By Lieselot Bisschop and Staci Strobl
One of the most tragic chapters in American history is the economic reliance on the Plantation System in the South during colonial times and through the mid-nineteenth century. As criminologists, we recognize that the historical foundation of the region’s criminal justice system was shaped by the collusion between plantation overseers and local sheriffs. Together they used routine and heavy violence to keep African-Americans enslaved (see Websdale or Reichel).
Earlier this summer, we found ourselves in Southern Louisiana doing fieldwork (on a topic not related to plantation life) and sought to escape a bit from the relentless grind of travel and interviews, taking in some of what the region has to offer its visitors. Perusing the kiosks of tourist pamphlets, we found several that offered tours of and lodgings in old plantations with their ancient oak trees and lavishly furnished interiors. Promising such magical adventures as living “like a sugar baron” and giving that special someone “every girl’s dream,” these slogans caused us deep pause. From our perspective, they glossed over the violence and bondage that underpinned the nostalgic luxury being peddled. It seems that plantation tourism helps us forget that living like a sugar baron meant countless others lived like tortured animals to produce the cash crop.
We visited Houmas House to experience it all firsthand, already leery of the narrative, but attempting to be open-minded. Our tour guide led us through the plantation mansion, pointing out the many valuable historical artifacts collected by the current owner, who interestingly still lives on site—his current bedroom in the mansion is part of the tour. The name “Houma” comes from the names local Native American tribes used for themselves. The first landowner, in a Manhattan-like buy-all-this-land-for-nothing-but-beads swindle, gave the local Houma some trinkets for hundreds of acres of land where the site now stands. In telling this story, our guide editorialized sadly that “you just don’t find deals like that anymore.” In retrospect, was she being insensitive or just ironic? We're not sure.
Slavery was briefly mentioned a couple times during the tour. We were assured that past owners of Houmas House were “good to their slaves.” We were also told that descendants of the slaves live in a nearby community and they are on “good terms” with the current plantation owner.
On Trip Advisor one guest gave a poor review of Houmas House because of the lack of engagement with slavery on the site. Houmas House responded:
I am so sorry that you were disappointed in not [seeing] the slave cabins that were once a part of this [plantation]. They were relocated in 1858, over 150 years ago, and each was given with a parcel of land to the former slave families, when they were freed by John Burnside, prior to the Civil War. It’s true that the slaves built the Mansion in 1810 through 1812, but only the Mansion and two garconierres remain to this day. Our tour concentrates on the lifestyles of the Great Sugar Barons of this plantation. Our brochures, marketing efforts, and website all clearly say this. Please judge us on what we say we offer, and not what one thinks we should portray.
The problem with the narrative around these sites is that they perpetuate a type of historical forgetting that should not be encouraged. One cannot honestly focus on the lives of sugar barons as separate from the lives of slaves. We would be horrified if Auschwitz turned into a hotel and resort, but we do not feel that same horror for a plantation. Arguably both types of sites are places where forced labor and genocide were perpetuated, and in the case of the latter, over many generations. Americans have hardly come to terms with the crimes of slavery, especially since we stage weddings and other fancy galas on slavery sites. Does the present physical beauty of these sites have no connection to a bloody past? We would argue that celebrating these places in the present contributes to a white-washing of slavery, allowing contemprary (primarily white) people to perpetuate a one-sided narrative with suspiciously little memorializing of the systemic plantation violence.
To be fair, on the way out of Houmas House, visitors are encouraged by banners to go visit the Whitney Plantation, which focuses on the life of slaves. So that's where we also went. The Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, under the guidance of historian Ibrahima Seck, is the only plantation tourist attraction that actively goes beyond the mainstream narrative. The tour guides frame a visit there in a way that encourages people to remember slavery without feeling personally responsible by virtue of being of a particular present-day identity. The plantation tour shows slave quarters, slave jails (metal train car-size boxes) and recounts the stories of the property’s last generation of slave children (whose stories were collected in the 1930s as part of a Works Progress Administration project).
Visitors to the Whitney Plantation learn that punishments administered by the overseers, institutionalized through the so-called black codes, had absolute obedience as a goal (see Schafer). Difficult living conditions, starvation rations, rape, and murder are all covered in the tour, prodding visitors to remember and relate honestly to a difficult history. Toward that end, the entrance ticket is a lanyard with a slave’s story and picture on it. One of ours explained the story of Anne Clark:
I ploughed, hoed, split rails. I done the hardest work ever a man ever did. I was so strong, iffen he needed me I’d pull the men down so the marster could handcuff’em. They’d whop us with a bullwhip. When women was with child they’d dig a hole in the groun’ and put their stomach in the hole and then beat’em. They’d allus whop us.
The Whitney Plantation does not host weddings or serve fancy dinners; instead it merely bears witness to history from below-- although not without an acknowledgement of those who occupied the plantation mansion. The tour ends in the mansion, a fantastic denouement. By then, visitors aren’t impressed by the high life; the exquisite mantle pieces, oil paintings and fine china seem merely like the sad trophies of social injustice.
As professors in criminal justice and criminology, we can help shift the narrative to where it belongs by focusing more intently on the plantation as a precursor to modern day policing in southern states. The plantation systems used privately-paid overseers in cooperation with public sheriffs to criminalize African-Americans who attempted to live life outside of forced labor. Punishments were not publicly administered for the crimes of being an escaped slave, but rather meted out in private where a plethora of instruments of torture had been forged by the plantation blacksmith. This was a deliberate and violent social system of injustice that was accomplished through the marriage of economic interests and the legal apparatus and led to the convict-leasing system of the Reconstructionist era south (see Mancini). Rather than dusty chapters in a distant past, the lessons of slavery—a capitalist pursuit that captured a criminal justice system for its purposes—may help us make sense of present day phenomena such as racially disproportionate mass incarceration or the rise of the private prison industry.
The dominant rhetoric of the present day plantation tourism celebrates the luxury of the “big house” of white landowners. Given the violent history, this is puzzling, at best, and an abomination at worst. Luckily, the Whitney Plantation is changing the conversation.
Lieselot Bisschop is a criminologist at Erasamus University Rotterdam (The Netherlands) and a research fellow at Ghent University. Staci Strobl is a criminologist at the University of Wisconsin-- Platteville.
For a history of the slave community at Habitation Haydel (the Whitney Plantation), see Ibrahima Seck's Bouki Fait Gombo.