When travel writer P.J. Thomas toured an antebellum plantation-turned-historic site back in 1995, she learned about the beautiful main house and its furnishings, silver collection and art. She learned about the Virginia family that once owned the property, about its successes, its wealth.
“But there was not one word about the black people who built the plantation, worked the plantation, contributed to the wealth of the owners,” Thomas said.
When an employee asked her for her impressions of the visit, Thomas said she was shocked that there was no mention of the black people who lived and died there.
“We just don’t know how to tell the story, and don’t want to offend anyone,” came the reply.
“It’s more offensive to leave it out entirely,” Thomas suggested.
Twenty years later, much has changed, she said. She should know; she is the editor of Pathfinders, “the travel magazine for people of color.”
“The programming at a lot of historic sites has just been fantastic,” she said, noting the development in the past couple of decades of a more inclusive, thorough and authentic historical representation in the Charleston area and beyond.
Historic Williamsburg, Va., was one of the first to expand its scope to include discussions of slavery (for which it took a lot of heat early on, Thomas noted). Many other sites now examine in depth what life was like for enslaved black laborers.
“There is a wide range of national visitors, as well as international visitors, who really enjoy learning history at these sites, and learning it authentically,” Thomas said. And when it’s inclusive and historically accurate, there is nothing offensive about such programming, she added.
“I have learned so much going to places like Drayton Hall, Williamsburg and Middleton Place,” she said. “I am a history buff, but even I didn’t know all of those stories. Those are the kinds of stories you are unlikely to be able to experience unless you go back to the plantation.”
Locally, historic sites such as Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Middleton Place, Drayton Hall and Boone Hall Plantation, along with tours and museums, are doing more overall to acknowledge the history and contributions of enslaved Africans and African-Americans. It’s unclear whether increased supply has influenced demand or the other way around since data is hard to come by, but tourism officials and site and tour operators agree that the change is both significant and welcomed.
Perrin Lawson, deputy director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, confirmed the trend, saying his organization has noted a substantial increase in queries and visits among people interested in black history.
“I’m not sure there’s a way to quantify by percentage or dollars the increasing interest in African-American history, other than pointing to the fact that additional tours have been created to address this interest, and it has become an integral part of the programming at our historic sites,” Lawson said. “Interest in our African-American history has been growing for as long as I can remember, and really began to accelerate about 10-plus years ago. Visitors realize the African-American experience is essential to fully understanding the history and cultural heritage of the Lowcountry.”
Alphonso Brown, who operates Gullah Tours, said his bus has been getting fuller and fuller over the years. He emphasizes the African-American experience in Charleston, pointing out important homes, neighborhoods, churches and schools, discussing the contributions of artisans such as master blacksmith Philip Simmons, offering samples of the Gullah language and taking tourists off the beaten path.
Guides who provide more traditional tours might touch on black life, but mostly they deliver what their clients want — or what they think their clients want, Brown said. Mostly, it’s antebellum romanticism, which often is reinforced by popular movies, TV shows and books.
That leaves Brown with a market niche, and its mostly white tourists who fill it, he said. Black tourists still are few and tend to hop on the bus in the summer when they’re in town visiting relatives, or when they are attending a local church convention.
He said he regrets there are not more black clients, including local residents, willing to pay $18 for a tour, though he understands the financial challenges that many face.
“Local blacks don’t know the history at all,” he lamented.
At Magnolia Plantation, the “From Slavery to Freedom” tour, which emphasizes the black experience at this historic rice-growing site but also includes 20th-century events, is the fastest-growing tour, according to Tom Johnson, director of gardens.
“We’re seeing a 30-40 percent increase in African-American visitors,” along with about the same increase in nonblacks signing up for the “Freedom” tour, Johnson said.
Magnolia began restoration work on its row of slave cabins in 2007, and partnered with historian Joseph McGill to draw attention to the project. McGill, director of the Slave Dwelling Project, stays overnight in cabins across the Southeast.
“If you go through the cabins, you get a lot of history, but it’s kind of sterile; but when you do one of these after-hours events ... it brings history alive,” Johnson said.
Bringing the history of slavery and oppression alive, though, can be uncomfortable for some visitors, and a challenge for interpreters, he noted.
“It’s a very hard subject to present,” he said. Guides must strike an appropriate balance between hospitality, enthusiasm, seriousness and respect. And visitors must be willing to open their minds to entertain not only the horrors of slavery but the institution’s many nuances: the fact that the North was complicit, for example, or that some slaves actually enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy and esteem.
“The larger narrative doesn’t always fit expectations,” Johnson said. “You need trained guides to manage it all.”
McGill, who works at the Old Slave Mart Museum downtown, said while the presentation of history has improved significantly in recent years, it’s still uneven and controversial.
“We often get folks coming in (to the museum) and telling us their take at what they did or did not get at some of the sites they visited,” he said. Sometimes it’s the site that falls short, sometimes a particular guide.
“Overall, we’re doing a lot better job covering that aspect of our history,” McGill said. “Ten to 20 years ago, I would have said we’re doing a terrible job. We’re not where we need to be. There are still some entities not wanting to go there, to stay in their comfort zone.” Some still prefer what McGill refers to as “mint julep history.”
And what is bringing tourists to Charleston, especially now that the city is receiving so much attention from travel magazines, isn’t slavery and suffering — it’s Spanish moss, piazzas and cobblestone streets, he noted.
“Most tourists capable of coming and willing to spend the money are those who want to stay in the comfort zone,” learning about the architecture, churches and white leadership of the city, he added. “But that’s not the whole story. We need to get more intellectual about our history. It can be abrasive, but we should be willing to do that.”
At the historic plantations, McGill is always welcomed.
“I’ve had real good experiences at some of the sites,” he said. Especially McLeod Plantation, which tells its story fully, “from the bottom up.”
“I think that, collectively, we’re doing a good job, but we’ve still got work to do,” McGill said.
At Middleton Place, the rejuvenation of black history began in earnest in about 2000, according to Chief Operating Officer Tracey Todd. That’s when the demonstration rice field was introduced, when the black cemetery was renovated and when the chapel renovation project was conceived.
Soon after, the staff opened Eliza’s House, a freeman’s cottage transformed into an exhibit about the Middleton family’s slave population, and it organized the first full family reunion, bringing white and black descendants of Middleton Place dwellers together for the first time.
“I remember back then thinking, ‘We are not seeing very many African-American families here,’ ” Todd said. Today, the historic site hosts a noticeable number of black visitors, along with a growing number of white tourists who want to go on the “Beyond the Fields” tour.
Tour guide Jeff Neale remembers when an African-American woman told him she wanted her son “to hear the whole story,” not the sugar-coated version. And he remembers when giving a tour to a group of white students he spoke of incentives and punishment, only to see the kids’ eyes open wide at the mention of plantation brutality.
Their teacher told him afterward that this was the latest in a string of about six such tours, and the first time anyone had spoken about punishment.
To visit a historic plantation is to catch a glimpse of the details of slavery, to gain a better understanding of what slavery entailed at that specific location, Neale said.
“There was no slavery rule book,” he said. “Slavery in Virginia was not the same as slavery in South Carolina.” A cotton plantation functioned differently than a rice plantation. And the institution changed over time.
What remained consistent was its economic purpose: to provide free (or nearly free) mass labor to planters.
“Slavery is receiving by the irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent,” former slave Garrison Frazier told General William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1865. Racism, violence and oppression were an outcome of this economic imperative.
Another outcome was that agriculture in the American South saw important advances, thanks in part to the skills and experiences of enslaved people.
Nowhere was this more evident than on the rice plantations of the Southeast’s marsh coast.
And this historic reality, once brushed over or ignored, now is emphasized at sites such as Middleton Place.
Slavery was immoral and cruel, sometimes sadistic and murderous, but it was the consequence of human endeavor, and such endeavor inevitably results in interactions that are not always bad, Todd said.
“It hits to the heart of humanity,” he said. “People teach each other things.”
Reach Adam Parker at (843) 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.