Tag Archives: plantations

Interpreting Christmas and Slavery

Let me apologize for the silence. However, I’m back to what I affectionately call “my poor, neglected blog” for a seasonal post.

This week an article appeared about a Christmas program at Gunston Hall, the plantation owned by George Mason (an often forgotten Founding Father) located in Fairfax County, Virginia. The program they had was titled “Plantation Christmas” which is a program about Christmas in the late 1700s. The author notes that various folks on Twitter were critical of the event through the site’s marketing and through a photograph that appeared on Twitter from David DuVal, director of marketing and public relations.

The site’s executive director responded to Mother Jones and you can read the article for yourself. What I’m less interested in is talking specifically about Gunston Hall and talking broadly about interpretive output at Christmas events at historic sites.

I am known around some in the museum community as the guy who hates “cider and cookies programs.” They exist at 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century sites from Maine to Florida and from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to California. I actually like cider and I like cookies. However, what is the purpose of these programs? What window do they offer people into the specifics of the historic site or the historic context of the people who lived/worked at this place?

I took this subject on in my work (which y’all know I attempt to steer clear of discussing on my personal blog but I think in this case it is valuable).  We had a program at the Grant’s Headquarters at City Point unit of Petersburg National Battlefield years ago that featured cider and cookies, Christmas carols, dancing on the lawn, Civil War Santa, and kids’ crafts (such as construction paper chains and stringing popcorn and cranberries). In December 2001 (my first year working this program), I decided to insert a lecture about the lives of enslaved people during the Christmas season somewhat broadly but also bringing out information about the folks who lived and worked on the Eppes family’s plantation. I gave the program twice to a group of about 30 people each time.

The next year I suggested canceling the Christmas program to give us time to dig deeper into Richard Eppes’ diary to investigate the specifics of Christmas in the 1850s and 1860s on this plantation. We did not have a program again until 2007. I organized a group of living historians to assist me in representing specific people who were at the Eppes’ plantation (white and black) at Christmas 1858. A loose script was developed and I e-mailed the details of individual enslaved persons, the Eppes family, and their visitors. There were three stations (one in the big house parlor, one in the kitchen/laundry, and one outside on the lawn). This allowed people to hear about the lives of these people and their perspectives during this specific time of year (when a lot of us reflect back on our lives’ broadly, the past year, family, religion, and discuss preparations and gifts).

Gone now was Civil War Santa (it’s the 1850s after all), a Christmas tree (the historic record noted the first Christmas tree in the house in 1866), no more stringing popcorn and cranberries, no dancing (no evidence the Eppes’ did this outside or inside the house), and instead the interpretation happened of this specific site in the context of the 1850s and based in primary source evidence.

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Christmas 1858 (in 2007) with living historians portraying Elizabeth Eppes, Susan Slaughter, and myself as George Bolling.

The program ran the next year and then in 2009 we started following the 150th anniversary of events (2009 was Christmas 1859, 2010 was Christmas 1860, 2011 was Christmas 1861). Each one wrapped in the evidence from Eppes’ diary and other contextual materials where the diary was lacking. There has not been an event 2012-2015 because the Eppes’ plantation complex rapidly disintegrated as a result of the Eppes family’s refugee status during the war and the enslaved people’s desires to be free and their own action of escaping in the spring and summer of 1862 and Union occupation from May 1864 through the end of the war.
A challenging component to any of these programs is shifting the focus back onto the people who lived these experiences: good, bad, and the ugly. For example, Christmas 1858 was a happy period for the person I was portraying, George Bolling who got married having successfully convinced Richard Eppes to allow him to marry someone who wasn’t on the plantation (which Eppes usually did not allow). However, that in and of itself opened the door for the interpreter to discuss with the visitors on these tours the degradation of adults who were enslaved. Black adults asking one man who has decreed in his mind that he should get to say on who others can marry.  George and his wife undoubtedly had concerns within that happiness about the stability of family when a slaveholder might breakup the union. Yet the preparations for the wedding spoke to the power of love to endure great strains.
Plantation sites have a lot of unresolved stories because the people who experienced slavery died long ago with many of those same people not feeling at peace. Our job in being able to connect our sites with the public should strive to not continue perpetuating slights to those whose stories have often been hidden in the shadows.

I agree with the comment of the Twitter user @slwill who asks if the story of the enslaved and the slaveholder are combined. I cannot speak to the program at Gunston Hall (though the site director says that they are committed to finding out more about Mason, the idea of slavery, and the specifics about the enslaved people at Gunston Hall); but, this should be a question always asked by interpreters at sites with connections to slavery. How can we (who work in these sites) help open up conversations with our visitors about the multiple perspectives that slaveholders, overseers, visitors, and the enslaved viewed the “big house,” the associated outbuildings, and the stuff within those buildings? We have to start with being honest about who built and maintained these structures, who cleaned silver and laid it out on dining tables, and the feelings that the enslaved person may have gotten from a pretty piece of art versus that of the slaveholder.
Tours guides and printed literature must carefully have the tone that shows they are serious about being inclusive of the variety of experiences people had on the plantations, in city houses, and at industrial sites. The tours must be grounded in the hard, but rewarding work, of primary source research. The research should be multi-disciplinary combining archival work, historical architectural and historical landscape design, archaeology, and material culture (or in other words–the stuff people owned whether it survives or not). The stories discussed with visitors that come about from this work must also be honest (slave trading, whippings, threats, resistance, etc.), and they must be human (all the people on the plantation have humanity–even negative human traits). Tell the stories of love/heartache, hate, ideas, courage, success/failures, faith, intelligence, beauty, fear, generosity, and creativity. The brilliance of what is often seen in these places of slavery (furnishings and buildings) could only have been sustained through the variety of enslaved persons who built and maintained buildings, planted/tended/harvested crops, dusted furniture, washed dishes, made nails, pried open oysters and turned them into soups and sauces, and washed clothes. These stories must exist alongside the stories of the slaveholders, because that was the lived experience of slavery.

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The Tension Within

Some readers of this blog may have seen the recent outrage and subsequent cancellation of Ani DiFranco’s “Righteous Retreat” where songwriters, poets, and performance artists were to relax and find creativity at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.

First, let me say that I have never been to Nottoway Plantation (or anywhere else in Louisiana); but reports from Eichstedt and Small’s Representations of Slavery and some friends of mine who went last year makes me wonder about how they are coming to terms with the issue of enslavement and the struggle for power and citizenship that went on at the plantation during and after slavery.

That being said, I commend my friend, Nicholas Redding, executive director at Long Branch Plantation who has extended an invitation to Ms. DiFranco. Why should there not be a retreat of poets, songwriters, and performance artists at a plantation site? The opponents cite “genocide of black people” that took place at the plantation as their major reason for opposing the event.

Plantation sites are among many sites that have complex, complicated histories that are not always uplifting. Nor are they always sad. Readers of this blog know that I am opposed to moonlight and magnolia depictions of plantation sites. Violence and resistance are powerful themes within these sites that too often has been ignored in favor of presenting kind and gracious property owners where the labor of virtually everything occurred as if my magic (or what friends  of mine know I call the “Beauty and the Beast” syndrome ). These sites, however, did not routinely feature genocide ( which is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group; see  T. Marcus Funk, Victims’ Rights and Advocacy at the International Criminal Court. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 1).

The process of  the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and 17th and 18th century slave adaptation to the Americas and Europe generated social and religious alterations of various ethnic and/or tribal traditions within the slave communities and millions of people perished. However, the goal was to maintain a labor system to benefit a minority of European land and people owners. By the 1800s, with the African slave trade legally stopped (though illegal trading continued) in the United States and with natural increase of American born and bred enslaved people much of the social and cultural trends had already cemented and few people had any real knowledge of Africa as a continent (not to mention the variables of people, climates, flora, and fauna of that vast continent). These American born slaves considered themselves American and thus entitled to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the Constitution. So the enslaved community at Nottoway (and the thousands of other slaveholding properties) experienced periods of pain (physical and emotional), suffering, and desires for freedom; but, the Randolphs (and their contemporary slaveholders) did not systematically destroy Africans and Americans of African descent through mass extermination.

I believe as I have said here before, those of us entrusted as stewards of the plantations and the stories associated with these sites, have to create methods for understanding the histories (I am purposefully use of the plural because not everyone had the exact same experiences) of these sites while working with visitors to create meaning making and complicate modern understanding of historical people. If we do our jobs and people are paying attention, we may consider ways to see inequality in the present and make our own world better.

What the outrage does illustrate is that everyone needs to realize that this nation was created and maintained with biases for gender and race. We do not live in a utopian American culture. Thus there is no “post-racial” because of a dual election of Barack Obama. There is no “post-gender” because of Hillary Clinton, Ruth Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, or Elena Kagan.

But back to the basics of this retreat and why I think poets, songwriters, and performance artists can go to plantations and honor the histories (as messy as they are) of these sites. The plantation owners battled for what they considered their rights. Extreme violence in the form of war developed to sustain slavery. Enslaved people, including women, battled for their rights in obviously different ways but still on the same turf.

Enslaved people sang songs to strengthen one another and to encourage resistance. They played drums and danced to celebrate. They told stories to make fun of slaveholders. They crafted mourning rituals to honor the dead. Some remained Islamic. Some Africans were already Christian when they arrived in the New World or Europe. Some hung on to elements of different African groups’ traditions and melded them with Christianity. 

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So I close with a performance artist who survived slavery, who was a feminist, who was brave, and who challenged what people thought she ought to do. Her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” has different versions but this is the earliest transcription from June 21, 1851. The artist’s name was Sojourner Truth:

I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

Sojourner Truth

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