I remember the first time I was invited to visit a plantation. I was in the fourth grade and our teachers had planned a field trip to Chretien Point, a former plantation in Sunset, Louisiana. At the time I couldn’t understand why my three white teachers thought it was a great idea to take us to a plantation. Even at ten years old, I knew a plantation was not a happy place, so I pretended to be sick that day.
Then in the sixth grade, the same teachers planned a field trip to the Myrtles Plantation, about an hour away in St. Francisville, Louisiana, and I along with my mother and father joined. The Myrtles Plantation is notorious for its ghost and has been called one of the most haunted places in America. I wish I would have stayed home a second time.
What should have been an eye-opening experience was reduced to a trip filled with trivial information about architecture, furniture, and ghost stories, including one about a slave named Chloe. After leaving, I was so terrified of Chloe that I burned and then buried the ashes of a souvenir postcard my mom bought with an “image” of her ghost on it. I still find it strange that Chloe, who had her ear cut off, was forced to work in brutal conditions and was hung from a tree as a part of public spectacle, was made to be more feared than the person or people who committed such violent crimes against her.
I’ve thought about that experience a lot over the past years. So, when Professor Erica Hannickel asked my Nature and Nation class to write a paper looking at landscape and tourism, I knew what I wanted to do. While working on the paper, my need to better understand this subject grew, and I decided to continue my research for my senior capstone project. In March (right before we all started to learn about COVID-19), I spent five days driving the Louisiana River Road, a one-hundred-mile stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that is lined with some of Louisiana’s most recognizable plantations—Houmas House, Oak Alley, Laura Plantation, Nottoway Plantation, and Whitney Plantation.
My mom and dad joined me again, along with a cousin and best friend, and together we took in our first plantation filled with idyllic southern charm and lush gardens. It was surrounded by paths and swooping oaks draped with Spanish moss, leading to a white-pillared home that was designed to showcase the wealth of their owners—so breathtaking it’s almost like the designers were intentionally trying to distract you from what was happening here.
Pulling into the parking lot at Oak Alley Plantation, I watched as tourists poured out from bus after bus, smiles etched across their faces and I wondered if they noticed the miles of deteriorating homes and communities of Black folk they passed to get here. I wondered if they would connect the dots and realize that many of those decaying houses were former slave cabins. Or that the people who lived in them were descendants of the slaves that toiled and died on the very ground where they stood.
At this plantation and the four that followed, it was the same. I could feel the agony and despair of my ancestors. I could see my family and friends, their backs blistered. I could hear their moans and cries, and I could feel my heart breaking. I looked on at the low-hanging limbs of the old oaks with tear-filled eyes as the lyrics of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” echoed through my mind and wondered how anyone could visit these grounds and not feel the same way.
For thirty minutes to an hour, my tour group listened to the guides discuss the materials used to build the house and the types of dinners that would have been served. The questions and comments of the other visitors made me wonder: how do white folk see themselves as they participate in the tours? Did they imagine themselves in this history too? In these spaces? And if so, what role did they play? Do they see themselves at all?
My Louisiana River Road experience left me angry, hurt, and sometimes filled with hate. I was appalled at how easily so many of the majority of white, middle-class visitors were able to separate the lavishness of the houses and lifestyle of its owners from the agony of those who were forced to make it all possible.
I hated that my family, the two or three other Black guests, and I were met with uncomfortable stares by other guests or that the guide stumbled over her words when talking to us. When I asked a question, the other visitors, who were all white, look at me with pity or disdain (and sadly I sometimes looked at them the same way). Why is it that my presence made them uncomfortable? Are these spaces not just as much a part of my history as it is theirs? Are the lives of the enslaved not just as important as the lives of the enslavers? Why do plantations exist if not to tell the history of slavery?
In short, not much has changed about plantation tours since my sixth-grade experience. Two of the five still tell a one-sided history that focuses on valorizing the oppressors and celebrates the beauty of nineteenth-century architecture and gardens. Two other plantations made attempts to include stories of the enslaved, through it was done through separate self-guided tours that were presented in a way that removes the inhumanity of slavery. Only Whitney Plantation focused solely on the experience of the enslaved. But even there, they work to maintain the “comfort” of their visitors.
I read articles, books, personal diaries, census records, and whatever else I could get my hands on, in order to have a better understanding of what really took place on Louisiana plantations. It is impossible not to imagine myself in what I learned—a history where people who look like me were abducted, tortured, raped, and killed while people who look like the majority of plantation tourists were the ones who committed these atrocities.
In order to move forward, plantation tourism needs to stop ignoring its past. Plantations should be used to educate the public about the horrors endured by slaves and the inhumanity our society is capable of. If done this way, perhaps plantation tourism can help bridge the gap between the modern-day suffering of Black folk in America and the nightmarish past that has undoubtedly made it possible. Telling the stories of slavery and memorializing those who have suffered on plantations is the start of a long healing process that I believe must happen if we are to ever live in a society where black and brown existence is not continuously sacrificed for the comfort and ignorance of others.
Amber Pickney’s research was funded in part by the Parsonage Fund, a student-focused grant program designed to assist with personal and professional development.