What is a plantation? The dark history of the most beautiful houses in the South

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We’ve all seen Southern plantation homes in the movies, with dreamy walkways leading to quaint neoclassical mansions, set on acres upon acres of lush farmland. There is no doubt that these houses are visually bucolic, both on the big screen and in person today. But this beauty belies a dark past. Plantations are also sites of brutal oppression: they are largely responsible for the prolific growth of slavery in the United States. Curious to know how the plantations were born? Here is an alphabet book covering the chronology from their origins to their transformation into historical sites and educational memorials.

plantation slaves
Slaves on a plantation on Cockspur Island, Georgia (Top: Oak Alley plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana).

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The origins of the plantation system

At the start of the 17th century, when the British colonized what would later become the United States of America, the Crown offered large plots of land to the settlers to entice them to undertake the grueling journey to a strange and difficult new world. . Many of the settlers who made the deal combined their properties into larger settlements – in the South these eventually became plantations, given their focus on agriculture – with the wealthiest and most successful men. powerful governing these microcosms. As these landowners needed a huge workforce to maintain their plantations, they turned to slavery, importing the captured peoples of Africa as forced laborers.

Plantations after the civil war

Plantations have operated relatively freely in the southern United States for over 250 years; the northern states, however, had all abolished slavery by 1804. Despite the ban on the African slave trade by Congress in 1808, the national slave trade in the south continued until the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865, which outright prohibited slavery. .

During Reconstruction, or the post-Civil War years, the plantation system collapsed. While some plantations were destroyed, many were subdivided, with black and white farmers renting out these small plots as sharecroppers (who would give part of their harvest to the landowner as ‘rent’) or farmers (who paid in cash). does the rent). These agricultural practices continued until the middle of the 20th century; the Great Depression and advances in agricultural technology permanently eliminated traditional plantations.

Plantations in the modern era

Although some plantation houses remain private residences – most on much smaller properties – many have been turned into historic sites for tourists. But they are often romanticized as beautiful houses nestled in elegant gardens, disregarding the darker side of their history.

“Most of the accounts of plantation visits focus on architecture or furniture while they fail to mention the presence of African slaves at the site,” explains Dr Linda Enoh, a content strategist with a doctorate in tourism studies. “Many stories go further by acknowledging their presence but qualifying them as ‘servants’, which contributes to the fictionalized imagination of the South. “

But times are changing and some plantations are struggling to confront this dark history in a way that is both respectful and educational. “What the plantations must do is interpret the entire history of the people who have lived on the property, whether black or white, slaves or free slaves or owners of slaves” said Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black, associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. “History is common to all of these groups, and large parts of this history are very painful for the slaves who were forced to live and work there.

Thomas Jefferson's Estate monticello in summer
Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson and a popular tourist spot.

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Such an overhaul of these historic sites is largely inspired by the growing interest of the general public in dealing with these painful parts of history. “Twenty years ago I was on a plantation tour and expected to be insulted, expected to leave angry and often expected them to think I was a rowdy and not a historian because I often asked the tour guide questions that they thought were completely inappropriate, ”says Dr. Fields-Black. “Whereas now I have seen that I am not the only one on the tour asking these questions.”

This dark history, however, shouldn’t stop you from appreciating the pre-war architecture of the plantation houses or the manicured gardens that surround them, as seen by Dr. Fields-Black. of craftsmen and creators largely erased from the history of architecture. “It’s a perfect place to talk about slave carpenters, gardeners and horticulturists,” she says.

“Visitors should understand that lush gardens, architecture and cultures did not exist in a vacuum,” adds Dr Enoh. “Slavery made the romanticized southern lifestyle possible.”

What to consider when visiting the plantations today

Although plantations have a painful past, it is important to visit these sites to discover and come to terms with the dark side of American history. In addition, they serve as memorials to enslaved peoples. But not all of the plantation sites that have become touristy have done their due diligence.

“Choose your crops carefully,” advises Dr. Fields-Black. “Do some research to find out if and how they interpret the history of slaves. I would plead for the support of the plantations which made this investment; historical interpretation is a lot of work. They took that risk. They took this step to reinterpret their story and try to make it inclusive of everyone who lived on the property. ”

As historian Michael Diaz-Griffith noted in his Anti-Racist Preservationist’s Guide to Conservative Monuments, “Unlike monuments, architecture is mutable and historic buildings tell stories throughout their history, from their construction. until our days. strategies can shed light on black and brown histories throughout the history of our country. “

The bottom line? If you want to appreciate the architectural beauty of a plantation house, be sure to give equal attention to the impact and the lives of the enslaved there.

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