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Giving Tourists a Truer Look at Plantation Life


On June 19th, 1865, 140 years ago today, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas. They carried the news that the Civil War had ended, and that the slaves were now free. Observances of the occasion have grown, particularly in recent years, and now, June 19th, is commemorated as Juneteenth, a day marking freedom for slaves in America. Celebrations today are planned even on Southern plantations, places where, until recently, tourists might be regaled with romantic stories of genteel white landowners, but as NPR's Adam Hochberg discovered in Charleston, South Carolina, that's changing.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

For most tourists at Middleton Place, a historic rice plantation, the main attraction lies on a hill along the Ashley River. That's where people can walk through the 18th-century Middleton House and admire the fine furniture and artwork the family owned.

(Soundbite of frogs)

HOCHBERG: Fewer visitors notice a smaller building nearby, a simple wooden cabin, where tour guides talk about something else the Middletons owned.

BILL: What we're going to do is we're going to focus on the black man's experience on the plantation. My name is Bill and...

HOCHBERG: These lectures accompany the plantation's newest exhibit, designed to tell the story of the Africans who lived here. The cabin contains a re-creation of their cramped quarters and a wall that lists the names of 2,600 slaves the Middleton owned. Twice a day, interpreters tell visitors about the less genteel side of plantation life.

BILL: Slaves and people were property, and you counted them in your dowry, you counted them in your estate as property. At this point, they were not seen as human anymore.

HOCHBERG: Middleton Place has been open as a tourist attraction since 1974, celebrating the legacy of an aristocratic family that included a signer of the Declaration of Independence. But only lately has the privately owned plantation begun to tell the story of slaves who once made up more than 90 percent of its population. Plantation vice president Tracey Todd says tourists of all races are showing newfound interest in the slave story.

Mr. TRACEY TODD (Plantation Vice President): Visitors now are so much more savvy than they used to be. They have access to the Internet and The History Channel and that sort of thing. So our visitors are learning about alternative history, you might say, and when they get to a site like this, they want to continue that experience.

HOCHBERG: That focus on African-American history is part of a trend among Southern plantations. Though some continue to ignore slavery or refer to slaves only as servants, a growing number now offer more honest depictions. Charleston business owner Allada Shenalt Small(ph) runs tours that cater to African-Americans, and has noticed the change in how plantations present black history.

Ms. ALLADA SHENALT SMALL: People are more comfortable today saying the word `slave' than I saw 20 years ago when I would literally see people flinch. You don't see as much of that today. A lot of people in the industry want to offer a full-circle interpretation, and for those who still struggle with that, at least they recognize that's what people want, and money talks.

(Soundbite of digging)

HOCHBERG: A few miles from Middleton Place, another Charleston plantation is undertaking an unusually ambitious project to teach visitors about slave life. At Drayton Hall, alongside one of the nation's oldest plantation houses, archaeologists are digging up the lawn, unearthing artifacts from slave buildings that once stood here. Education director Craig Hadley says the project will help Drayton Hall present a more realistic picture of the past.

Mr. CRAIG HADLEY (Education Director): A lot of historic sites in the South like to give you the impression that plantations were big, warm, welcome, friendly places, and they weren't. They were very elitist. The grounds were built on the backs of enslaved Africans and African-Americans. And trying to break that moonlight-and-magnolia mythology is kind of our goal here.

HOCHBERG: That new, less comfortable version of history draws mixed reactions from plantation visitors. Last week, tourist Ruby Martin watched the Drayton Hall archaeological work with her children. She hopes it teaches them about what she calls `the nasty part' of their African-American heritage.

Ms. RUBY MARTIN: I like history; good or bad, we need to know it. And I thought this would be nice to show the kids and I would think it would give them a greater appreciation of what we have now.

HOCHBERG: But the African-American story held less interest for plantation visitor Curtis Eller(ph), a retired Georgia prison guard. Eller stuck his head inside the slavery exhibit at Middleton Place after he toured the plantation house, but quickly turned and left. He said it seemed intended to make white people feel guilty about slavery.

Mr. CURTIS ELLER: And we had nothing to do with this. This all started from somebody else. And the African-Americans have the same opportunity now that we do here. They have the opportunity now to better themselves but they don't seem to want to.

HOCHBERG: Plantation managers concede the subject of slavery can spark strong emotions in visitors. That's why even as plantations have added African-American tours and exhibits, they're often kept separate from the main tours of the landowner's house, an indication of how divisive the South's plantation legacy remains 140 years after emancipation. Adam Hochberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.