Friends and neighbors used to rave about elegant Southern plantation houses they’d toured on vacation. Plantation weddings are still popular. But Whitney Plantation west of New Orleans won’t touch the wedding business. Opened to the public in 2014 as a museum about slavery, Whitney refuses to romanticize its past.*
Times are changing . . . gradually. Four years ago, I visited the historic San Diego de Alcala mission church in California. As I recall, a brochure described how and why Spaniards built a mission in that spot, how the priests lived, and what challenges beset them. The next year at Mission San José in San Antonio TX, a ranger explained how drought and disease drove native inhabitants of the region to live and work on the mission grounds. In time they and their descendants created a whole new culture, blending indigenous foods and customs with Spanish language and Catholic faith.
The histories we hear depend in part on what questions we ask. If we only ask about the white people in charge of a plantation or mission, we turn to Gone With the Wind for images of suffering. I’m glad there’s a rising interest in asking, researching, and teaching about the forced labor that made plantations and missions possible.** Enslaved people’s sufferings are painful to imagine and, I hope, impossible to romanticize.
* Image: Whitney Plantation slave cabins. For more on how diverse sites and programs portray slavery, read How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (2021).
** According to the National Park Service, “Tradition has it that the missionaries never forced anyone into a mission, but once there, they could not leave. Those who ran away were often tracked down and returned to the mission.”
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.