military personnel. They also highlight elite white writers, painters and artists and important political events — like U.S. independence and the Civil War. And elite white women in domesticity, family and philanthropy. Overall, sites consistently avoid, disregard or sideline mention of slavery and the experiences of the enslaved. Slavery is typically described in passive, general and abstract ways, and if mentioned at all, Black people typically appear as an undifferentiated stereotypical mass, with few exceptions.
These goals are achieved through three primary narrative styles. The first is symbolic annihilation, which means that sites totally and completely ‘ignore the institution and experience of slavery altogether or treat them in ways that are negligible, formalistic or fleeting. Stereotypes are common — smiling slaves in the fields, and smiling slave women in kitchens. After spending 40-60 minutes describing how elite white men and women were good, loving and generous slave masters, a tour guide may suddenly mention faithful and dedicated slaves; may offer a simple statement like ‘a slave made this chair,’ or may just say ‘there are slave cabins at the back of the house.’
Marginalization occurs when there is only perfunctory, momentary or short-lived mention or reference to slavery. Slavery is mentioned in ways that may be literal, trivializing or dismissive. It is common to foregrounding ‘faithful slaves’ and ‘the benevolence of plantation owners.’ Slightly more is said about slavery, than under the first narrative but not much more.
The passive tense is widely used in this narrative style. We are told that in kitchens, in order to test the heat of the oven a hand would be placed inside it, until it was too hot; that ‘a boy’ would wait at the table and waft a large fan to keep flies off the food during meals; that a servant delivering food from the outhouse kitchen was required whistle so they could not sample the food. At butler-greenwood plantation, that slave master is described as kind and thoughtful man who gave the enslaved a free day on Sundays, and ‘generously’ provided additional provisions at Christmas This was ‘much to the delight of the enslaved, who sang and danced in happiness.’ At several of these plantations we are told that when slavery ended, many enslaved stayed on the plantation to be close to the family that they had worked for, and whom they loved.
The third narrative style is relative incorporation — in which slavery and the lives of the enslaved are described explicitly, systematically and are far more incorporated into the overall presentation. Details of the slave cabins are provided, and we are told about the work and family relationships between the owners and the enslaved. At Frogmore and Evergreen plantations the guided tours actually begin at the slave cabins, rather than the mansion house or gift store. It is made clear that the plantations would not have been profitable, or even existed, without the substantial labor of enslaved Africans. Individualizing, personalizing and humanizing information on the enslaved is provided — names, family connections, work roles; and some mention is made of escape, rebellion or legally free Black people.
The most well-known site in this third category — one that could even be called full incorporation rather than relative incorporation — is Whitney Plantation, which opened in 2013. At Whitney plantation, brutality, violence and economic exploitation are central features of the narrative, as is resistance and rebellion. This site prioritizes the lives of the enslaved, and both personalizes and humanizes them — they are subjects and agents of actions rather than objects of white misanthropy towards Black people or worse — throughout the site and the tours. This is a highly unusual site.
Confederate memorials across the South function to symbolically or literally annihilate the facts and context of U.S. slavery; to obfuscate and distort these facts; and they function to turn our attention to a far more narrow, self-congratulatory set of priorities and issues. They focus on white people’s economic, political and social needs, on the bravery, honor and sacrifice of white men, and on efforts to preserve a beloved society. They are heavily gendered and masculinized, and they foreground both elite and working-class whites, who are personalized and humanized in highly individualistic ways.
In other words, their universe of discourse is extremely narrow and they continue to operate under the thrall of Southern gentility, civility and progress. While Black people remain unmentioned, faceless and voiceless. In other words they operate through strategies of symbolical annihilation, marginalization and deflection.
It’s important to note that many Confederate memorials and statutes were built long after slavery legally ended. White economic dominance and political power during Jim Crow provided the fuel for the proliferation of memorials throughout the South. It also provided foundation for the contemporary distribution of resources at these sites.
Similar strategies and representations, state and institutional support for these hegemonic narratives exist in plantation museum sites across Louisiana, and indeed across the entire U.S. South. These sites function in many of the same ways as Confederate memorials, dedicated to white southern ideology and self-aggrandizement. Silence, evasion, erasure and annihilation, along with codewords, euphemisms and circumlocution are the sharpest tools in this fully stocked toolkit of misrepresentation. Plantation museum sites minimize, marginalize or remain silent on slavery; avoid mention of brutality, violence and the inherent injustice of slavery; they personalize and humanize elite white men, and to a lesser degree, women; and they depersonalize and dehumanize Black people. They too, operate under the thrall of a class-based southern gentility – which puts an inordinate emphasis on wealthy and powerful whites.
But both sets of activities are not identical. Confederate memorials appear are far more extreme in their representations of white supremacy, and focus on far more narrow and highly circumscribed topics; plantation sites generally avoid these extremes, and offer a more generic, more nuanced and less explicitly socially corrosive narrative. With some of the variations I have just described.
I contend that plantation museum sites are far more impactful and consequential than Confederate monuments, given their vast infrastructure, the far more subtle and indirect narratives deployed, and the massive numbers of visitors. They generate vast amounts of revenue, economic activity and employment. They have so far failed to attract the kind of public or national attention that Confederate monuments have received. The sites in Louisiana described in today’s presentation are indicative of common practices across at sites in all the southern states, as recent research has revealed.
However, these hegemonic narratives do not go unchallenged. I suspect that Confederate memorials offer few direct opportunities for more accurate, comprehensive and inclusive histories. But plantation museum sites do offer that potential. Information at plantation museum sites themselves is slowly changing, more engaged and critical narratives have emerged; and oppositional and counter-narratives exist outside these sites. Let me mention three issues.
First, there is significant information on sites that could provide more accurate, more comprehensive and more inclusive narratives. Sites that deploy relative incorporation are exemplary, such as Frogmore, Evergreen and Laura, and especially at Whitney plantation. Slave cabins — past and present — are deeply ambiguous spaces. One the one hand, they were built for the profit, power and aggrandizement of master-enslavers and their families They also operated as locations of social control and persecution, including sexual violence. One the other hand, slave cabins also functioned as a refuge for the enslaved, and as the focal point of Black agency including creative adaptations of language, religion and music, as well as numerous forms of resistance and rebellion.
Today they provide opportunities to undermine distortions, neglect and erasure; and for creating far more accurate, comprehensive and inclusive narratives. They are the spaces in which we can learn far more about the thoughts and feelings, inspirations and aspirations, the hopes and dreams of Black women and men. It’s not by accident that widespread resistance to enslavement and the planning of rebellions occurred in cabins. And we have substantial primary evidence — in documentary and material sources. Over the last decade, some plantation sites that had previously ignored or marginalized cabins have brought them to the foreground, and deployed them to tell more complete stories.
The rich potential for this kind of transformation is revealed in the case of Melrose plantation in Natchitoches. This is the most complicated site I have ever visited. Melrose belonged to a legally free family of color — the Metoyer Family — that owned more enslaved persons than any other legally free people of color in the South — that is, several hundred enslaved persons. Most information at the site is organized around the lives of three exceptional women — Marie Therese Coin Coin, Cammie Henry and Clementine Hunter — each of whom is closely identified with the plantation. Discussion of elite and highly exceptional women is absolutely central at the site but discussion of gender, and most working or enslaved women, far less so.
Coin Coin was an enslaved Black women in the late 18th century, Henry an elite white woman who turned the plantation into a writer’s colony in the early 20th century and Hunter a Black woman with multiple ethnic origins, who worked as a fieldworker and cook for more than 40 years, before becoming an internationally acclaimed primitive artist.
Although symbolic annihilation is the prevailing narrative at this site, it has great capacity for escaping from under the thrall of southern gentility. The plantation house’s numerous paintings and other artifacts by Clementine Hunter, and relates her life story. At no other site is a Black women’s life so central. Hunter’s art highlights values of Black family, culture, work, leisure and pleasure as well as strong and independent Black women; and we also see critical portrayals of the white power hierarchy on the plantation.
White people seldom appear in her art at all, and when they do, they are in the background. And in her biography and interviews we find evidence of her subordinate status on the plantation, and hear her voice as a Black woman who grew up deep immersed in the belly of rural Jim Crow. I don’t want you to get the idea that this information is central to the tour guides — much of it indirect, opaque or diffuse — and one has to read between the lines.
Second, is the role of tour guides. Most tour guides follow pre-written scripts that privilege many of the issues I’ve mentioned, and sustain the hegemonic narratives. They highlight key issues, tell stories, and point to important artifacts inside houses and grounds. They modify tone — from serious and melancholy, to humorous and frivolous. But they do not operate in a narrative straightjacket. They can can foreground issues important to them, for example, around gender, or race, or race and gender. They can show empathy. And during my research many do that. In other words, they are in a powerful position to influence, adapt or modify the general scripts, and they are also able to shape, direct and even control conversations and discussions. Especially where visitors Black and non-Black — ask questions.
Several scholars have highlighted the flexibility and performative nature of tour guides roles including the ways in which they can display empathy. At some sites tour guides insist that the cabins are an indispensable component of the tour. During my research the tour guide demographic was dominated by Southern women over the age of 50. This is slowly changing. There is clear evidence that tour guides are increasingly attentive to the details of slavery than ever before. In other words, they have the potential to break free from the chains of Southern mythology.
Third, there exists a small number of public history sites managed or owned by African Americans that offer a stark contrast to the narratives at plantation museum sites. They provide a far more accurate, comprehensive and inclusive story. In Louisiana, this includes the River Road African American Museum, the Arna Bontemps Museum and the New Orleans African American Museum (NOAAM). Sites like these begin, sustain and conclude their narrative in ways almost entirely at variance with the plantation museum sites. They often begin with information on life in Africa, devote only partial attention to slavery, and they always privilege the Civil Rights Movement. When they mention slavery, they directly confront injustice, inhumanity and violence; the foreground resistance, resilience and dignity of Black people. They also foreground the Underground Railroad. African American agency, initiative and drive is foregrounded.
At these sites, they exhibit works by African American artists; and they overwhelmingly personalize Black people. These sites reflect the long history of African American commemoration, particular in segregated communities, in churches and private spaces.
The white South erected the ideological and institutional edifice of white supremacy as a basis for most of the prevailing and hegemonic narratives told about southern history. This edifice is far more encompassing and extensive than memorials and museums — it was and is reflected in political debates, historical accounts, research productivity. It has always included extremist and fanatical elements, as well as an extensive array of more mainstream, nuanced and seemingly less virulent elements. But all were and are predicated on the same principles — alleged northern aggression, the lost cause, an honorable Southern society built on chivalry, decency and honor, a benign slave system of paternalist planters, and faithful, complacent and happy slaves. Central to this narrative was racism and gender — white men as the defenders of white womanhood, against a perceived Black threat, and perpetrators of violence again Black women. The active legacy of these narratives are revealed today in the razor edged emotion and misplaced feelings of dispossession described so skillfully in our colleague Larry Rosenthal’s recently published book — Empire of Resentment.
A focus on the lives of the enslaved, the slave cabins they lived in, and the work of Black sites highlights different goals, and provides dramatically different information. There is no simple binary in the narratives or strategies, but there are clear and striking differences across a continuum in the assumptions, points of departure, content and goals of all these sites. It is unlikely that Confederate memorials will ever allow for such alternative accounts. But the plantation museum sites do allow for that possibility.
Despite what appear to be distinctive differences, I contend that Confederate memorials and plantation museum sites share much in common with one another. I have tried to persuade you of these similarities during today’s presentation. I contend that plantation museums deserve far more attention than they have so far received. And that unlike confederate monuments they have the potential for a far more comprehensive, inclusive and accurate account of Southern history.
I first began empirical research on representations of slavery in Georgia, in the summer of 1996 when the Olympic games were taking place. The state government and business leaders were looking for ways to keep the millions of visitors in the state, spending money, after the games ended. Promotion of Southern heritage was a key mechanism to do this, and after all, wasn’t Georgia home to the most famous plantation big house that never existed — Tara from GWTW.
Since then, of course, times have changed. The sites have been critiques, significant changes have occurred and we can document vastly improved professionalism. At least at many sites. But I contend that the underlying foundation of Southern gentility remains. Despite noticeable improvements since 1994 they still fail to tell a full or fair or balanced story. Their silences remain too loud, their evasions too obvious, their euphemisms too pervasive, and their marginalization of slavery too entrenched for me to be convinced of any fundamental transformation. Several sites clearly remain committed to symbolic annihilation and they still remain too wholeheartedly under the thrall of Southern gentility. For reasons of economics, of politics and of personnel, it is unlikely they will realize fundamental change any time soon.
At present, Black people in the United States do not have the resources to fundamentally challenge or shape the museums and memorials, inside or outside the South; nor to undermine the ideological grip of Southern gentility prevalent at plantation museum sites. For most African Americans, there are far bigger problems than museum exhibits; including police and gun violence, mass incarceration, poverty and community decay, to mention just a few. These are the priorities. But we are fortunate that there are still dedicated individuals, institutions and communities who recognize that even in the face of such threats, we must still dedicate some of our time and energies to providing accurate, extensive and inclusive knowledge and information about slavery and its legacies. We should be thankful that they continue mount a strong fight. Thank you.
Deborah Lustig: Stephen, why don’t you stop sharing and then we can see everybody. Thank you so much for that really illuminating talk. I’m going to turn things over to Monique to shoot some questions your way.
Stephen Small: Okay. Thank you very much.
Monique Hosein: Thank you. That was wonderful. I am going to put some of these questions together because there are a lot of great questions about the narrative, about where it comes from, how it might change, how the existence of the Whitney Plantation that is centering the experiences of enslaved people, will that put pressure to shift that narrative.
So I’m going to read some of these questions because we do have time to do that. Kate Montana, the question was, can we draw any similarities? I’m going to save that, but I’m going to tell you what it is. Can we join some similarities between these Southern plantation sites and California missions? I wonder if children in the South do projects on plantations, like I had to do on a mission in fourth grade in California. And that was a question that’s related to narrative, because I had heard that there were guides at the museum who are indigenous folks who do make it clear that the work was done by enslaved, indigenous people. So that question is about the similarities between the Southern plantation sites and the California missions. And then Stephen, should I go ahead and give you the other questions about the narrative?
Stephen Small: No, let me try to respond briefly. Otherwise, I’ll get confused. First of all, I suspect that there are many similarities between these sites and their treatments of enslaved and subordinated gendered populations. But I’m not in a position to comment on California missions. I’ve only read general information. And I think it would be a disservice to those who do research. But I suspect many comparisons.
Do children go to these sites in the South? Absolutely, yes. Based on my research, I believe the domestic population that visits these sites is overwhelmingly divided between people over the age of 60, mainly grandparents and children under the age of 10, especially in summer. Because the grandparents are taking these children. So my colleague and I would go to sites, I would go to sites and it would be 10 or 15 or more buses with 50 or 70 people who are mainly old and young, overwhelmingly white, but not exclusively white, and they would have school children.
In addition, school children from local schools in Louisiana go to these sites. And they are receiving this information, which is, I believe, distorting their understanding of what slavery was like. Oh yeah, by the way, I didn’t mention it, but all of these sites, every single site has a good slave master. I’ve never been to a site with a bad slave master. And at every site where black people are asked, “What do you think about your slave master?” According to the tour guide, the black people said, “We’d rather have our slave master than other slave masters.” I’m highly dubious about this kind of information. So that’s my answer.
Monique Hosein: We have some questions here, one is from Zoe Silverman. Do you have a sense of who is producing interpretation that these institutions, as in which department is primarily responsible for the interpretive plan, directors, board of directors, curatorial departments, interpretation departments, education departments? And you touched on this, talking about tour guides, but her question goes on to say, have you observed any acts of resistance to institutionally sanctioned narratives on the part of frontline staff, educators, guards, visitor experience, representatives, or other institutional representatives? And the question from Howard Basser is, what can be done to change the narratives on these plantations and who are the people who need to have a change in consciousness? Who needs to be more woke to a less one-sided role of history? And there’s a part two to that, but go ahead.
Stephen Small: Yeah, of course. These are not easy to answer questions, but let me try. First of all, in terms of who’s producing the narratives, my earlier work was with Jennifer Eichstedt, through the early 2000s and then I’ve done all the work on Louisiana by myself since then. So what we found is there are three types of organization of these sites, public sites, which are national parks, state parks, municipal parks, and houses that are owned by local governments. The second sites are not for profit organizations that are settled with various kinds of volunteers and local communities. And then the third sites are private sites. When an individual may own a house, it may be a working plantation. It may be an active plantation. And there’s high variability in the narratives across these sites.
In general in Louisiana, I think it applies elsewhere but let me stick with Louisiana, the public sites because they have local community representation, because they are answerable in principle anyway, to local communities and government, they tend to produce less problematic sites. They’re far more likely to lean towards relative incorporation.
The private sites because they’re private do far less of them. So there’s variation across the ownership. Who produces the narratives? They’re largely produced by, if it’s public, by a board of governors, by a board of representatives or at the site and then they are improvised as people go along. A lot of the tour guides at the sites are professional docents, but many of them, and I don’t have the numbers of hand, many of them are voluntary workers and the site produces a narrative and then that becomes the basis. Looking at the history of some of the sites, some of these narratives were produced in the 1950s and ’60s, and they’ve been modified in superficial ways sometimes and more fundamental ways.
The other thing is, as I mentioned, the narratives are a script with the docents who are overwhelmingly female, identify as women, overwhelmingly white and Southern. They can vary the script because after giving these tours for 50 or 100 times, they can vary it. So it depends on their particular interest of the docents and so on.
Is there any institutional resistance? Absolutely. There are city councils across Louisiana where black and non-black counselors challenge the sites, there are professionals from the national parks, from the state parks, there are government agencies and also there are African American institutions who, in opposition to the symbolic annihilation of the sites have set up their own separate tours, have challenged the museums.
And the African American River Road Museum, which I think is one of the best, was set up after an African American woman was so infuriated above the narrative at the sites that she opened the museum. Of course, that institutional opposition is far less well-resourced, has far less power and far less authority. So a struggle continues. I think that’s my answer to those questions. So we have to do more of the same.
Monique Hosein: Thank you. I think you may have incorporated some of Robin Marsha’s question, which is, will the Whitney Museum that opened in 2013 pressure the other museums to do better?
Stephen Small: It certainly will. I don’t know about pressure. It’s one site. It’s in Louisiana. The site was opened by a white man. I haven’t done primary research at that site, but some of my research assistants went there. My understanding is that he’s invested millions of his own money in creating that site. It’s entirely exceptional, certainly for a white person. It sends highly anomalous. Other sites are aware of it and it will influence, encourage. I don’t know if it will cajole or pressure people. Why? Because several sites have made it clear, “We do not do that. That is not our purpose. Slavery is not our issue. Talking about oppression is not our issue.” And so it will be uneven, it will be uneven.
Monique Hosein: I have a quick, easy one for you from Liz Williams, curious to know if you visited the Cane River Creole NPS site in Northwestern, Louisiana?
Stephen Small: I visited that site 50 or 100 times and not just for an afternoon. I spent several months over several years. My current book manuscript, which I’m currently discussing with publishers, is based on the Cane River. Natchitoches, Northwest Louisiana has three very popular plantation sites, Melrose, Oakland, and Magnolia. And I spent several years visiting, a number of months a year, because those sites also have 50 enslaved cabins that are open to the public. What I’ve done since 2004 or ’05, what I’ve done is I’ve compared how do sites with slave cabins portray slavery. And in general, the three sites I describe, Melrose is symbolic annihilation, but it’s very complicated. And I described the other two as relative incorporation. In a couple of my recent publications I mentioned those sites. So yeah, I spent my entire book manuscript looking at those sites in Natchitoches.
Monique Hosein: That’s a perfect segue to this next question, which is from Mark Brilliant. Thanks, Stephen. Can you speak to the process, presumably contentious, by which the plantation sites of relative incorporation became that way, at least for those that needed to shift from symbolic annihilation to get to relative incorporation?
Stephen Small: Yeah. Again, there’s multiple sites. I can’t remember the number of sites in Louisiana. There are the [inaudible] plantation sites, but there’s at least 40 or 50 of them. And I’d have to look at a recent article. I categorize each of them and give the numbers in terms of my interpretation. So what’s the process? Well the process may be internal. It may be that the manager of a public site is committed to transforming the narrative. It may be that a docent or a tour guide is committed to changing the narrative either incrementally or in fundamental ways. It may be not the board of advisors, there may be one person or more people who say that they’re not happy with it. They want to change it. They negotiate. They persuade the board that can happen internally.
It’s also possible that people who visit the site critique it. One thing that the tour guides sometimes say is that their white visitors don’t want to hear about slavery. That’s what they say. But several tour guides also say a lot of white visitors say, “What’s going on? This was a slavery camp. Why are you calling the slaves workers?” At several sites, they called the slaves workers. Some tour guides also say that the black visitors are uncomfortable with the mention of slavery. Well, how can we classify that? It’s uneven. My interpretation is that there’s multiple instances when visitors of different kinds express, displeasure. So these changes can occur inside, but there’s also external pressures that… Oh, the other internal pressure of course is in the private sites, if a person owns the site and wants to change it for whatever reason, pressure, more encouragement, some sites think they’ll get more black people if they talk about slavery, a bit of financial motivations there. So they’re all internal.
External pressure could come, I would describe, there’s certainly increased professionalism. I visited sites from 1990s and sites that were symbolic annihilation, I’ve been back and met docents 10 years and they said, “Look, we’re really embarrassed. We were doing it wrong. We didn’t know what to do. We felt uneasy and we’ve transformed it and it’s more professional. We go to conferences.” And there was a black guy who was the head of the national parks service. Unfortunately, my head is full of filing cabinets. So I can’t remember every single black guy I met, and he had an influence. Black people can have more influence, non-black people also have an influence. So I’d say that’s how it can happen, but because the sites are so varied in ownership and in management, it’s difficult to come to a conclusion.
This leads me to Mia Hubbard’s question, which is, is there an association or affinity group of these museums where they share information and can potentially influence each other’s programs?
Stephen Small: Absolutely. I don’t know the name. There are multiple associations of docents at the state level, across the nation. There are also regional concentrations, for example, the person who mentioned the Cane River, their heritage site, they have conferences, they have docents, they have other professionals. There’s also, although I haven’t been part of it, I’ve done field work in Georgia and South Carolina. There’s also a Gullah, a Gullah corridor. I forget the exact name. There is a professional association. So those things exist and certainly professionalism is part of it. Yes, for sure. That’s what I’d say. There’s also international organizations.
Monique Hosein: There are a couple of questions that are about the types of sites that there can be. Example, what do you think of the argument that a changed narrative at the big house is an appropriation of black people’s story that still funnels tourist dollars into white pockets? That question is from Kathleen Bond. And then I’m going to ask you a question about other types of tourism that there might be at these sites.
Stephen Small: I don’t have a simple answer to the appropriation of narratives. I think I’d need to give that far more attention. It’s implied in that question, what that question raises for me is, do I want to see the narratives change at big houses? And my answer is absolutely, yes. Do I want to see them changed in superficial ways? No, I do not. Do I want to see them changed in fundamental ways? Yes, I do. And I believe they should offer more accurate, more inclusive and more comprehensive analysis. Well, how has that comes about and how that relates to other activities on the sites, I think needs a bit more attention.
I’m very impressed. Starting from a low bar. I’m very impressed with Frogmore Plantation and Laura Plantation because they begin at the cabins and they begin with black people as humans, as agents, who are oppressed, who are exploited, but who were not defeated.
So I think that’s how I would respond. I think my research, three, four years ago, at Nottoway Plantation indicated that they don’t intend to change. They have a cabin or they had one. They’re not going to change that. So I think these are questions for discussion.
Let me mention one other thing though that I didn’t mention. In our research that we published in 2002, Jennifer Eichstedt and I, that was a long time ago. We looked at Virginia, Georgia and Louisiana. And in that book, Representations of Slavery in Southern Plantation Museums, we had another category which is called segregated knowledge. And that category we found overwhelmingly in Virginia, and I don’t know there exists in Virginia. And segregated knowledge means you go to Monticello, you go to Mount Vernon and you say, “Why aren’t you talking about black people?” In the old days, they’ll say, “That’s not our issue.” These days they say, “Oh yes, good idea. We have a slave tour on Thursday, Tuesday at 10:00 AM, or there’s a separate person. So if you want that information, that’s where you go.” We argue that at that time, that the reason there exists in Virginia has to do with the proximity to DC and the proximity to a larger, politically engaged… I’m reluctant to say black populations. Black populations in the South are certainly politically engaged.
So there’s a wide variety. If I was looking for ways to go forward, I would do what I’ve always done, which is ask black people because black people typically get it right. And then others resist and then maybe come around. So if you want ways to go forward for appropriate language, for appropriate organization, you will go to the African American River Road Museum, you would go to the Anna [inaudible] Museum, you go to museums across the South and they’ll give you narratives, organization, framing, which again I say, is more accurate, more inclusive and more comprehensive.
Monique Hosein: These three questions, one from an anonymous attendee are related to things that might happen at sites. Like from Antoinette Chevalier, what do you think of the phenomenon of having the cruel, bad slave masters featured in haunted tours? In New Orleans, this is a major thing. This is similar to what we talked about before we started about Rose Hall and the white witch of Rose Hall. Kate Montana wants to know, are the tour guides actors who are playing the various roles on the plantations? If so, are there black actors playing and staged people, what do you think about this? And the third question is, what about plantations that don’t function as tour sites, but they function as venues and they’re still profiting from the land and spaces. So one was about haunted tours-
Stephen Small: They’re not tourist sites but they’re venues, what does that mean?
Monique Hosein: Oh, you rent them and have your wedding there. You have events or that sort of thing.
Stephen Small: Okay. Well, I don’t think she’ll mind me saying, but Dr. Antoinette Chevalier, was a Ph.D. student. She graduated from Berkeley. She’s from New Orleans, I believe, or certainly grew up there. And she was my host when I was doing research in New Orleans. And in addition to providing me with excellent professional advice, she showed me where to get the best food too, at good prices. So thank you, Antoinette.
Should we show bad slave masters and good slave masters? My answer is, I don’t think the binary is useful between bad slave masters and good slave masters. I think all master enslavers are inherently problematic, inherently bad, and this idea that we can divide them into good and bad slave masters, can we have good and bad dictators? Can we have good and bad murderers? I’m not blaming Antoinette and the phrase, but this is a lot of the discussion at these sites. This is a good slave master. They were all mainly involved… No, they were all involved in direct brutal exploitation, violence, savagery, and many of them it’s well-documented were engaged in wicked and sustained torture and sexual violence.
So again, I want a more accurate, more comprehensive and more inclusive analysis. For example, earlier on in the PowerPoint, I showed a photograph, a drawing of an enslaved man with a gun. You will never see that at a plantation site. You will never see a black man with a gun or a black woman with a gun at a plantation site. Now, maybe there’s someone who stole one somewhere, but you get my point. With the kind of images you see at the main plantation sites just don’t exist. Sorry. The kind of images you see at black sites where it’s like violence and rape and persecution and torture, they are words that are used and mentioned as part of an inclusive history that I don’t think can be divided into good and bad.
What was the second one? The tour guides. It’s a strange thing and I don’t have recent data, but the tour guides are overwhelmingly volunteers. So I don’t think they’re professional. There are some professionals that might be the site manager, the engineer, finance and so on. But most of them are volunteers who are doing the best they can, and they may be informed, they may not be informed. Certainly comparing the last five years with the 1990s, there’s far more professionalism and far more improvements, whether that has just avoided the most egregious areas or whether they’ve done something more fundamental, I still reserve judgment.
There are things like, let me see, do I want a hazard? Yeah, I would hazard based on my research, the vast majority of tour guides are white. They are women. They’re Southern and they’re over the age of 50. They may be older. I don’t know. I can’t remember what the percentage is. We have it in the book, but I stopped counting that. But there are some black women, there are some black men. Many dress in period dress at somewhere like Oak Alley, at Nottaway Plantation. Others do not, it’s highly variable.
Are there professional actors? I think there are. I think there are at Oak Alley plantation, but what comes to mind actually, because it’s interesting is, in South Carolina, there’s something called the Gullah Theater, the Gullah Theater at Boone Hall Plantation. And when I went there several times in the early 2000s, that was mainly African American women, some men, but mainly women who had a show and a performance of Gullah culture, African American culture. They are designed to offer again, a more accurate and more comprehensive. And that site, we described as relative incorporation. That site at Boone Hall, my recollection is that it was all owned by a white family, and one of the sons decided to make the slave cabin central. So individual initiative can be the key issue.
The third thing, non venues. Well, look, they’re all making money. They’re all making money. Was it Ida B. Wells or Fanny Lou Hamer who said, “Americans love the color green.” I’m a foreigner, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that, but I quote in America. So there are weddings, there are honeymoons. It’s a very strange. I remember in our book, we called it sarcastically, plantation chic. The idea of going to a slave plantation for your wedding, for a celebration, it boggles the mind to me, but certainly they exist. They’re making money. Now there are people, scholars and others, including, I believe colleagues in my department, who talk about the afterlives of slavery. And in one of my articles that I published that we can make available, I argued that after making money by exploiting the bodies of African American men and women, many of these sites are now making money by exploiting their non memory. So I think that’s my position.
Deborah Lustig: I think on that note, we may have to end because we’re out of time. There are still a few questions left, but I think we’ll have to wait for your book to come out to have all our questions answered and more.
Stephen Small: Can I say, I do have a couple of recent articles and I’m more than happy to make them available if we have a means to do that.
Deborah Lustig: I did post one of them in the chat and it’s also on our website with the event description.
Stephen Small: Okay. I’ll share another two that give different kinds of perspectives and also talk about sites outside of Louisiana. Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Monique.
Monique Hosein: Oh my, it was a pleasure.
Deborah Lustig: All right, bye everybody. Thank you.
Stephen Small: Thank you very much.