Posts Tagged ‘South’


Photo: Hunter McRae for the New York Times
The slave quarters at the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, S.C. House tours in the South have stopped glossing over slavery.

Having just finished reading the painful Pulitzer-Prize-winning book by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, I found this article about southern house tours encouraging. At least people have stopped glossing over slavery and pretending people “owned” by other people had jolly lives.

Tariro Mzezewa writes at the New York Times, “A few years ago, people touring the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah, Ga., would have heard a lot about George Owens, the lawyer, farmer and Congressional representative who lived in the massive neoclassical home in 1833. And about banker and slave trader Richard Richardson, for whom the house was built in 1816. They might have heard Emma Katin’s name, but not about how the enslaved black woman spent most of her nights sleeping on the wooden floors of the house, so that she could be available at all hours to the infants in the Owens family.

“They wouldn’t have heard about the 14 other enslaved people who lived there. And there’s a good chance that guests would not have heard about the 400 other slaves the Owenses had on their other nearby properties.

“ ‘Those pieces of the story would have been missing because she would have been treated as an accessory to the Owens’ lives,’ said Shannon Browning-Mullis, a curator of history and decorative arts for Telfair Museums, which owns the house and has been in charge of rethinking the way its history is told.

“In cities including Savannah and Charleston, S.C., where Confederate statues, elegant mansions and plantation weddings are common, tourism has often taken the form of nostalgia for the antebellum South, Southern charm and Southern hospitality. For years, tours of historic homes would focus on their architecture and fine furniture, but not on how the wealth so clearly displayed depended on enslaved labor.

“There is a growing consensus among the interpreters who guide people through historic properties that by excluding stories of the enslaved, institutions like historical societies, museums and tour companies have sent the message that power and wealth were not directly connected to slavery, and racism, and erased the stories of the black people who built these cities.

“Now that’s changing.

“ ‘When we come to see historic houses, often we are coming to see what it looked like to live in the past and a lot of us are sometimes just coming to see a pretty house,’ said Lacey Wilson, a historic interpreter for Telfair Museums, to a group of tourists on a recent tour. ‘What we’re looking at is the political power of the people who lived here. All the beautiful decorative objects throughout the house — the money coming for all these things came primarily from the enslaving of other human beings.’ …

“When Lauren Northup, director of museums for the Historic Charleston Foundation, leads a tour or when visitors listen to the self-guided audio tour of the house, they hear how the enslaved people in the house and the white family would have interacted in almost every room. The differences between the spaces where the white family lived and socialized compared to where the enslaved toiled are stark. Tourists also hear, again and again, about how every aspect of the house, which was built by a wealthy merchant, was designed to let the owners see and control the enslaved.

“Most guests at the Nathaniel Russel House remark on the beauty of the mansion and its décor, Ms. Northup said, adding that she reminds them that the house was built with the purpose of ‘keeping people in, keeping people from seeing each other, from socializing, from talking,’ she said. ‘It was a prison. That is what I’m trying to make people understand — you are in a beautiful prison.’

“Ms. Northup said that her organization has been actively working to change its storytelling since the mid-1990s. But in 2017, when she, with the help of art conservator Susan Buck, discovered that much of the original fabric of the slave quarters were intact, with artifacts, there was an urgency to study, preserve and open the space to the public.

“They were also galvanized by the 2015 killing of eight black parishioners and their pastor at Emanuel AME church, by Dylann Roof, a man who professed white supremacy. …

“After the Emanuel shooting, ‘things changed in Charleston,’ Ms. Northup said. ‘That was such a watershed time for Charleston because of Emanuel. The community fundamentally and irrevocably changed.’

“Increasingly, the people going on house tours are looking for more history and are trying to satisfy ‘a hunger’ for history and truth, Ms. Browning-Mullis in Savannah and Ms. Northup in Charleston said.”

More here.

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