The removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces across the U.S. began as a movement.
It has turned into a mass social reckoning as people took to the streets to protest the death of unarmed Black Americans at the hands of police. The toppling of statues and flags commemorating this contentious era in U.S. history has sparked a renewed conversation about systemic racism in America. It has also forced educators in schools and other public settings to contend with how the history of Black Americans has and should be told.
As a result, the stories you may hear while touring a Civil War battlefield or an antebellum plantation in the South are changing. Long-accused of presenting only a whitewashed version of history that obscured the stories of enslaved people, some plantation tour operators are now including that narrative as part of their tours.
In Montgomery, Alabama, one tour guide crafted an entire tour out of sharing forgotten and often untold chapters of the city’s history.
Often these stories go untold because not enough has been done to preserve them, according to Steve Murray with the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH). His team has been pulling together photos and records of Black Alabamians spanning more than a century that were omitted from the record.
The American South spoke to tour operators at Southern plantations, tour guides and archivists about the impact the removal of Confederate symbols and how the recent protests against racial inequality and police brutality against Black Americans, has had on their work and what is being done to assure a full telling of Black American history.
How some plantations are changing the narrative
Ten years ago, Joe McGill was called in along with a team of experts to oversee the restoration of several old buildings at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens property in Charleston, South Carolina. The buildings once served as homes to enslaved people who lived on the property.
The experience took on personal significance for McGill, who is a descendant of slaves. Slave dwellings are often neglected and fall into ruin on plantation properties, inspiring McGill to find a way to draw interest in preserving the structures. He received permission to spend a night in one of the restored slave cabins on the Magnolia plantation property. The experience led to him launching the Slave Dwelling Project.
What he described as a “simple sleepover” has since evolved into an immersive experience, where McGill engages with visitors at participating plantations on conversations about the enduring legacy of slavery. His discussions sometimes draw crowds of up to 40 people at a time. McGill has since brought his presentation to locations across the South, including Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana. The work has continued through the pandemic, with McGill leading discussions from different sites over Facebook Live and Zoom.
This wasn’t always the case.
“It was important for me to spend a night in those cabins. I got to see more of what these plantations were not doing. They were not telling the stories of the people from whom I derive my DNA. It was upsetting. It angered me. But instead of using that anger for evil, I knew I could use it for good,” he said.
The sleepovers allowed him to reconnect with his ancestors and gave him the space to have frank discussions with visitors about the lives of the enslaved people who once lived in the cabins.
Historic plantation properties are still frequently used as event venues for weddings and large gatherings often drawing visitors from across the globe. These business interests have traditionally propelled many locations to share a watered-down version of history focused on the architectural and natural beauty of these properties while erasing the stories of enslaved people from that narrative.
In recent years, however, a growing number of locations have started to offer a more thorough integration of African American history in their tours.
Sites like the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, Middleton Plantation in Charleston, and Somerset Plantation in Creswell, North Carolina, have all incorporated information about the enslaved people who lived on those sites into their tours.
Kimberly Clements, a historian based at the Robert Toombs House Historic Site in Washington, Georgia, has been researching the lives and families of 17 people who were enslaved at the house and is building an exhibit of artifacts found in a dwelling believed to be the home of one enslaved family.
“My tours have changed since I have been here (two years) from being all about the Toombs’ to how the house functioned, who each family member was and who the enslaved people were that lived here,” she explained.
Clements is building files for each person with the ultimate goal of having a room dedicated to research, not only for the enslaved people at the site, but as a repository where descendants of other enslaved people from the area can conduct their own research for free.
Dr. Bernard Powers, the director of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, believes that more locations will follow suit.
“The turbulence we have witnessed this year has created a greater consciousness about these issues,” Powers said. “People are going to come with questions and expecting answers. If these organizations care anything about satisfying their patrons, they are going to have to be proactive and be ready to provide the kind of information their visitors demand.”
That said, Powers noted that docents and tour operators should steer away from a total victimization model that only focuses on the oppression and abuse of enslaved people.
“People don’t want to learn they were mere victims,” he said. In addition to those things, you want to talk about how people resisted, what they did to fight back. Acts of sabotage and how they culturally resisted by means folklore and song and all of those human creations and responses to an oppressive situation.”
A city contends with its past
“I’m a storyteller,” said Michelle Browder.
The story she tells is about Montgomery, Alabama. It’s a complicated tale. In 2016, Browder launched More Than Tours to teach visitors about chapters of the city’s history that often weren’t mentioned.
On the tour, Browder, with her signature bright red glasses, takes visitors to the Brick a Day Church, where the Freedom Riders sought refuge in 1961 from an angry white mob. She goes to the city’s riverfront and provides a more honest history of slavery than the public marker there reveals. She also talks about the Trail of Tears and the Chinese people who helped build the railroad that runs through town.
“I tell stories about people I’ve met along the way. Or I’ll tell stories about some of the iconic civil rights heroes that I admire and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting,” she said. “It’s heavy, this history. Very heavy. But I’m an artist and I like humor. You tell the truth, and you make it palatable.”
Montgomery today has become more open to confronting the ugliness of its past, Browder said. It’s in the city’s economic self-interest. Since the 2018 opening on The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which memorializes the victims of lynchings, Browder has seen a rise in tourists drawn to the city because of its civil rights history.
“They’re coming here not to talk about Jefferson Davis, but they’re coming to talk about racial justice,” she said. “It’s forcing that old money to shift a bit, because our economy thrives on tourism.”
Her tours, Browder said, are filling in the gaps with knowledge people should have learned in history class. Not everyone appreciates it. She once received a bad online review from someone who said he “didn’t sign up for a history lesson.”
But Browder contends, “you can’t come to Montgomery and tour the place without a history lesson, right? It’s built on history.”
She has also once had a proud member of the Sons of the Confederacy take her tour. By the end, he was crying. He said that Browder had made him rethink the history he thought he knew.
“I want to call myself an ambassador and not a tour guide, because Montgomery with its history has not always been pleasant. It needs ambassadors.”
Filling the gaps to provide an honest history
Renewed interest in honest history is important to this moment of reckoning, but what if the historical resources themselves have been dishonest?
That is the issue Steve Murray, director at the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH), has been forced to confront during his tenure.
“Some people wonder what systemic racism looks like and what that means. From the lens of a historical organization, it means discrepancies that exist in the way resources were used to preserve and tell the history of some Alabamians while not telling the history of other Alabamians,” Murray said. “We’re working from a position of a great deficit when it comes to African American history.”
The Department was founded in 1901 and spent decades collecting and preserving Confederate history and collections from white Alabamians. But Murray said the Department declined to preserve accurate records of the lives of Black Alabamians.
“When the Montgomery Advertiser was being microfilmed, whether it was by our agency or by commercial firms, they didn’t bother to film the African American section. That’s a great example of a huge void in the records,” Murray said.
Filling that void was a mission that began in 2019, when Murray and his staff were preparing for Alabama’s bicentennial celebration. The Department created an exhibition that showed how the 1901 Alabama Constitution worked to remove rights from Black Americans. His staff also wrote the text for historical plaques that balanced the history of Alabama’s successes against an economy that was singlehandedly supported by slavery.
Jay Reeves, AP
But in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Murray felt obliged to publicly pledge the Department’s renewed commitment to honest record-keeping. George Floyd, 46, died on May 25, after Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes. ADAH released a statement on June 23 that acknowledged it was founded “to serve a white southern concern for the preservation of Confederate history and the promotion of Lost Cause ideals” and pledged to tell a more inclusive story of Alabama.
“The events of this summer brought into focus a moment of urgency and an opportunity to articulate our objectives in a really clear way for the public,” Murray said. “Specifically, we wanted to make the public aware of resources we have that could help the growing number of Americans interested in understanding systemic racism and racial injustice through the lens of history.”
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Now the department is working to fulfill that commitment.
ADAH has acquired a collection of more than 11,000 photos by Jim Peppler, a photographer for The Southern Courier, a weekly newspaper covering civil rights in the South. The photos depict the lives of Black Alabamians in the late 1960s, and Murray said ADAH is planning to add other similar collections. Murray said the department is also working to increase public access to long held government records that could add to the understanding and research of the state’s history. For example, they are working to transcribe antebellum civil court records. Because enslaved people were considered property, the records tell of property disputes between Alabamians and could provide new insights for historians and genealogists.
“It can be a painful process for folks, but I think that’s what our charge as a historical organization is, to serve the public and contribute to effective history education,” Murray said. “Moving forward, we’re going to try to do more to become trusted stewards among the African American community.”
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