There has been an evolution in public education about historic landscapes where people were once enslaved. Just a few decades ago, the story of African American slaves would have been brushed over, sanitized, or, even worse, left blank. Now, a few brave public educators, academics, photographers, and historians are showing how complicated, layered stories can be told that honor the truth and dignity of those who were enslaved. They show that landscapes can tell the story of American history in all its beauty and horror.
Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architects, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the reality of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind.
The colloquium, which was held in preparation for a two-day symposium in spring 2020 on the legacy of segregation on cities, delved into studies and projects related to landscapes of enslavement in the U.S. and Caribbean. Way explained these academic conferences are part of a broader three-year investigation financed with grants from the Mellon Foundation.
The Daily Life of Enslaved People in Jamaica
Jillian Galle, project director, Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, is coordinating a collaborative research study on 85 sites in the U.S., Jamaica, Nevis, and St. Kitts, and other countries that have yielded 4 million artifacts.
Through her archeological research, Galle found that the global trade in sugar, cocoa, spices, and coffee resulted in a “new material culture” of luxury products. Excavations of slave dwellings in Jamaica yielded fragments of porcelain from southern China. “Slaves were active participants in the consumer revolution.”
Analyzing 33,000 artifacts from Stewart Castle in Jamaica, Galle and her team found “costly objects from Europe” while excavating slave structures, including “glass beads, metal buttons, furniture ornaments, iron pots, shells, and utensils.” Machetes and hooks, which were used by slaves as weapons during rebellions, were also found.
Over three centuries, some 9 million Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Caribbean to plant and harvest sugar, citrus, lumber, cocoa, and other products on plantations overseen by white workers. Due to the incredible violence of slavery, “there was no natural increase,” meaning slaves weren’t able to have children. As the enslaved Africans were worked to death, one million new slaves were imported.
Instead of feeding slaves well, portions of plantations were given over to them as “a system of Negro provisioning grounds.” So in addition to their work, there was the stress of having to “cultivate gardens, fish, grow livestock to meet their own food needs.” Famine was a regular occurrence and constant threat.
Unearthing shellfish shells, fish bones, and other food remains from these sites gave insight into their diet. While slaves often sold fish they caught in markets, clams and other shellfish made up a large portion of their diet, which was partially foraged. Galle hypothesized that African slaves who were stolen away to Jamaica brought their “Gold Coast fishing culture,” which has been passed down to Jamaicans who live there today.
After the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, the life of enslaved people in Jamaica improved somewhat, at least on a relative basis. Some gained access to island-wide Sunday markets where they could purchase or trade those luxury consumer products. With the ability to participate in commercial life, “they achieved a margin of economic and reproductive success in a brutal environment.”
Telling the Story of Slavery at the Whitney Plantation
Dr. Ibrahima Seck, director of research of the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum and a member of the faculty at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD), Senegal, said the 2,000-acre Whitney Plantation, which is about a one hour drive west of New Orleans, Louisiana, is dedicated to explaining the history of slavery in the South. The museum opened to the public in 2014 and receives around 100,000 visitors annually, a number growing 10-15 percent each year.
Attorney John Cummings purchased the land for $8 million, spent 15 years restoring the site, and commissioned life-sized clay sculptures of enslaved Creole adults and children that humanize them and breathe life into the history. Many of the sculptures, which were created by artist Woodrow Nash, are found within the historic African American Antioch Baptist Church, which was moved to the property.
Over a 90-minute tour, mostly outdoors, visitors get a sense of what life was like for the enslaved laborers, “who spent most of their lives outside, whether it was very hot or cold.”
Seck said some 13 percent of the slave population in Louisiana died each year. “There were also large numbers of children who died — either stillborn or due to disease.”
What makes the Whitney different from other Southern plantations is the Wall of Honor, where Seck and his team have listed the names of enslaved people they discovered lived there over the 18th and 19th centuries. “There are 400 names, African names.”
Also, Rush more recently created an art piece to honor the slaves who led and participated in the German Coast uprising on January 8, 1811. By June 13, the slaves had been defeated by the local militia. “And they had to pay the price of failure.” Those captured were shot, decapitated in front of their families, and then their heads were put on spikes. “The artwork represents this but also presents them as an army.”
Ashley Rogers, who is the executive director of the museum, said “many visitors have an idea in their mind of what slavery was like that doesn’t line up with reality. It’s a bucolic, beautiful setting, with cypress swamps and egrets, but the landscape is deceiving — it obscures the hard labor and violence.”
Rogers emphasized the industrial nature of the plantation. “The fields were like factories.”
Starting in the 1820s, steam-powered mills and conveyor belts led to a “methodical division of labor.” Then, beginning in the 1840s, field work became mechanized through machines first sold as “iron slaves.” These machines were marketed as “better than human, the ideal slaves.”
After slavery was abolished, a system of bonded labor developed that “was similar to slavery in so many ways.”
Many of the plantations along the Mississippi River were later purchased by oil and chemical companies, which were attracted by easy access to water and transportation. On top of the violence and trauma came “toxicity and environmental degradation.”
Today, St. John the Baptist Parish is the most polluted in Louisiana. “And the energy and chemical companies still receive tax-free status.”
A Bold Re-Interpretation of Slavery at Montpelier
Elizabeth Chew, executive vice president and chief curator at Montpelier, President James Madison’s home in Virginia, which is about 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., said Madison owned enslaved people, who grew tobacco and grain on his property.
After being purchased by the Montpelier Foundation in 2000, the home was restored to near-original condition as part of a $24 million multi-year effort. As the restoration neared completion, one member of the community of descendants of Madison’s slaves asked Chew: “where are my people?”
The realization that the story of the enslaved had been largely omitted led to archeological excavations, architectural studies of slaves’ quarters, and the eventual recreation of their quarters in the south yard of Montpelier. A $10 million gift from David Rubenstein made that work possible.
Montpelier Foundation made a concerted effort to engage the descendant community in the creation of new interpretation program and telling personal stories about Madison’s slaves. “Their advice was to emphasize the humanity of their ancestors, and don’t leave slavery in the past.” The main message the Foundation wants to convey now is: “slavery happened to one person at a time.”
Through inventive exhibitions, the forms of slaves are projected on walls while recordings of oral histories of descendants play in the background. “You feel human presences in the spaces.” Chew said they hoped to convey the “psychological torture of slavery; that loved ones could be sold and stolen away at any moment.”
With support from multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, the Montpelier Foundation has also created new curriculum for teaching slavery in schools and engaged visitors and descendants in the excavations and discovery of the past. Chew seemed proud that the descendants are now a “major stakeholder.”
Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, who moderated the session, said Montpelier, through its thoughtful interpretative work, powerfully expresses “the magnitude of loss and horror, and the persistence of the intangible and invisible impacts” of slavery.
Chew said once visitors “see the evidence and experience the spaces with their own bodies, it overrides any concern” that the reinterpretation is too threatening to “white fragility.”
There are growing numbers of visitors of color. For many, “Montpelier is a pilgrimage; it’s a stand-in plantation.” And about “40 percent of our visitors thank us every day for what we are doing.”
Their concern now is remaining relevant amid declining visitor numbers. “Older white folks make up the largest demographic of visitors, and that has to change.”