A big part of visiting the South, especially places like Charleston and New Orleans, is visiting plantations. These large homes are typically defined as “an estate on which crops such as coffee, sugar, cotton, and tobacco are cultivated by resident labor” by encyclopedias. But what they almost always mean in this part of the world is a place that relied on slave labor.
So should you visit them?
Plantations and History
Visiting plantations is a something that only really exists in America, a uniquely odd tradition visiting a place where tragedies exist. Some relate it to visiting concentration camps in Europe. So it’s understandable why you might not want to see a place where the human suffering was undeniable, where people were treated as property. But homes aren’t built this way anymore and plantations exhibit unique architectural styles. They are historic landmarks that preserve a time long past. Only you can decide if it’s something you feel comfortable with.
Telling the Whole Story
The main issue that comes up with visiting plantations is the “whitewashing” of what really happened there. It’s not uncommon to hear docents describe the slaves as “part of the family” or tell stories of how once slavery was abolished, they continued living there. I’ve visited dozens of plantations and historic homes in the region through my research and can tell you that very few actually talk about the slaves and what their lives were like. And if you ask about it, there can be an awkward pause from the guide. Because, honestly, honest conversations about slavery make people uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be talked about. After all, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
If you do want to visit plantations that are really talking about what happened here, they do exist. Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans is considered to be one of the best, which opened in 2014 to visitors and focused completely on the slave experience. Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site near Aiken talked honestly about the terrible power dynamics between the plantation owner and his slave lovers in a way that I didn’t find at Monticello in Virginia, the famous home of Thomas Jefferson.
So why do some talk about it more than others? I’ve found the difference to be partially in how it is owned and managed. Some of these plantations are still owned by descendants of the slave owners. But others push them as a tourism product where visitors can come for the day, have a meal, spend the night, or even get married. Conversations about slavery might put a damper on the experience. State-owned locations tend to be more informative.
The most important aspect of visiting plantations is to remember the human cost of these places when visiting. They tend to be popular sites for weddings, but there are plenty of beautiful locations in the region that weren’t the site of such a dark history. Like at war memorials, joyful photos in front of slave cabins are not appropriate. Limit the photo shoots unless you’re Beyonce making the video for “Deja Vu.”