Carie Rael and John Belleci
The Social and Global Justice Project
On a recent trip to New Orleans, we decided to tour Nottoway Plantation, which is tucked away, off the beaten path, on the banks of the Mississippi River about sixty miles northwest of the city on the way to Baton Rouge. Our creeping sense of apprehension began already on the drive in, as we wound our way through Cajun Country past drive-up crawfish stands and some of the most abject rural poverty of Black Americans in the South. That there were so few people and so many churches also spoke to the paternalistic nature of oppression that we found ourselves immersed in.
Nottoway boasts that it is the largest antebellum plantation left in the South. The main product produced by the more than 155 slaves who once toiled here was the sugar cane that was grown on over 1000 acres of highlands and swamps. As historians, we were drawn to this place, and hoped to gain some understanding of our past. But at what cost? By paying for an opportunity to gain access to an historical site with a past as brutal as this one, would our own quest for knowledge somehow parallel the paradox of American history? Would our own otherwise well-intentioned voyeurism perhaps feed a capitalist system that caused so much harm to the people who were once enslaved here? We were truly conflicted as we wandered the grounds and then took the guided tour.
We first walked into the gift shop and purchased our tour tickets. Already we felt uncomfortable handing over our money to a place once designed to make a profit off the backs of slaves, yet we convinced ourselves that, as an historic site, maybe this wasn’t “that bad,” and was worth touring. After we bought our tickets, we wandered around the gift shop and instantly noticed a map of the Confederate United States on the wall. Our discomfort at this point was no doubt already obvious. The gift shop cashier kept eyeing us suspiciously. Then we noticed the books for sale. The collection included books such as When the South was Southern by Michael Grissom, The South was Right by James and Walter Kennedy, Myths of Slavery by Walter Kennedy and Bob Harrison, and Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters by Grace King. The exchange of looks between us confirmed our suspicions. This plantation was not ashamed of romanticizing its “glorious” past.
After leaving the gift shop, we started our self-guided tour of the grounds and museum. We openly talked about our inner conflict and the discomfort we felt about being in a place that obviously oppressed most of those who once lived and worked here. At one point Carie said, “Dude, let’s get out of here.” But we convinced ourselves to stay. “No, let’s just see what happens, and then we’ll write a piece about it.”
We proceeded to “nose” around the grounds, our tourist gaze obviously jaded. We walked through the perfectly manicured lush gardens and the vast fields of grass that were home to some of the most beautiful oak trees we had ever seen. We commented on how such a beautiful place needs to be contrasted with what had to have been a living hell for the slaves who were forced to toil on these grounds for the profit of “Massa.” We then made our way into the museum and we were fortunate to have it to ourselves. This gave us the opportunity to openly dialogue about what we were seeing and how it was being presented under the guise of public history. After doing so, we sat down and viewed—without anyone else in the room—a brief film chronicling the history of the family and the plantation. We were struck by how the plantation owner was portrayed as a fundamentally benevolent man. We called bullshit on the meetinghouse and school that he supposedly built for his slaves, but made a note to ask a tour guide if this was indeed true.
After the museum, we wandered to the family cemetery where Carie spat without hesitation on the grave of John Hampden Randolph, the “benevolent” plantation owner. After the therapeutic expectoration, we joined a tour group as they stepped into the foyer of the “big house” where a woman in a Victorian dress and a Southern drawl met us. She immediately started to recite a well-scripted account of the family and the history of Nottoway. Some of her lines we were taken word for word from the museum literature and the film.
Being quite bored with the scripted historical narrative we waited for some mention – ANY mention – of slave life on the plantation. The first mention of slaves on the plantation came when the guide described how wealthy Mr. Randolph was. She described the dowry he received when he married, noting that he got $20,000 in cash and twenty slaves. The dowry, it turned out, was the financial and human capital he used to build Nottoway. When the guide described his growing wealth, she made it a point to quantify his wealth in terms of slaves, rather than money. The guide bragged that, at the peak of his wealth, Mr. Randolph had 155 slaves.
The second mention of slaves came when the guide spoke of the ingenuity that Mr. Randolph displayed when he developed an intricate bell system which rang in different tones so that the slaves would know exactly which room they were needed in. The last mention of slaves on the one-hour tour came when the guide described the “whistling way.” This was the path that led from the outside kitchen to the dining room. As the guide noted, Mr. Randolph ordered his slaves to whistle while they walked along the path in order to ensure that they were not eating or spitting on any the family’s food.
Disgusted by the ambivalent way that slave life was portrayed, we waited for the scripted tour to end so we could grill the guide on the real nature of Mr. Randolph. We ended at the museum and before the guide could take off, we asked her if there really was a slave school and meetinghouse. She assured us that this was in fact true. She stated that, besides the school and meetinghouse, every Christmas Mr. Randolph gave the slaves a pig to roast and the family ate in the slave quarters.
Though we were confused and perturbed, we soon realized that Mr. Randolph most likely tried to be a benevolent slave owner and he even went so far as to teach his slaves to read. In fact, after slavery was banned, he was so “kind” to his slaves many of them “chose” to return to Nottoway and work for a “wage.” This apologetic interpretation of plantation life was no more assuring to us than if Mr. Randolph had been the cruelest slave master because, at the end of the day, he was still a contributor to the oppressive slave system.
In other words, does it really matter how benevolent a slave owner attempts to be when the slaves themselves were still subjugated and forced to live miles from the “big house,” or had to whistle while they delivered the dinner, or had to live under the oppression of both physical and mental shackles? We think not! In fact, it is this exact hypocrisy that we deem as cruel and unusual punishment because it instituted a mental colonization that that has been passed down from generation to generation and has left many Black Americans with the slave community mindset instituted by the Willie Lynch Letter centuries ago.
What’s more disturbing is that Nottoway is now a resort where tourists can drive through the Black rural ghettos and arrive at the grand plantation and pay upwards of $240 a night to stay in “cottages” which are replicas of the original slave quarters.
Profiting yet again on the backs of those who toiled under the shackles of slavery. Is this not the epitome of capitalist greed?
Other articles by Carie Rael include APD: The Most Dangerous Gang in Anaheim and Private Party, Private Funding, Private Interest: Who do Public University Presidents Work For?
Other articles by John Belleci include I’m Just Sayin’ (An Open Letter to Historians) and I’m Just Sayin’ (Warning Shot: Explicit Thoughts Contained Within).