What Should We Do With Plantations?Roundup
tags: slavery, racism, public history
Tiya Miles is a professor of history at Harvard and the author of five books. Her latest, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake, is forthcoming from Random House in 2021.
Black Lives Matter signs have popped up nearly everywhere. In June this slogan, or judiciously crafted approximations of it, began flooding my email inbox in the form of company statements that fell into a gray area between corporate responsibility, virtue signaling, and free advertising. During a 4th of July road trip to Vermont after I turned onto the wrong highway and found myself lost in New Hampshire, I saw the slogan painted in massive letters on the front of an aging barn. I thought then that a barn in a white, rural area took the prize for the most unexpected placement of a rallying cry for the fight against anti-Black racism, police brutality, and the lack of funding for social services. But the strangest place I have yet encountered the political mantra is the home page of a lavish Southern plantation house museum.
Berkeley Plantation, a National Historic Landmark that bills itself as “Virginia’s Most Historic Plantation,” is situated along the James River in Virginia, a colony and then state that enchained thousands of African Americans to produce lucrative tobacco crops before feeding, in the early 19th century, a massive forced migration of nearly one million Black people into the formerly Indigenous cotton lands of the Old Southwest. Berkeley Plantation’s home page features the romanticized lexicon and imagery that tourists anticipate and scholars of plantation tourism have long catalogued and criticized: genteel white owners, ornate architecture, splendid gardens, fine antiques, and decorous housewares. At Berkeley, the wealthy former residents who are extolled include Virginia Governor Benjamin Harrison and two of his descendants who became president, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. The idealized domestic setting is enlivened, the home page text promises, by “enthusiastic guides in period costume.” Visitors here, the website suggests, will step into an Old South fantasy that obscures how slavery in its myriad grotesque realities shaped the site economically, socially, politically, and culturally. But in this moment of public foment, the Berkeley Plantation website now fronts a bold banner across the top of the screen proclaiming: “Berkeley Plantation believes that Black Lives Matter.”
I was stunned to see this claim appearing above photographs of grounds once maintained by enslaved people and formal parlors with slaveholder portraits hanging on walls. It struck me as the most supreme irony, and even as a cruel joke, that an estate built on the chewed-up and spat-out lives of Black people was now purporting to cherish Black existence. Given that we live in a time when not saying something of this sort exposes businesses and cultural institutions to the scrutiny of public opinion, this plantation was disingenuous at best and opportunistic at worst, I thought.
Then I clicked on the banner and discovered a direct statement indicating the harm done to Black and Native people on those grounds. The statement opens with an affirmation, “We believe that Black Americans, Indigenous People and their descendants deserve justice,” and continues with an admission of responsibility as well as an aspirational action plan. “We recognize that enslaved people were present at Berkeley plantation,” the statement reads. “We are working with researchers and historians to uncover all aspects of this site’s past and there is much work and responsibility ahead to make this site a place for healing and awareness.” I was persuaded that Berkeley Plantation’s current operators care about this past and its legacy.
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