Several years ago, my family and I visited Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout the tour, our guide shared countless tales about the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson, waxing poetic about the Louisiana Purchase, the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s passion for the violin. Toward the end of the tour, as the topic turned to the slaves Jefferson owned, our guide awkwardly cobbled together some sentences about his ‘relationship’ with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, quickly changing the subject and pointing us in the direction of the gift shop.
Much has changed since the day I toured Monticello. Guests can now see the plantation through tours including the “Hemings Family Tour” and “Slavery at Monticello Tour,” which add detailed insight on the 600-plus slaves Jefferson owned during his lifetime. The plantation’s website also gives answers to frequently asked questions about how slaves lived and were treated at Monticello. Other plantations which have been designated as historical sites have taken similar steps to acknowledge the pain and suffering that slaves were forced to endure in the name of economic progress. While these attempts to be more transparent do nothing to reverse the harrowing events of the past, it is absolutely necessary that they continue to be implemented.
These changes have been met with backlash from visitors who feel that the plantations’ decisions to highlight slavery on their tours blows the issue out of proportion. A review written about McLeod Plantation Historic Site in Charleston, South Carolina, states, “My husband and I were extremely disappointed in this tour. We didn’t come to hear a lecture on how the white people treated slaves … The tour guide was so radical about slave treatment we felt we were being lectured and bashed about slavery … I am, by far, not a racist or against all Americans having equal rights, but this was my vacation … It was just not what we expected.”
A visitor of Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, left a one-star review for the tour, writing, “Tour was all about how hard it was for the slaves and hard done by they were … Go somewhere different if you want to experience a plantation tour.” As baffling as it is to hear disappointment that tours of slave plantations would discuss slavery, these reviews are glaring evidence that people continue to refuse to acknowledge the very real horrors that enslaved people were forced to endure for centuries. Those who are looking for a more romantic portrayal of plantations should do as Gillian Brockell of The Washington Post suggests and watch “Gone with the Wind,” which is “streaming on Amazon and iTunes for $3.99 — a low price, but still higher than the average slave’s wage, which was $0.”
Part of the problem lies in the fact that plantations are often marketed as romantic relics of a past era rather than the haunting monuments that they really are. Their architecture and grounds often make them popular wedding venues. Mary Edmonds, an events manager of Tuckahoe Plantation, Thomas Jefferson’s boyhood home, said that her wedding clients, who happen to be mostly white and college-educated, “are not looking for a history lesson.” The violence and exploitation that took place on these properties are often stripped away and the area is reverted to “an ‘old house’ on a pretty property” painting a “dreamy” and “romantic” setting.
While I have never visited the plantation in Virginia my ancestors were forced to work on, members of my family have. While some might be able to view a plantation with nostalgic, rose-colored glasses, I will never see them as anything other than places where black people were brutalized, assaulted and murdered. To ignore or minimize this centuries-long abuse as if it is a mere distraction is disgusting and is an insult to the memory of the more than 17 million people who died as a result of it.
Annick Tabb is a senior double-majoring in political science and English.