They come in search of Twelve Oaks, and aren’t real happy to instead find “12 Years a Slave.”
It seems some tourists leave Charleston disgruntled because plantation tours these days often paint vivid portraits of the lives of the enslaved people who worked there. And these visitors aren’t shy about airing their grievances.
The Washington Post put it a little more bluntly this month, reporting, “Some white people don’t want to hear about slavery at plantations built by slaves.”
The Post’s history blog reprinted some online reviews of plantations around the country, including McLeod Plantation on James Island — which some commenters on TripAdvisor accuse of having an “agenda” and being “one-sided.” As if there’s another side to human trafficking and bondage.
Joseph McGill knows all about this. The founder of the Slave Dwelling Project gives tours at Magnolia Plantation two days a week and can always spot the people in his group who’d rather not hear what he has to say.
“You can tell when older folks want to know if the plantation owner was a ‘good’ plantation owner. And I can never give them what they want,” McGill says. “They come for the romanticized history. Some people just want the mint julep and hoop skirt version of the story.”
Yes, many folks have a decidedly fiddle-dee-dee view of true antebellum history and become triggered when they hear there was actually more terror than Tara.
These gripes about historical accuracy have gone viral on Twitter of late, and McGill says he isn’t disappointed — he’s happy.
“It shows we’re not where we need to be.”
He’s absolutely right.
But Charleston is actually doing better than many places. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was little mention of slavery on local tours. Nowadays, McGill says it’s hard to find a plantation in South Carolina that doesn’t offer a more complete view of its own history.
Critics on TripAdvisor and Twitter can call it political correctness, but it’s actually just correcting Lost Cause propaganda. That is the actual revisionist history.
All plantations do these days is offer a fuller picture of life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Honestly, some of these changes are market-driven. McGill says younger tourists often quiz him, hungry for more information. And for years, local tour companies have reported increased interest in civil rights and African-American history.
And, for all the negative comments on social media, just as many complain that plantations still don’t offer enough information on slavery.
These days, the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau focuses much of its marketing on those elements of our past. Explore Charleston, as the CVB is called now, recently launched a website — Voices: Stories of Change — that recounts the city’s rich African-American history.
The site doesn’t advertise attractions or businesses. It simply allows local historians to tell often-overlooked chapters of this city’s past. (Full disclosure: I contributed a piece to the site on Judge Waties Waring, the Charleston judge who orchestrated the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.)
“It’s our job to get people to want to visit Charleston, but it’s also our job to get people to visit for the right reasons,” Perrin Lawson, deputy director of Explore Charleston, told The Post and Courier’s Emily Williams.
For decades, this town traded almost exclusively on its rich Civil War heritage — and, frankly, some people just don’t like the change. But these detractors need to understand that African-American history is not supplanting that history, it augments and enhances it.
Yes, it sometimes casts Dixie in a less-than-flattering light. But it’s hypocritical for people to defend Confederate monuments in the name of preserving history, then tell others to “get over” or ignore their own history.
Anyone who leaves one of these tours feeling they’ve been “lectured” or “shamed” needs to ask themselves what they’re really upset about.
McGill says this recent dust-up shines a spotlight on the progress society has made, and we shouldn’t regress just because some are upset to learn “Gone With the Wind” wasn’t a documentary.
“If we know more about this history, it would help the country,” he says. “We need to show everything in the narrative of this great nation.”
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.