Do plantation museums do justice to the memory of the enslaved? Local professor Stephen Hanna wanted to find out, so in 2014 he joined a team of researchers associated with TourismRESET, a world-wide network of scholars who study and challenge social inequity in tourism.
Hanna, who teaches geography at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, received a grant from the National Science Foundation, enabling him to lead undergraduate students through multi-year research on how narratives and exhibits about enslaved populations and slavery were presented or absent at 15 different plantation sites. The goal was to present their findings to museum managers and thus facilitate more historically accurate and meaningful tours. His team is in the final stages of publishing a book summarizing their data and findings, to be released in March 2022.
That work attracted the attention of a staff member at Montpelier and led to an additional research project at four Virginia presidential plantation museums – Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Highland. This past summer, Hanna turned in completed reports for each plantation.
“For far too long, plantation museums throughout the south propped up the Lost Cause mythic version of U.S. history, in which enslavement was benevolent and slavery was not the cause of the Civil War,” says Hanna. “Plantation tourists were invited to marvel at antique furnishings and impressive mansions while listening to costumed guides tell stories about wealthy White plantation owners. The fact that this lifestyle was built on slavery and that the overwhelming majority of people living on a plantation were enslaved Black Americans was either trivialized or missing completely.”
By the early 2000s, however, criticism from activists, scholars, and visitors led staff at most plantation museums to include at least a little information about people who had been enslaved.
“But the stakes are higher at presidential plantation sites,” says Hanna. “These are national shrines – the places people go to learn the truth about the Founding Fathers who took center stage in their high school history classes. But that truth involves slavery and the lives of the people that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe enslaved. No other historical fact challenges our shared reverence for these men as much as slavery.”
“When we started our work with these four presidential museums in 2019, all had, to varying degrees, already created relationships with descendent communities – groups of African-Americans whose ancestors had been enslaved on these plantations,” says Hanna. “Our goal was to document how relationships with descendent communities were affecting visitor experiences. While all four sites had offered tours and exhibits about enslavement for many years, we wondered if the perspectives and information shared by descendants might be leading to changes. We asked if visitors were now learning more about both enslaved people and the role slavery played in the lives and contributions of our founding fathers.”
To answer this question, the group systematically documented 150 iterations of the tours these museums offer and studied the contents of their self-guided exhibits. They also surveyed 1,500 visitors before their visits and 1,100 people as they left the museums.
They learned that these museums’ tours and exhibits continue to place Virginia’s four founding presidents above the lives and experiences of the people they enslaved and that visitors reported learning more about the presidents than they did about enslavement. Given that the these museums were created to honor Virginia’s founding presidents, this was not surprising.
“We did notice some real differences, however,” says Hanna. “Monticello began working with its descendent community in the 1990s and gained a lot of media attention when it finally recognized the relationship between Sally Hemings and Jefferson. Montpelier involved descendants in the design of their award-winning exhibit about enslavement, The Mere Distinction of Colour. Visitors at these two museums reported being more interested in, learning more about, and feeling more empathy for enslaved people than people surveyed at Highland or Mount Vernon.”
The reports Hanna submitted included recommendations that he hopes will help visitors engage more fully with the lives of enslaved people and learn more about the role slavery played in the contributions that Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe made to our country. “We urged that each museum more consistently include slavery in the tours they offer inside the presidential homes and offer their tours focused on enslavement more often,” says Hanna. Responses from museum management and staff have been positive, but disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed completion of the reports until this past year. “None of the museums have had the time to use our findings to make changes yet, but I hope that our work will play an important role as they plan their post-pandemic operations.”
What to Know Before You Go
Via virtual and in-person museum exhibits, tours, artifacts, lectures, and grounds, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Highland now share an ever-growing wealth of information about the personal stories of the enslaved at these presidential plantation homes.
- Over the course of George Washington’s life, 577 enslaved men, women, and children lived, toiled, and suffered at Mount Vernon.
- At the time of Washington’s death, Mt. Vernon’s enslaved population numbered 317, and in his will he ordered that his enslaved workers be freed upon his wife’s death.
- Fewer than half of those enslaved were freed when his wife died, because the others were considered property of relatives via the Custis family.
- Much is known about the life, work, family, and descendants of enslaved people at Mount Vernon, shared via online biographies.
- Washington began to question the morality of slavery after the Revolutionary War, but avoided addressing it in public out of fear that bitter debates would tear apart the fragile nation.
- South of George Washington’s tomb lies a burial ground where an unknown number –perhaps as many as 150 — of enslaved men, women, and children were laid to rest.
- During his lifetime, Jefferson enslaved more than 600 workers – 400 at Monticello, and 200 held in bondage at his other properties.
- At one time, 20 buildings lined Mulberry Row, the plantation’s industrial hub, where those in bondage made furniture, wove textiles, forged metals, and managed horses, among other skilled duties.
- Although Jefferson wrote that he considered slavery evil, he justified keeping slaves by comparing their release to abandoning children.
- Jefferson requested that five of his enslaved workers be freed upon his death.
- When he died, 130 of Jefferson’s slaves were sold at auction, including the families of the five who had been freed.
- Jefferson fathered at least six children through enslaved servant Sally Hemings; four survived to adulthood.
- The Madison family enslaved more than 300 men, women, and children to work this 2,650-acre plantation.
- Descendants of Madison’s enslaved workers contributed to the creation of the exhibit, The Mere Distinction of Colour, offering visitors the opportunity to hear the stories of those enslaved at Montpelier as told by their living descendants.
- Montpelier’s 1910 Train Depot gives a glimpse of struggles for Civil Rights during the Jim Crow era.
- More than 200 enslaved workers were buried at Montpelier.
- Montpelier archaeologists recently acquired LiDAR tools that are helping them locate lost sites on the property, including slave quarters, barns, work sites, paths, and roads, allowing them to retrace the footsteps of the enslaved across this landscape.
- Of the 250 people Monroe is known to have enslaved, he freed only one, Peter Marks.
- In an 1829 letter, Monroe described slavery as “one of the evils still remaining incident to our Colonial system,” yet he continued to hold workers in bondage.
- Monroe was often away pursuing law and politics, so his enslaved workers maintained Highland’s day-to-day operations, becoming more intimately familiar with the surrounding countryside.
- Monroe advocated for the resettlement of freed Blacks back to Africa, because he believed freed Blacks would “become a publick [sic] burden, if considered and treated, a portion of the community.”
- Liberia was established as a place where freed slaves would be resettled. Because of Monroe’s endorsement of the American Colonization Society, Liberia named its capital, Monrovia, after him.
- Read more about those at Highland through the museum’s online
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