This blog post was written by Miranda Bennett, assistant editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.
John Little, who escaped to Canada from bondage in Tennessee, told an interviewer, “Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is,—’tis he who has endured.”
This seems an obvious observation and yet it’s something we think about a lot at Encyclopedia Virginia as we continue work on an NEH-supported section of content about the African American experience in Virginia before the Civil War. When studying slavery, it can be easy to listen to those who stood and looked on at the expense of those who endured slavery. There’s a practical reason for that: a lot more has been written by enslavers than by the men and women they enslaved. We often use this imbalance of recorded information as an excuse for not exploring the humanity of enslaved people.
So, how do we avoid making this mistake? How do we tell the story of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved?
It’s important to learn from what other institutions are doing, of course, and on a recent visit to the Whitney Planation in Louisiana I got to witness firsthand the compelling ways this museum has found to help its visitors understand the perspectives of the enslaved.
In addition to assigning entries on the lives of enslaved people and publishing dozens of Virginia slave narratives, we’ve been documenting, using a 360-degree camera, slave dwellings that have survived the century and a half since emancipation. The images we create of these often anonymous and forgotten buildings can then be viewed through our headsets that transport you to the space virtually. For those structures that sit on private property or are on the verge of collapse, this is the only way to experience them. More importantly, though, we document them because intimacy with a space is a powerful connection to the past and the people who lived there.
Located on the Mississippi River, forty miles west of New Orleans, Whitney was founded as an indigo plantation in 1752 before transitioning to sugar in the 1800s. At its height, the plantation enslaved 120 people, and during harvest season, they labored twenty-four hours a day over open fires ladling boiling sugar juice through a series of open kettles.
In 2014 Whitney Plantation opened as the first museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery in the United States. When guiding visitors through the site, staff members use the interviews with freedpeople that were conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s and 1940s as the launching pad for an enslaved perspective on slavery. Those freedpeople would have been children at emancipation—and throughout the plantation there are clay figures representing the children enslaved at Whitney. The recollections of these children offer insight into this foundation of American history that’s usually told in the words of those profiting off the institution.
At the start of the tour we were each given a card with the name of a former slave interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project, along with an excerpt from their interview. I was stunned to see that the card I received had an excerpt of an interview with Peter Barber, a man who was, like me, born in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was the first of many times during my visit that I would be asked to emotionally connect with the enslaved women and men who built Whitney and the country.
The tour began with our group experiencing some of the many memorials shaping the landscape of Whitney. At first it felt jarring to be asked to memorialize these people whose lives we didn’t know. But the Wall of Honor, a memorial dedicated to all the people who were enslaved on Whitney Plantation, was deeply affecting. Reading and touching their engraved names, ages, origins, and quotations revealed and emphasized the humanity of Whitney’s enslaved laborers. When it came to absorbing the functional details of the plantation, we didn’t lose sight of the people at the heart of the system.
The memorializing continued as we moved on and passed a bell mounted on a frame. When Whitney was a working plantation the bell was rung to mark the start to the day, meal time, and bedtime, a routine that reminds us of the complete lack of control enslaved people had over their time. Our tour guide encouraged us to ring the bell with the name of a child in mind, a sonic memorial that clanged across the landscape.
Throughout the tour I found myself losing track of the bounds of that landscape. It wasn’t even clear where the “big house” was until we saw it at the very end of the tour, an inversion of your typical plantation tour. The order and manner in which we were introduced to the memorials and buildings was spatially disorienting. It felt like an intentional effort to ensure our dependence on the tour guide, who kept us from falling into the mainstream script of slavery.
At this point our tour guide gave us an introduction to the way the plantation worked. It’s the white owner’s perspective on slavery, an economic system devoid of humanity. But you still carry the names of the enslaved with you. You have the human cost in your mind when you hear the numbers that make up this economy, from slave sales to production amounts to hours of labor to lives lost. The Whitney staff designed the tour so that you cannot hear these facts and numbers detached from the people on whose backs that system was built.
The thoughtful interpretation I got on the Whitney tour has stuck with me and made me reflect on the way we interpret slavery and, in particular, slave dwellings, at Encyclopedia Virginia.
How can we reintroduce the lives of the enslaved into these spaces?
Joseph McGill, the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project and someone who is dedicated to identifying and preserving the structures where enslaved men, women, and children lived, has emphasized the important role they play in helping us to remember our history.” As long as these spaces are there,” he has said, “it’s very hard to deny the presence of the people who lived in them.”
Another preservationist, Jobie Hill, whose project is called Saving Slave Houses, has suggested that we research the names of all the people who lived in these slave dwellings. Without some details of the people who turned these buildings into homes in spite of extreme hardship, the images can feel like clinical architectural documentation.
Amassing the names, ages, skills, and origins of more than 300 people who labored at Whitney Plantation was a feat made possible only by extensive records and years of research. And even then there aren’t more than a handful of stories that researchers can attach to these families.
We’ve thought of interviewing descendants of the enslaved people who lived in these dwellings in order to connect our audience to their ancestors and the era of slavery. On the Whitney tour, our guide traced the lineage of a young enslaved woman to the present day, quoting her descendants’ reactions to Whitney. The purpose of including the descendants in the tour was to show their redemptive journey from slavery to becoming a prominent New Orleans family. That’s very different from the descendants becoming an emotional conduit for us to experience the horrors of slavery.
Our goal with these virtual tours is not to elicit an emotional response. But in order to capture the history of the enslaved, maybe we can’t be totally dispassionate. I’m not suggesting we produce historical fiction, but I wonder if there’s a way to create opportunities for creative empathy. When we go to historic houses we are constantly asked to imagine ourselves in the shoes of whatever wealthy (usually male) elites made their home there. That’s partly because there’s more about these people to draw upon when painting historical figures as real people. I wonder if getting inside the head of these people comes to us more easily because history is so often taught from a white male perspective. We’re not practiced in extending empathy to enslaved people. How can we inspire an imaginative empathy that allows us to inject humanity into these slave dwellings when the historical record is woefully incomplete?