Over the winter, I went on two separate guided tours that both began with a similar disclaimer from the guides. After basic introductions, each interpreter noted that any and all facts mentioned during the course of the tour could be checked and verified with primary sources. At one museum, such reference materials were literally on hand: the guide actually held a large binder with a wide variety of secondary and primary sources.
Of course, this kind of statement (that a tour could be fact-checked, if needed) should apply to all public history programs. But why did these particular guides sense a need to foreground their interpretations this way? Plainly put, why, in these places, did this need to be said?
Now, for more on the context: I heard these comments during my visits to the McLeod Plantation (near Charleston, South Carolina) in January and the Whitney Plantation (near New Orleans, Louisiana) in February. Reflecting on these tours, I am not sure that I have seen better waysides or heard more effective interpretations of history for the public elsewhere. From beginning to end, each interpreter I had the privilege of listening to (and learning from) at these sites was careful with his or her facts, deliberate in explaining complicated issues, and attentive to the inquiries of visitors. Both dealt with difficult subjects in nuanced and methodical ways; both were clear that this was not to be yet another tour on a plantation where slavery was a mere afterthought.
I visited the McLeod Plantation first, so I’ll start there. This plantation is not easy to see. I mean that in many ways. It is not one of the more “popular” sites for tourists venturing just barely out of the downtown area of Charleston, SC. There are no vans with stickers of women dressed as Scarlett O’Hara affixed to the passenger side waiting to escort you to McLeod (as there are with other plantations outside of the urban core). But if you make the trip, taking a sharp and frankly unexpected turn off of a major road with typical suburban fare (box stores, fast food, a few local shops) you will discover a pathbreaking site. At McLeod, the tour guides focus on telling the story of Reconstruction in robust and complicated ways. The website for McLeod (run by the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission) promotes the property this way:
“It is a place like no other, not frozen in time but vibrant, dynamic, and constantly evolving, where the winds of change whisper through the oak trees and voices from the past speak to all who pause to listen. McLeod Plantation was built on the riches of sea island cotton – and on the backs of enslaved people whose work and culture are embedded in the Lowcountry’s very foundation. It is a living tribute to the men and women and their descendants that persevered in their efforts to achieve freedom, equality, and justice.”
Here, MANY stories “black and white, enslaved and free – are given their due.” The guide leading my group throughout the property did not seek to thrill us with stories of antebellum wealth. Nor did he gloss over the Civil War years, or fail to mention why and how the property eventually fell out of private ownership. Instead, he took us through the laborious process of cultivating Sea Island Cotton. He spoke of the conditions in which people lived in the “slave cabins”–then mentioned that tenants continued to live in these dwellings until the early 1990s. I felt my eyebrows arch. I watched others look at the neat row of small, cramped houses with a combination of shock and amazement. Reconstruction was not a chapter in a history book here. It was an unfinished, painful process that felt raw, exposed.
In addition to stepping inside these former slave cabins–which had been occupied in my own lifetime–there was another moment that really stands out. A most provocative aspect of the tour was the guide’s description of the wartime residency of the Massachusetts 55th Volunteer Infantry at the plantation. This was an African American unit that would stay in the “big house” for some time. As this history was recalled, I could feel some small glimmer of the swelling of HOPE that must have taken over the site. Just as poignantly, I could later feel the intense sense of LETDOWN that occurred when the war ended and traitors (what other word is there?) were eventually allowed to rule their small kingdoms again, albeit over “freedmen” who paid to till the land.
In addition to top notch verbal interpretation, the labels at McLeod were extremely well done and stopped me in my tracks, not once but several times. In the visitor’s center, common objects are positioned so that guests may look at them from different angles. They are then encouraged to see how a single boat, for instance, might act as a symbol for a range of feelings and experiences for the various people living at McLeod. Likewise, visitors are asked to consider what, to an enslaved person, was a cotton gin? Was it an instrument of ingenuity or a symbol of how “Northern innovation” enabled many to prolong a system of enslavement?
There is much more to say about this and about Whitney, but I will save that for another post.
P.S.: I am often rather annoyed when I read an article or blog post by a historian (who has never worked as a tour guide) and the interpreter is not named and not given agency. I do not assume that all interpreters at this or any other site approach their programs the same. I also do not wish to call attention to any one person, because I learned on both tours that these particular historians are trained within a work culture that involves careful attention to source material and complex analysis. So, I am not arguing that they are fully representative of their institution, but I am also not singling out an individual worker.