‘The dam­age has been done’

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD -

BIRM­ING­HAM, Ala. — An­te­bel­lum South­ern plan­ta­tions were built on the backs of en­slaved peo­ple, and many of those plan­ta­tions hold places of honor on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places — but don’t look for many men­tions of slav­ery in the gov­ern­ment’s of­fi­cial record of places with his­toric sig­nif­i­cance.

The reg­is­ter’s writ­ten en­tries on the plan­ta­tions tend to say al­most noth­ing about the en­slaved peo­ple who picked the cot­ton and to­bacco or cut the sugar cane that paid for or­nate homes that to­day serve as wed­ding venues, be­dand-break­fast inns, tourist at­trac­tions and pri­vate homes — some of which tout their in­clu­sion on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter like a gold star.

The Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places lists more than 95,000 sites that are im­por­tant to the story of the United States.

From some of the most fa­mous places — such as Ge­orge Washington’s Mount Ver­non es­tate — to scores of lesser-known plan­ta­tion homes in the ru­ral South, reg­is­ter en­tries of­ten ig­nore the topic of slav­ery or men­tion it only in pass­ing, an As­so­ci­ated Press re­view found.

Ex­perts blame a gen­er­a­tional lack of concern for the sto­ries of black peo­ple and, in many cases, a short­age of records. While some nar­ra­tives have been up­dated to in­clude in­for­ma­tion about en­slave­ment, such changes aren’t manda­tory and many have not.

The Na­tional Reg­is­ter’s en­try for Mount Ver­non, ap­proved in 1977, doesn’t use the word “slave,” al­though more than 300 en­slaved black peo­ple worked the first pres­i­dent’s fields, cooked his food and cleaned the house where tourists now roam.

The en­try for Thomas Jef­fer­son’s moun­tain­top home, Mon­ti­cello, notes that the third pres­i­dent owned as many as 200 slaves. Yet it gen­er­ally avoids dis­cussing them or the de­tails of their own­er­ship by the author of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence.

The same is true for plan­ta­tion after plan­ta­tion across the for­mer Confederat­e states.

Those omis­sions likely con­trib­uted to the loss of slave hous­ing and other struc­tures linked to the econ­omy of en­slave­ment be­cause no one deemed them im­por­tant, preser­va­tion­ist Ash­ley Rogers said.

“The prob­lem is, the dam­age has been done,” said Rogers, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Whit­ney Plan­ta­tion Mu­seum near New Or­leans.

The Whit­ney, which doc­u­ments slav­ery at a pre-Civil War plan­ta­tion near New Or­leans, draws tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors an­nu­ally and is known for dis­cussing topics that other tourist plan­ta­tions ig­nore. Yet even its en­try in the Na­tional Reg­is­ter, com­pleted in 1992 be­fore the cur­rent owner pur­chased it, doesn’t men­tion the slaves who toiled there.

Sim­i­larly, vis­i­tors to Mount Ver­non or Mon­ti­cello in Vir­ginia can now hear sto­ries and see ex­hibits about slave life — but those fea­tures were added long after the land­marks be­came some of the first sites listed in the Na­tional Reg­is­ter.

The Na­tional Reg­is­ter’s in­com­plete sto­ries re­flect the way the public ig­nores the topic of en­slaved peo­ple, said Hasan Kwame Jef­fries, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Ohio State Univer­sity who spe­cial­izes in ar­eas in­clud­ing African Amer­i­can history.

“It’s telling us what we have been valu­ing as a so­ci­ety and how we un­der­stand slav­ery,” Jef­fries said.

Preser­va­tion act

Congress es­tab­lished the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places un­der a 1966 his­toric preser­va­tion act aimed at co­or­di­nat­ing preser­va­tion work and high­light­ing the na­tion’s most his­toric sites.

Along with brag­ging rights, a list­ing on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter can help prop­erty own­ers fi­nan­cially. More than $160 bil­lion has been in­vested in pre­serv­ing 44,000 his­toric places na­tion­wide un­der a tax credit pro­gram ap­proved in 1976, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, which over­sees the pro­gram.

Prop­erty own­ers, lo­cal groups and gov­ern­ment agen­cies nom­i­nate sites for in­clu­sion on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter, not­ing ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures, his­toric sig­nif­i­cance and other in­for­ma­tion. State preser­va­tion of­fices re­view the nom­i­na­tions and sub­mit them to the Park Ser­vice for a fi­nal de­ci­sion.

Those nom­i­na­tion forms, avail­able on gov­ern­ment web­sites, make up the bulk of in­for­ma­tion that’s pub­licly avail­able about places listed on the reg­is­ter, the Park Ser­vice said. And they of­ten ig­nore the en­slaved peo­ple who pro­vided the la­bor on an­te­bel­lum plan­ta­tions.

Mag­no­lia Grove, a state-owned an­te­bel­lum plan­ta­tion home dat­ing to 1835 in Greens­boro, Alabama, has a slave cabin that tourists can visit, plus dis­plays about en­slaved peo­ple, yet its 1972 en­try on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter doesn’t men­tion slaves.

The state-op­er­ated Kings­ley Plan­ta­tion near Jack­sonville, Florida, was home to slaves, yet its Na­tional Reg­is­ter en­try doesn’t say who they were or how they were forced to work in the South­ern heat. In­stead, it de­scribes tabby — a kind of con­crete made of oys­ter shells — and the “color­ful” slave trader Zepha­niah Kings­ley, who gets credit for hav­ing “care­fully trained” en­slaved peo­ple to farm his cot­ton.

Clifton Ellis, a his­to­rian who has re­searched the an­te­bel­lum South, said many Na­tional Reg­is­ter

In­for­ma­tion void

Many plan­ta­tion own­ers also kept poor records of slave life and did lit­tle to pre­serve re­minders of it — an­other rea­son for the in­for­ma­tion void.

The civil rights move­ment drew at­ten­tion to the need for in­clu­sive history, Ellis said, and nom­i­na­tions have im­proved with time. Prop­erty own­ers and his­tor­i­cal groups are al­lowed to up­date Na­tional Reg­is­ter en­tries with new in­for­ma­tion. Some have done so with in­for­ma­tion about slaves.

To­day, any new nom­i­na­tion of an an­te­bel­lum site that doesn’t dis­cuss its ties to slav­ery would be re­jected for more work, said Sarah David, who over­sees the Na­tional Reg­is­ter pro­gram for North Carolina.

“You can’t talk about some­thing that was built be­fore the Civil War with­out talk­ing about en­slaved peo­ple,” she said. “They were just in it. They may have built it.”

The his­tor­i­cal blind­ness about slav­ery and en­slaved peo­ple isn’t lim­ited to plan­ta­tions in the Na­tional Reg­is­ter.

The en­try for Alabama’s white­domed Capi­tol de­tails its role as the place where del­e­gates es­tab­lished the Confederat­e States of Amer­ica in 1861, but doesn’t cite slav­ery’s role in the re­bel­lion or Ho­race King, a one­time slave cred­ited with build­ing the el­e­gant, curved stair­ways in the build­ing’s main en­trance.

Joe McGill rou­tinely sleeps in old slave homes as part of The Slave Dwelling Project, which seeks to tell the for­got­ten sto­ries of en­slaved peo­ple. Sketchy ac­counts of slav­ery are a prod­uct of a decades-long pe­riod when white male his­to­ri­ans pri­mar­ily told the sto­ries of white males, he said.

“It needs to be cor­rected be­cause it co­in­cides with an in­com­plete nar­ra­tive,” said McGill, who has slept in about 150 slave dwellings in 25 states in the South and the North.

But up­dat­ing all that out­dated history would be daunt­ing, his­to­ri­ans said.

With hun­dreds of old plan­ta­tions listed on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter and many preser­va­tion­ists fo­cused on sav­ing en­dan­gered sites rather than up­dat­ing in­for­ma­tion about ex­ist­ing ones, round­ing out the history of an­te­bel­lum farms could take years.

“It would take a mas­sive ef­fort,” Ellis said.

“It was only dur­ing the ’70s that his­to­ri­ans were be­gin­ning to look at slav­ery more closely. That took time to work its way through the academy.” — Clifton Ellis, his­to­rian at Texas Tech Univer­sity


The Whit­ney Plan­ta­tion Mu­seum doc­u­ments slav­ery at the pre-Civil War site near New Or­leans. The plan­ta­tion draws tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors an­nu­ally and is known for dis­cussing topics other plan­ta­tions ig­nore.


Joe McGill has slept in about 150 slave dwellings as part of The Slave Dwelling Project. Above, the McLeod Plan­ta­tion in South Carolina.

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