Ask tourists in the South what terms come to mind when they hear the word “plantation,” and you’ll get these replies: agriculture, mansions and wealth.
Yet these aren’t all of the words. Some people might mention slavery, hardship and cruelty – rounding out the narrative of some of America’s most historic southern plantations.
University of Mary Washington professor Stephen Hanna and three UMW students collected these and other responses while conducting research on the ways plantation museums handle the topic of slavery. Hanna and his research assistants, Meredith Stone, Ian Spangler and Xavier Griffin, were part of a 20-person research team collecting data at five different Louisiana plantation museums from March 4 through March 8.
This trip was the first round of field work geared to explore representations of slavery at these popular tourist attractions. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the project also will include plantation museums around Charleston, South Carolina, and along Virginia’s James River. The $450,000 grant is split between six institutions, including UMW, the University of Southern Mississippi (the host university), The University of Tennessee, Texas Tech University, Norfolk State University, and Armstrong State University in Georgia.
During the trip, the team interviewed tour guides and hundreds of museum visitors with the dual goals of understanding what visitors expect to hear at Southern plantation museums and exploring how Southern plantation museums broach the subject of slavery in their exhibits and tours. According to Hanna, many plantation museums have romanticized the South, and some have minimalized or tried to erase slavery’s prevalence and impact in their exhibits.
“We often observed that the narrative told at the plantation Big House doesn’t quite fit the true history of the plantation,” said Stone, a senior Geography major. “The narratives tend to exclude all the people who were forced to work for free in order to keep the economy of the south afloat.”
An exception is the recently opened Whitney Plantation, which “turns the traditional plantation narrative and landscape inside out,” according to Hanna. Unlike most plantation tours that start in the Big House, Whitney’s tour guides start on the grounds and focuses on the lives of the slaves who worked on the plantation.
“The data we gathered is a huge step toward understanding the racialized landscapes of plantation tourism,” said Spangler, a junior English and Geography double major. “No one has ever tapped into this story as far as our research team has.”
The research will continue in the spring of 2016 with fieldwork in the Low Country Region of Georgia and South Carolina. Findings from the research will be presented at conferences, published in journals, and will likely be compiled into a book. Six articles on the research will be featured in a special edition of the “Journal of Heritage Tourism.”
“We hope our work contributes to efforts to remember slavery – to make this part of our shared past more visible since it has a continuing impact on racial inequalities today” said Hanna.