Louisiana plantation tours skittish on slavery history

Louisiana’s magnificent antebellum plantation homes draw thousands of visitors each year to the state. The tourists come to see the stately live oaks, the imposing columns, the luxurious 19th-century furnishings.

But what the visitors most probably won’t encounter is any meaningful discussion of the slavery underpinning the wealth that led to the creation of these homes.

And that’s starting to become a problem.

“There are places that don’t want to talk about it,” said Aaron Sheehan-Dean, a history professor at LSU. “It’s a strange thing if you’re advertising yourself as a resort, but you are advertising yourself as a historical property as well but choose to ignore the topic of slavery. I don’t see much value in trying to sideline or ignore it.”

The Nottoway Plantation and Resort in Iberville Parish recently saw firsthand the backlash that can result from years of ignoring, or downplaying, the slavery narrative.

In December, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, long identified with social activism, had to cancel a songwriting and performing retreat she had scheduled at Nottoway after an online firestorm of criticism and angry posts objecting to her appearance at the resort.

In an online article posted on Jezebel, a writer chided Nottoway Plantation and Resort for posting a statement on its website that referred to the slaves who worked there as a “willing workforce.”

The statement can no longer be found on the plantation’s website. In fact, the Nottoway Plantation and Resort website doesn’t make any direct mention of slavery or offerings of slavery education to its visitors and guests.

Even lodging facilities modeled after slave quarters are simply referred to on the Nottoway website as “cottages.”

Neil Castaldi, Nottoway’s general manager, declined to answer questions related to the property’s portrayal of slavery and the recent controversy connected to the canceled DiFranco retreat.

“No matter what we say, it gets picked apart, so we’ve decided not to comment at all,” he said.

But not every plantation property tour is hesitant to tackle the topic.

Alta Cannaday, a former Louisiana resident now living in Maryland, makes frequent visits back home to visit plantations and museums.

Cannaday, 61, lived in New Orleans for more than 12 years and served as adviser and consultant on the Public Broadcasting Service series “Finding Your Roots.”

Cannaday, in a telephone interview, praised Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, which in its tour packages weaves insight about the lives of the slaves who lived and worked on the plantation. The plantation is one of the few in the state that still has a village of original slave cabins — 22 of them — on the property.

The plantation’s slave village is such a rare find that director Quentin Tarantino used them as a backdrop while filming his movie “Django Unchained” in 2012.

Evergreen Plantation’s director never returned calls to answer questions about its operations.

“Evergreen is the only one, to me, that even gave any homage to the people that lived there. Everyone else didn’t give a damn, to tell you the truth,” Cannaday said.

She said that on her last visit to Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie three years ago, there was barely even a mention of the role of slaves in the history of the site.

“There was virtually no mention of the life of the people who actually worked the plantation,” Cannaday said of Oak Alley. “I heard all about the owners, their financial holdings and their lineage. But we know that plantation was not running itself. As an educated black woman, I was expecting a complete story. Telling a partial story was an injustice.”

Laura Kilcer, the consulting curator at Oak Alley Plantation, said she thinks Cannaday’s points are valid, which is why the plantation has made recent strides to correct the problem.

In July, Oak Alley added a new exhibit titled “Slavery at Oak Alley” that features six reconstructed slave quarters used as a window into the lives of its enslaved workers.

Kilcer said the self-guided tour is just a step toward Oak Alley’s effort to paint a more complete picture of the plantation’s story — something driven in part by consumer demand.

“For whatever reason, plantations chose one narrative — and that was the narrative of the great white master,” Kilcer said. “That narrative responded to whatever cultural influences of the day were. It was the most attractive, focusing on power, wealth and success of the owners. As a result, it mitigated the very people that created that power. But now the culture has changed, and it’s certainly something we were aware of. That’s why we made the decision to reassess our narrative.”

David Floyd, executive director of LSU’s Rural Life Museum, said Oak Alley’s recent move to include the slavery exhibit is a trend he expects to see more of in the immediate future.

The Rural Life Museum, located off Essen Lane in Baton Rouge, already features an impressive outdoor exhibit called the Plantation Quarters, where actual structures from a sugar plantation in St. James Parish were reassembled on the museum grounds in their original layout.

The museum’s slavery exhibit includes three slave cabins, an overseer’s house, schoolhouse and blacksmith shed.

“There’s an interest in it,” Floyd said. “That’s why plantations are starting to cater to it. They were receiving pressure from African-American travelers around the country who wanted to know about the lives of the slaves.”

Many tourists seeking this information opt to visit River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville.

The museum’s owner, Kathe Hambrick, opened the facility in 1994, in part because of the neglect regional plantations showed at telling slavery history.

The River Road African American Museum is filled with a treasure trove of artifacts, historical records and information about the lives and success stories of the slaves and free people of color who lived in Louisiana.

And Sheehan-Dean said more plantations may finally be taking a step, like Oak Alley, to address the interplay of slavery in the development of the plantations.

“We’re all responsible for figuring it out together. It’s not just the South’s history, it’s all of our history,” Sheehan-Dean said. “The purpose is not to make people feel guilty about the past. The purpose is to make people understand the past. And the first step in doing that is knowing what really happened there.”