HISTORY & LEGACIES
Whitney plantation, the plantation every american should visit, -national geographic.
THE WHITNEY INSTITUTE EDUCATES THE PUBLIC ABOUT THE HISTORY AND LEGACIES OF SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES
Whitney Plantation (legal name The Whitney Institute) is a non-profit museum dedicated to the history of the Whitney Plantation, which operated from 1752-1975 and produced indigo, sugar, and rice as its principal cash crops. The museum preserves over a dozen historical structures, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Whitney Plantation Historic District.
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An Ethical Guide to Plantation Tours
By Sarah Enelow-Snyder
Wormsloe is often cited as one of Savannah’s top attractions. A quick internet search describes it as a state park, famous for its avenue of oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, under which visitors line up to take pictures and even get married. Tripadvisor reviews call it “breathtaking,” “magical,” and “like a fairy tale.” You'd never know Wormsloe was actually a plantation that ran on the labor of enslaved people.
Many travelers approach plantations, a cornerstone of tourism in the South, as they would parks, museums, or historical sites: a beautiful place to learn something about local history before having a cocktail or going out to dinner. But plantations need to be experienced differently. Black people were enslaved, raped, tortured, and killed for hundreds of years on these lands. They are America’s concentration camps.
Rather than shy away from the painful truth, plantations must expose it. They are a vital educational resource with which to combat modern-day racism.
The institution of slavery “translates into virtually every kind of social and economic racial disparity that you might think of today in terms of education, net worth, health, and mortality,” says Bernard Powers, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and consultant with Middleton Place plantation. “It’s one thing to hear that. It’s another thing to go to a plantation site where you can see where the deed was done, see the implements of oppression, see the chains.”
Plantations are uniquely equipped to offer such an impactful, immersive experience. If such tours no longer existed, Powers says, “we would be far closer to developing an amnesia about what happened in the past, and the way in which the past continues to dog us in the present.”
Visitors are surprised to hear from Toby Smith, the lead interpretive aide at Charleston ’s McLeod Plantation , that the descendants of people enslaved at McLeod continued to live there, occupying huts without running water, until 1990. “It begins to sink in how very recent this is,” she says. McLeod’s Black visitorship rose after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, though Black and white visitors alike are “looking for answers.”
Some people don't want to hear about slavery when they're “on vacation,” says Brigette Janea Jones, former director of African American studies at Nashville’s Belle Meade plantation. But the experience can be life-changing.
“For many people, they leave feeling much better than they came, that they faced their fears,” Smith says. However, plantation tours vary tremendously, which poses a problem for travelers as they try to choose which one to visit. Some plantations celebrate the white slave-owning family and the upper-class furnishings of the big house with no mention of the atrocities that occurred there. Others are dedicated to honoring the lives of enslaved people, or are imperfectly working toward that goal.
This quandary also applies to historic houses, colonial attractions, and other slavery-era sites that functioned like plantations, but perhaps don’t look like them at first glance. Savannah’s Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters is one of the oldest examples of urban enslaved people’s housing in the South—but it was only in 2018 that “slave quarters” was added to its official name. Because of that, and its city setting, most visitors don’t view it as a plantation, says Bri Salley, marketing and communications manager for Telfair Museums, whose properties include Owens-Thomas. Visitors come primarily to learn about architecture and decorative arts, but receive an education on slavery too, hearing letters from enslaved people about their experience as cooks and groundskeepers.
With so many different types of plantations out there, with ranging emphasis on the history of enslaved people, we’ve created this guide to help travelers navigate their decision-making process. Here are some considerations for your next trip.
Take plantation tours that center Black voices
An exhibit inside the church at Whitney Plantation, in Louisiana
Look for plantations that focus heavily on the lives of enslaved people and tell their first-person stories, but more than that, look for plantations that employ Black historians, tours guides, and administrators. Avoid whitewashed storytelling that aims to make the experience more palatable, like tours that revolve around the slave-owning family and the luxurious furnishings of the big house.
Brigette Janea Jones is a fifth-generation Tennessean whose family was enslaved in Tennessee, and she led a Journey to Jubilee tour during her time at Belle Meade plantation, a tour that focused on the lives of enslaved people. She recited narratives recorded from enslaved people, whom she viewed as her own family, and the experience was very emotional for her. Journey to Jubilee began as an exhibit in 2007, but “grew like wildfire” once the tour launched in 2018, and there was a subsequent push not to have such segregated tours as they had been operating before she launched this program.
Jones says part of the solution was to put more Black artifacts, like portraits of enslaved people, inside the big house to acknowledge their role there, instead of regarding it as a purely white space. “White people can do this work,” says Jones about curating an experience that amplifies Black voices. “But Black people should be doing it.”
Avoid plantations that host weddings
When Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds had their 2012 wedding at Boone Hall Plantation, in South Carolina, activists sounded the alarm on the decision. Since weddings are a reliable source of revenue, many plantations are reluctant to give it up, but the practice is both inappropriate and disrespectful, drawing parallels to throwing a birthday party at Auschwitz. Similarly, avoid plantations that promote honeymoon packages, girls getaways, or other recreational products that detract from a serious discussion of slavery.
For Pia Spinner, a descendant of people enslaved in Virginia and the education research assistant at Virginia’s Menokin plantation, this practice must stop industrywide. “No more plantation weddings,” she says, adding that while weddings did happen on plantations, those of enslaved people were often done in secret and went unrecognized. Menokin does not host weddings.
While the revenue may be tempting, a different business model is possible, says Joy Banner, director of communications at Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans . Whitney is famous for focusing exclusively on Black lives, and it does not host weddings or other events that detract from this mission. “There is opportunity to be honest and still have a sustainable business,” she says.
Look for the living descendants of enslaved people
Plantations should collaborate with the living descendants of people who were enslaved on the property. Descendants should have a say in how their family stories are told, how the property is managed, and how the organization interacts with the surrounding community.
Joy Banner is not just an employee at Whitney Plantation—she’s also a descendant of people enslaved on that very property, and she says that descendants are a crucial part of fulfilling Whitney’s mission. Besides herself, descendants occupy various other positions within the organization, including as interpreters and front desk staff.
“You’re gonna need to contact the descendant community,” says Janea Jones, advising other curators to collect the oral histories of descendants when developing their historic interpretations. In addition to working with Belle Meade in Nashville , Jones also worked with nearby Rippavilla plantation.
At Middleton Place, living descendants have joined the board of trustees and contributed valuably to the plantation’s storytelling, says Jeff Neale, director of preservation and interpretation. For years Middleton hosted separate reunions for Black and white descendants, until the first integrated one in 2006, a turning point says Neale, who joined Middleton in 2009. “From what I was told, people were a little worried, but it turned out to be an incredible experience.”
Large iron bowls used by enslaved people for boiling and refining sugar cane at Whitney Plantation
Ask about reparations
It’s ideal, though rare, for a plantation to give reparations to its living descendants, or allow descendants to have a say in how reparations are administered. Some plantations are working toward this, either in the form of direct monetary compensation or bolstering economic activity in the descendant community.
There’s an ongoing discussion at Menokin about compensating descendants, Spinner says. “I truly believe that all sites that want to work with the descendants of the people that they owned and benefitted from should compensate them.” McLeod is also considering compensating descendants, some of whom have visited and given feedback on the experience, says Smith.
“The descendants that contribute to the narrative of a plantation should be compensated,” says Banner of Whitney. “What that compensation looks like should be directed by the descendants.” She says plantations should make some kind of direct payout to descendants, though this has not been instituted at Whitney, and the pandemic put big collaborative projects like this on the back burner.
Direct payouts aside, Whitney has fostered some economic activity for the descendant community. Years ago Banner's sister opened a bakery near Whitney, and after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the business closed. When Whitney opened to the public in 2014 and attracted visitors to the area, the business reopened as Fee-Fo-Lay Café , and it became a place where Whitney visitors could continue their conversations about slavery’s legacy. Descendants starting their own businesses is “the most powerful access that a plantation can give to a descendant community,” Banner says.
Broaden your view of when slavery happened
A view of the big house at McLeod Plantation, in Charleston
The story of slavery is not confined to a 250-year period. Plantation tours should discuss the lives of African people before the transatlantic slave trade, the fact that plantations were built on land taken from Indigenous peoples , and the links between slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, police brutality, and other current events.
For Spinner at Menokin, it’s important to acknowledge the murder and displacement of Native peoples to make way for plantations in the first place. “We do bring up the fact that this is Rappahannock land,” she says, adding that there are ongoing discussions about how to better include the tribe, honor its legacy, and have members use the land—to hold ceremonies, for example.
“Our Native American brothers and sisters were here first,” says Smith of McLeod. On her tours, she also traces enslaved people back to their lives on the African continent. She takes visitors down to Wappoo Creek and goes backward in time, by river to the Port of Charleston, by ocean back to Africa, and that opens up a discussion about the diversity of languages and cultures there. This topic is particularly personal for Smith. When her great-great grandmother was a young girl, she was taken away from her family in what is now Ghana, and brought to the United States. Smith says she mourned this familial loss. “Tell the story of who they were before they were captured,” she says. “America only knows Black people as captured.”
Last but not least, it’s crucial to connect the past to the present. Plantations should explain how slavery gave way to rampant lynchings during the Jim Crow era, alongside which police brutality flourished, long before the Black Lives Matter movement of today. During this time, countless George Floyds were killed, many of whose deaths did not spark nationwide protests.
Honest storytelling is fundamental to this entire effort, says Banner of Whitney. “If we are true to what the plantation was about, the difficulty of the labor that was involved, the system of slavery that kept people in prison on this land, rather than treating it like it’s this beautiful southern resort that was just magical for everybody, then we will be able to contribute a huge amount of progress toward racial healing.”
For more information
Whitney Plantation: 5099 Louisiana Highway 18, Edgard, LA 70049; whitneyplantation.org McLeod Plantation: 325 Country Club Drive, Charleston, SC 29412; https://ccprc.com/1447/McLeod-Plantation-Historic-Site Menokin Plantation: 4037 Menokin Road, Warsaw, Virginia 22572; menokin.org
Notable Southern Plantation Tours in the United States
History buffs with an interest in the southern part of the United States will enjoy these plantation tours. They offer insight into the history of slave labor, plantation living and how the south evolved into what it is today.
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Oak alley plantation.
Located in Louisiana, Oak Alley Plantation was first a sugar cane plantation started by Valcour Aime, who purchased the property in 1830. He established an enslaved community who worked the plantation. Then in 1836, Jacques Roman acquired the Oak Alley property and began to build his own home on the plantation. Accomplished entirely by slave labor, his home was built in Greek Revival style using bricks made on site and marble shipped in by steamboat to construct the dining-room floor. The self-guided exhibit at Oak Alley focuses on the lives and living conditions of those who were owned and kept on the plantation. Visitors learn about life after emancipation and can stop by the Blacksmith Shop, which acts as a tribute to Louisiana craftsmen and the history of forging metalwork.
Oak Alley Plantation has been the filming site of popular media works, including the 1993 film, Interview With a Vampire, and Beyoncé’s 2006 music video for the song Deja Vu.
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Belle Meade Plantation
What started as a single log cabin is now a plantation located outside of Nashville, Tennessee that serves as an educational resource. Founded by John Harding in 1807, “Belle Meade” translates to mean beautiful meadow in old English and French . It began as a 250-acre property that eventually became a 5,400 thoroughbred horse farm. It had a Greek Revival Mansion, a train station and a rock quarry that supported five generations of owners and their enslaved workers. Today the site retains 34 acres of the original property, including the mansion and original homestead. It is dedicated to the preservation of Tennessee’s Victorian architecture and equestrian history.
Visitors to Belle Meade Plantation enjoy a tour of the property led by trained and costumed guides, who share the history of the mansion, as well as many other historic buildings like a horse stable, carriage house and log cabin. Free wine tasting is offered at the site’s winery after tours, and there is a gift shop and restaurant for visitors as well.
The south’s largest antebellum mansion is Nottoway Plantation. Located in Louisiana northwest of New Orleans and southwest of Baton Rouge, Nottoway is a Greek and Italianate style mansion full of extravagant features and details. It was completed in 1859 and the construction was commissioned by prestigious sugar planter John Hampton Randolph. The mansion became home to John, his wife Emily Jane, and their 11 children. As a wealthy businessman, John wanted no expense spared when it came to the home’s design. The 53,000 square foot mansion has 64 rooms with features like 22 massive exterior columns, 12 hand carved Italian marble fireplaces, 15 1/2 foot ceilings and a lavish pure white oval ballroom. Modern bathrooms with running water and a gas plant that provided gas lighting throughout the home were also installed per John’s vision.
John’s wish was for the mansion to be a place where he could entertain visitors in extravagant and elegant style. He wanted a home that would be admired by all, seen by river boaters on the Mississippi River or riders on a horse drawn carriage traveling on Great River Road. When you visit Nottoway Plantation today, costumed plantation tour guides take you through the mansion, sharing details of the property’s construction and history. Over the years, Nottoway Plantation went through several different owners and years of decline, but managed to survive the Civil War. This is a testament to the loving care that the mansion has received by those who are determined to keep its history alive.
Pebble Hill Plantation
The original owner of Pebble Hill Plantation in Georgia was Melville Hanna, who acquired the property in 1896. In 1901, he gave the property to his daughter, Kate. She immediately began construction on Pebble Hill, hiring architect Abram Garfield, and was actively involved in the design process. The first building was a log cabin that served as both a school and a playroom for her children. Several of the buildings were neo-classical brick structures that include the Plantation Store, the Pump House, the Waldorf and the Stables Complex.
Kate was a humanitarian who provided many benefits to the employees who worked on the plantation. Over 40 families of employees lived in furnished cottages, the Visiting Nurse Association provided medical services for employees and their families, and two schools were built and maintained for employees’ children in grades 1-7.
After Kate’s death in 1936, her daughter Elisabeth “Pansy” inherited the plantation. She wanted it to become a museum, and in 1956 formed the Pebble Hill Foundation to make the property open to the public. After her death in 1978, the plantation became property of the Pebble Hill Foundation, which maintains and manages the estate today.
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
Located about 10 miles east of downtown Nashville, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage offers self-guided audio tours and interpreter led tours of the former president’s estate. General admission plantation tours cover over 1,000 acres of farmland that used to be The Hermitage Plantation. The Hermitage was a self-sustaining property that relied on slave labor to produce cotton. President Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel lived there for several years in the late 1700s. The Jackson family survived on profits made from the crops that the slaves worked every day. When he first bought The Hermitage in 1804, he owned nine African American slaves. At the time of his death in 1845, he owned about 150 slaves who lived and worked on the property.
Although slaves could not legally marry, Jackson encouraged his to form family units. This was a way to discourage slaves from trying to escape, since it would be more difficult for an entire family to safely flee.
Take a plantation tour of the Hermitage to walk through the mansion, the exhibit gallery and the grounds, where both President Jackson and his wife are laid to rest. Costumed tour guides will share the detailed history of the Jackson family, the plantation and the buildings and original belongings that remain on the property.
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens
Back in 1676, Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann established the Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River in South Carolina . The couple were the first in a line of Magnolia family ownership that has lasted for more than 300 years. During the Colonial era, the plantation saw immense growth due to the cultivation of rice. Once the American Revolution began, troops occupied the land and Drayton, along with his sons, became soldiers fighting the British. In 1825, Thomas Drayton’s great grandson willed the estate to his daughter’s sons, since he had no male heirs to leave the property to. One of the sons died of a gunshot wound, leaving the second brother a wealthy plantation owner at the age of 22. The American Civil War threatened the welfare of the Drayton family, the house and the gardens on the plantation. But the plantation recovered and saw additional growth of the gardens, which became the focus. The property was saved from ruin when it opened to the public in 1870. The plantation offers half-hour long guided tours taking visitors through the Drayton family home – the third in more than three centuries – and gives a glimpse of what plantation life was like in the 19th century onward. There are 10 rooms open to the public, furnished with antiques, quilts and Drayton family heirlooms. More than five years ago, Magnolia’s Cabin Project started as an effort to preserve five structures on the property that date back to 1850. The structures are former slave dwellings that are now the focal point for a 45-minute program in African American history .
The Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana was established in 1787. It is located 25 miles from downtown New Orleans. It was the home of successful sugar producers Marie Celeste Robin de Logny and her husband, Jean Noel Destrehan. By 1804, 59 enslaved workers inhabited the property, producing over 203,ooo pounds of sugar. The Destrehan Plantation was the site where one of the three trials following the 1811 Slave Revolt took place. It was led by Charles Deslondes, and was one of the largest slave revolts in U.S. history.
Visitors can tour the restored plantation, which is surrounded by lush greenery and looks over the Mississippi River. Stories of the Destrehan family and those who were enslaved are shared through guided tours, which also feature historic exhibits and the opportunity to participate in period demonstrations. Plantation tours also include access to the Jefferson Room, which displays an authentic document signed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
San Francisco Plantation House
Considered the most opulent plantation house in North America, the San Francisco Plantation House is located on the east bank of the Mississippi River, about 40 minutes outside of New Orleans. In the early 1800s, Elisee Rillieux sold the land that later became the San Francisco Plantation House to Edmond Bozonier Marmillion and Eugene Lartigue, profiting $50,000. Edmond was in debt, despite being a successful crops planter. His financial problems stayed with him for the 26 years he owned the property. He continued to acquire slaves and purchase land, but didn’t make investments in sugar machinery.
The plantation was prosperous for a while in the mid-1800s, but in 1853, Edmond hired expert builders and skilled slaves to convert the plantation into a prestigious residence for his sons. Valsin and Charles were the only two of Edmond’s and his wife Antoinette’s eight children who didn’t die from tuberculosis, the same disease that killed Antoinette in 1834. The main construction on the house was completed two years later and Edmond then hired artists to create hand painted ceilings, painted door panels, faux marbling and faux wood graining throughout the home.
When Edmond passed away in 1856, his son Valsin took over the plantation. In 1859, he tried to sell the estate, but wasn’t able to due to a legal conflict involving his sister-in-law, Zoe Luminais. When the conflict was resolved in 1861, war and reconstruction prevented the possibility of sale for 15 years. Valsin died in 1871, and in 1879, Achille D. Bougere purchased the property for $50,000.
Guided plantation tours are conducted by professional costumed guides who take visitors through the colorful plantation, exploring a slave cabin, a one room school house, and the property, which was restored in both 1970 and 2014. Blacksmithing and demonstrations also take place on the property, where you’ll find a gift store as well.
James Madison’s Montpelier
Ambrose Madison, a planter and slaveholder in Virginia, along with his wife Frances and their three children, arrived in 1732 to a plantation they called Mount Pleasant. One of Ambrose’s grandchildren, James, spent his early childhood at Mount Pleasant while construction began on a brick Georgian house that would later become the center of James Madison’s Montpelier .
It was on this very land that James Madison contemplated ideas and shaped the United States as the country’s fourth president. With 2,650 acres of horse pastures, rolling hills and scenic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, James Madison’s Montpelier offers insight into the Madison family history, and provides a deeper look into James Madison’s presidency . Just behind Mount Pleasant is the Madison Family Cemetery, where both James and Dolley Madison are buried.
Exhibits on the property include the 1910 Train Depot, which explores the African American struggle for civil rights . It opened in 2010 and is a permanent exhibit on the plantation. There’s also The Mere Distinction of Colour, which allows visitors to hear the stories of those who were enslaved at Montpelier, as told by their descendants. It recounts the events that took place at the Madison’s home, as well as the South Yard of the property, where the slaves lived and worked. The exhibition also explores how the legacy of slavery impacts race relations and human rights in modern America.
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Plantations aren't the only destinations tied to slavery: What to know before visiting
Throughout the South, people can visit plantations and other destinations tied to slavery, but the connections aren’t always clear. They can be in surprising places and look nothing like expected.
“The most important thing for people to remember in much of the eastern seaboard of the United States and in much of the South is that enslaved people – literal captives forced to work under coercion, violence, and torture – contributed to the construction and functioning of more spaces than we regularly discuss,” Laura Rosanne Adderly, an associate professor of History at Tulane University, told USA TODAY. Her specialties include the history of the African diaspora and Black enslavement. “Enslaved people and the fruit of their suffering, the fruit of their literally stolen labor are all over the landscape in the United States and the rest of the Americas.”
Here’s what people visiting these spaces should know.
Plantations as destinations
Sprawling Southern plantations have long attracted visitors with their stately mansions and carefully manicured gardens.
“When you're going through those massive houses and looking at the opulence, just think about what it meant for that to exist at that point in time,” urged Minkah Makalani, director of the Center for Africana Studies and associate professor of History at Johns Hopkins University.
“These were actual sites of enslavement and all the evil and violence that came with it,” he said.
But not every plantation tour centers those experiences. Some former plantations also lean into their lush ambiance, doubling as bed and breakfasts and event venues.
In 2020, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds apologized for holding their 2012 wedding at a former plantation in South Carolina. The couple also donated $200,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and pledged to educate themselves after being “uninformed about how deeply rooted systemic racism is.”
“That soil is literally soaked in the blood of men, women, children,” Makalani said of plantations. “These places should be seen and held in the same regard as we would hold other sites of massive atrocities and human rights violations,” like Nazi concentration camps or Japanese American incarceration camps from WWII.
'Get out there': This mom is using a never-ending road trip to inspire Black family travel
Of course, slavery wasn’t limited to plantations.
“I think there are loose ideas that Black enslavement was 'mostly' confined to agricultural plantations in certain parts of the deep South, or that enslaved people were either at their place of captive work or inhabiting some designated residence as a 'slave cabin' or 'slave quarters.'” Adderly said.
“Some people have no idea that the building that they went to yesterday was a former slave dwelling,” said Joseph McGill, a history consultant for Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina and founder and executive director of the Slave Dwelling Project .
He’s spent more than a dozen years visiting and spending the night in places where enslaved people lived, to draw attention to their continued existence in and out of plain sight.
“If you go to any historic city, you're going to find a lot of slave dwellings being used as a lot of different things,” he said. ”I’ve come across some that have been used as man caves, she sheds , offices, pool houses. I think the worst I’ve come across is they used it as a restroom.” He wasn’t at all surprised by some being offered as Airbnbs , before the company disallowed the practice last summer.
McGill said early on he was adamant that these spaces be preserved solely for historic interpretation, but an experience with a Missouri homeowner changed his perspective.
“In our effort to bring her into our camp … she got so frustrated with us in the process that she tore it down,” he recalled. “So now it’s gone. It can’t be used for anything.”
While he still doesn’t agree with every use of the former dwellings, he said: "These are private properties, and we should allow these owners to do with these buildings as they wish. Now what I ask is the people who inhabited these places, their stories are told. But I think we can better tell those stories if the buildings exist."
Honoring the ancestors
One place that both preserves that history and centers the voices of people who were enslaved is Colonial Williamsburg , which is offering free admission to its historic area on Juneteenth and a number of educational programs all year round.
“Our motto is that the future may learn from the past, and in order for the future to learn from the past, you have to represent the entire past,” said Stephen Seals, manager of Curated Programming for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He noted that 52% of the city’s colonial population was Black and enslaved.
Seals portrays one such historic figure, James Armistead Lafayette , whose service to the Continental Army, while enslaved, helped ensure victory at the critical Battle of Yorktown during the Revolutionary War. At first, interpreting him was tough.
“I cried because I was like, oh my God, there's so much suffering that we still deal with today that I'm having to portray here, and I'm not OK,” Seals said. But a colleague told him something that still fuels him today.
"She said, 'Hold your head up high,'" he recalled. "She said, 'For so long, these people who we are portraying were not allowed to have a voice within society, and we are giving them a voice. We are honoring the ancestors by making sure that now people see them and see them as human beings. We are humanizing the dehumanized.' She said, 'that's an honor, and that's something that you should be very proud of,' and she was right. And I took that to heart."
Among the questions visitors ask him, as Lafayette, is if it was better to be enslaved in the city than on a nearby plantation.
“It's not any better. It's just different,” Seals explained. “Because if you're in the house, you are serving the people that own you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you're working in the fields, yeah, you're working from sunup until sundown, but you usually have Sunday off.”
“It also means that you're living in proximity to the enslavers, to the people that own you, which means that it's much harder for you to be yourself,” he added. ”You're constantly being watched, and you're constantly having to check how you are and what you're doing because there's not really a way for you to get away from the people who own you.”
Seals said he’s had a wide range of reactions from visitors over the years. Some have gotten angry. Some have cried. He said others just didn’t know what to do after learning things weren’t as they had thought.
“As an interpreter, it's not my job to tell someone what to do, but it is my job to help give them the context to figure it out on their own or to help them have that conversation to figure it out,” he said. “That's hard to do. But, oh, is it rewarding when it works.”
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Plantations are a dark chapter in American history—here’s why to visit
Louisiana's Whitney Plantation pays homage to the experiences of slaves across the South.
The moment I see her name, I feel a lump in my throat.
“Pauline Johnson” is written on the back of the small card hanging from a lanyard around my neck. It tells me she was a 12-year-old child who had watched her father die in Louisiana just before slavery was abolished in the United States.
Everyone who visits the Whitney Plantation , located on the west bank of the Mississippi less than an hour’s drive from New Orleans on Louisiana’s historic River Road , receives a similar card. Each bears the story of a different slave, derived from interviews with more than 2,300 former slaves conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s.
I am standing next to my own 12-year-old the moment I read Pauline’s story and can’t imagine him having to grow up knowing he was someone else’s property.
The inability to imagine is part of the luxury of this tour.
Visitors have the opportunity—the privilege—of learning about the complex and often grueling history of slavery in the United States from a distance of more than 150 years. The 13th Amendment to the nation’s constitution, which outlawed the practice unequivocally, was ratified in December 1865.
Despite the fact that the Whitney Plantation, a sugar-cane plantation formerly home to more than 350 African slaves, is immaculately groomed, the raw emotion of the place is undeniable.
Travel across sections of the American South and you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid running across one of the large antebellum plantations—some as populous as modern-day suburban housing developments—that once dominated the countryside.
Plantation tours are almost equally ubiquitous. At most properties, the visitor experience includes a guided exploration of the plantation home and grounds led by a living historian clad in period garb.
It typically goes a bit like this: Tour the big house with a docent portraying a privileged occupant, then follow one meant to be a black slave or cook through the fields and kitchens.
A retired (white) trial lawyer named John Cummings took it upon himself to tell the plantation story in a different way.
In 2014, at the age of 77, the New Orleans native opened the doors on a project 15 years in the making. The Whitney Plantation Museum is one of the only historic sites in the country focused solely on the slave experience.
From the outset, our guide Courtney makes it clear to the group, which includes a mixed bag of ages and races, that the goal here is to inform and educate, not to shame or romanticize. Notably, she isn’t wearing a costume.
Contrary to precedent, the tour doesn’t commence in the massive plantation home, where the land (and slave-) owners would have lived. This experience is not about them, Courtney tells us.
Instead we start in the tiny freed-slave-built Antioch Baptist Church , a cool spot to escape the searing heat of a Louisiana summer’s day, to be sure, but also the kind of place where slaves would have found sanctuary and a few moments of rest and peace.
The church isn’t original to the property; it was donated to the plantation in 2001 by a congregation in Paulina, a community located just a few miles away on the opposite side of the Mississippi River.
This kind of deliberate borrowing is part and parcel of the Whitney Plantation Museum experiment, which seeks to provide a unique perspective on the working plantation as it evolved over time in Louisiana in addition to paying homage to the experiences of slaves across the American South.
Many of the outbuildings that now sit on the living history museum’s grounds, including most of the slave cabins—small shacks that would have been shared by up to a dozen workers—have been imported from nearby plantations to help tell that story.
Though some acquisitions have been donated, Cummings has personally invested millions here. Art he has commissioned includes 40 life-size casts of slave children that stand and sit in and among the pews of the church, and a massive bronze angel erected in the garden to memorialize the 2,200 children who died on the plantation and across St. John the Baptist Parish before slavery was abolished in the United States.
A young man comforts his friend after taking a tour at the new African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C., during the opening weekend of the museum.
As we walk through the fields where slaves once collected sugar cane, we come upon Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, an open-air monument honoring the 107,000 people who were held in bondage in Louisiana.
The group is left to read plaque after plaque in silence before Courtney shares more information.
We learn about Louisiana’s Code Noir , a list of state-proposed recommendations—regarding housing, clothing, food, and more—put forth in order to make the slave trade more “humane.” The terms of the code suggest slaves should be given a day off each week (it rarely happened, we are told), guaranteed food (insufficient weekly rations drove many slaves to hunt squirrel, possum, and alligator), and treated with care (abuse was rampant), exposing the shocking gap between prescribed behavior and reality.
We see the tiny outdoor kitchen (the oldest in Louisiana) where the enslaved cook would have prepared meals for the master’s family and the “hot box”—a rusting metal chamber barely wide enough to stand in with arms outstretched where slaves awaiting sale at auction or those being punished would be left to suffer in the hot sun. On the interior walls, Courtney points out small cutouts meant to hold a slave’s chains. Nearby, a list of slaves and the prices for which their lives were bought and sold is posted.
And on it goes.
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By the time we get to the 14-room plantation house, it seems to have grown in size. Courtney shows us the fine china, elaborate drawing rooms, and frescoed ceiling without emotion. Still, I feel my stomach turn. The view of the cabins in the distance only makes it worse.
In addition to the escorted tour, the plantation offers a small self-guided area where visitors can learn about the history of slavery on an international scale, offering vital perspective on an industry that once fueled much of the world’s economy.
It is there that we learn most slaves came from West Central Africa, that Portugal and Brazil were among the largest slave traders, and that 2,500,000 slaves eventually were brought to North America. We are also introduced to the pope, Nicholas V , who authorized the King of Portugal to “capture and subjugate” people who weren’t Christians for the purpose of forced labor “in perpetuity,” a harsh reminder of how morally upright the practice was felt to be.
Courtney is careful with specifics of brutality owing to the children on the tour. My own two boys remain interested but detached as we make our way around the property. They take in the information presented, sometimes offering their thoughts (“That’s not right.”), and move along. But the tour dominates our conversation as we drive away from the plantation, grateful for the chance to talk about the experience in private.
Much like a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau , there is no joy in visiting the Whitney Plantation, or in learning about the atrocities that happened there and on similar properties throughout the South. You won’t leave feeling better about humanity, especially in light of recent racial tensions across the United States. But you will leave informed … and affected.
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Plantation homes of the Deep South
- The Deep South
By USA Specialist Carla
Almost everywhere you go in the Deep South, history calls. You hear it in the jazz, blues and soul music that drifts from bars — genres that began in the fields of the sugar plantations. You smell and taste it in the Creole food, which blends the many cultures that settled here. And you see it in the architecture, from antebellum mansions to New Orleans’s French Quarter.
I find it’s impossible to appreciate the modern day here without looking back to the region’s roots. One of the surest ways of doing this is by visiting a plantation. While many that are open to the public brush over their role in the slave trade, others face the past head on. Visiting gives you a rounded view of the region and a renewed understanding of its character today.
How to fit plantation visits into a wider trip
It’s easy to plan a plantation visit (or several) as part of a wider self-drive trip through the Deep South . I recommend driving north to south so you can visit Memphis ’s National Civil Rights Museum first, which helps to set the scene. Most plantations are clustered along a stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. You could stop at one or two of them en route to New Orleans , or visit on a day trip from the city. Another option is to stay overnight at one, which gives you a chance to explore Plantation Country in more depth.
Alternatively, you could visit plantations on a self-drive trip through South Carolina that focuses on the state’s history.
Which plantations to visit in the Deep South: our recommendations
Whitney plantation, visit for: an in-depth look at slavery.
Established in 1752, Whitney Plantation is by far the best plantation in the region for confronting its history of slavery. Its museum focuses solely on the lives of the 350 enslaved people who were forced to live and work on its land for more than a century.
I find the level of research and curation the current owners have undertaken staggering: you’ll find exhibits detailing first-hand accounts from enslaved people, photographs and original items from the time, and poignant memorials.
You can visit the property’s two self-guided exhibits, one of which changes regularly while the other focuses on slavery across Louisiana. I also recommend joining an hour-and-a-half tour led by one of the plantation’s guides, who each have in-depth knowledge of its history.
As well as showing you the main house (which is traditionally known as the ‘Big House’), built in 1790, your guide will lead you to the original enslaved peoples' cabins and historic outbuildings, including a freedmen’s church where you can learn about enslaved peoples’ spirituality. You’ll also find out more about the slave revolt that occurred in the region in 1811, marked by a memorial featuring sculpted heads impaled on pikes.
While things like this were disturbing to see, I also found it refreshing that the plantation had gone to great lengths to show the reality that enslaved people faced — something many others try to hide.
Visit for: an insight into the lives of plantation owners.
Originally owned by a French-Creole family, the Duparcs, Laura Plantation was established in 1804 and is still set among sugar-cane fields today. Its Big House has a distinctive Creole style, painted in shades of red, green, ochre and grey, with a balcony running along its entire width.
I found the tour guides here exceptional, bringing the stories of the people who lived here to life in their Southern drawl. While there’s a detailed exhibit about slavery on the plantation, complete with photographs, personal biographies and documents related to those enslaved here, the tour mainly focuses on the Duparc family.
The diary of Laura Duparc-Locoul, who was born in 1861 and raised on the plantation, was discovered some years after her death. It paints a vivid picture of plantation life, and it’s around this that the tour is based. Her memoirs detail everything from everyday occurrences to family feuds and affairs with enslaved people.
Taking the 80-minute tour is almost like seeing the plantation through Laura’s eyes. You’ll explore the restored rooms of the Big House, walk through three of its gardens and see some of the historic outhouses within the grounds. Your guide will also show you inside one of the slave cabins, built in the 1840s, where the contrast between rich and poor is most striking.
Oak Alley Plantation
Visit for: beautiful grounds and a one-off stay.
Used as a filming location for several movies and TV shows, Oak Alley is the most familiar of the South’s plantations. Its grand antebellum mansion is framed by an avenue of oak trees, which curve inwards to form a tunnel leading to the house’s dazzling white columns and shuttered windows.
While admittedly the tour here isn’t the best, with guides sometimes downplaying the role of slavery, it does give you the opportunity to look around one of the area’s most attractive mansions for an insight into the lives of the wealthy.
For me, the highlight of visiting Oak Alley is exploring its extensive grounds. You can stroll through its 1920s formal garden and find a peaceful spot to yourself among its wide green pastures dotted with oaks.
Make the most of the grounds by staying overnight in one of the plantation’s cottages. Some have stood for more than a century, others are more modern, but all provide a comfortable and unusual base for the night. And, you’ll have access to the property’s grounds after other visitors have left.
While Oak Alley’s restaurant is open for breakfast, come evening there’ll be no staff, though you can arrange for a light dinner to be left in your cottage ready for your arrival (or stop by one of the restaurants en route to the plantation).
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Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.
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Oak Alley Plantation
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A powerful testimony to the rich history of the antebellum south, Oak Alley invites visitors to explore all facets of her plantation past. The Slavery at Oak Alley exhibit, Civil War exhibit, Sugarcane Theater and Big House offer an experience as compelling as the plantation’s 25 historic acres and 300 year old allee of oaks.
Other plantations in our area:
Laura Plantation A sugarcane plantation built in 1805, 12 standing buildings on the National Register.
Houmas House Plantation An 1840 Greek Revival mansion, surrounded by colorful and romantic gardens.
San Francisco Plantation A galleried house in the Creole open suite-style, old Live Oaks and fine antiques.
St. Joseph Plantation A Louisiana Sugar Cane Plantation. Take a walk through time as you enjoy a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the many interesting people who have called this plantation "Home."
Nottoway Plantation Greek Revival architecture, completed in 1859, stands overlooking the Mississippi River.
Evergreen Plantation Evergreen is the most intact plantation complex in the South with 37 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including 22 slave cabins.
Destrehan Plantation The oldest documented plantation home in the lower Mississippi Valley.
Bocage Plantation Steeped in history with ties to Christopher Columbus, early colonization, and the Louisiana Purchase.
- Whitney Plantation Through museum exhibits, memorial artwork, restored buildings and hundreds of first-person slave narratives, visitors to will gain a unique perspective on the lives of Louisiana's enslaved people.
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
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Slavery at Monticello Tour
Open Today – 10:00am - 4:30pm
These guided outdoor walking tours focus on the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and labored on the Monticello plantation. Included in the price of admission.
Reservations for this tour are not required. Tours begin on Mulberry Row near the Hemmings Cabin (view a map of Monticello for visitors ).
Explore Before You Visit
Download our free Slavery at Monticello app
Thomas Jefferson and Slavery
People Enslaved at Monticello
Videos related to slavery at monticello.
"Picturing Mulberry Row" - a look at slavery at Monticello through this critical component of the greater plantation
"Some visitors think we're trying to knock Jefferson off his pedestal" - A Guide's Perspective
The 1827 Monticello Dispersal Sale
"A Fight in Monticello's Nailery"
"Wormly Hughes - Master of Many Trades"
"An Enslaved Mother Leaves Monticello"
"Mary Hemings Bell, an enslaved 'common-law wife'"
"Overseers and Violence"
"Ursula Granger, an Enslaved Cook Prepares Food on the Hearth"
"James Hemings, an Enslaved Chef Creating French Cuisine"
"The Life of Nance Hemings" - a Monticello Weaver
ADDRESS: 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway Charlottesville, VA 22902 GENERAL INFORMATION: (434) 984-9800
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Guided Tours: Tuesday - Friday at 1 pm; Saturday at 11, 1, and 3. Please call ahead to confirm guided tour availability! Self-guided tours of the grounds and an audio tour are available all day.
Historic Stagville preserves part of the Bennehan-Cameron plantations, one of the largest sites of slavery in North Carolina. From 1776 to 1865, the Bennehan and Cameron plantations spread across 30,000 acres of land. An 1804 marriage united the Bennehan and Cameron families, and they jointly invested in slavery at Stagville. Here, enslaved people built a sprawling plantation complex of farms, workshops, mansions, and mills. Year after year, enslaved families suffered separation, violence, hard labor, and disease. Amid the horrors of slavery, they continually resisted, claiming some measure of freedom through sabotage, direct action, cultural traditions, and freedom seeking. In 1864, over 1,000 people were enslaved on the Cameron plantations.
Today, Historic Stagville is a 165-acre State Historic Site, entirely dedicating to teaching about the lives, culture, and labors of enslaved African Americans. Through careful research, Stagville documents the history of enslaved people, and their descendants, across the Bennehan and Cameron plantations.
During your visit, you can tour original slave dwellings (1850s), a massive barn (1860), a Bennehan family house (1799), and outdoor archeological sites. Stagville's land and buildings reveal powerful stories of slavery and freedom at Stagville. As you visit the site, we invite you to remember the enslaved and emancipated people who shaped Stagville, and North Carolina.
Hours and Location
2022 Guided Tours: Tuesday - Friday at 1 pm; Saturday at 11, 1, and 3. Please call ahead to confirm guided tour times.
Please call in advance for field trips or private group tours.
Admission to the site is free.
Guided tours are $2 per person, $1 for seniors or children ages 5 to 12.
Guided tours are available Tuesday through Saturday-- please call for the current tour schedule! Each tour lasts 75 minutes. The site grounds are open from 9 to 5, Tuesday through Saturday. Self-guided tours are available during these hours. Please note that visitors are not allowed inside the buildings on self-guided tours.
Stagville welcomes anyone with disabilities. For questions about accessibility or accommodations, please contact Khadija McNair at 919-620-0120 or email [email protected] .