Come a Long Way, but Still a Long Way to Go

Plantation:

 A large farm or estate, especially in a tropical or semi-tropical land on which crops such as cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, rice, coffee, and/or indigo are cultivated by resident laborers.                       

 An original settlement in a new country; a colony

 During 2012, as part of networking and research, board members of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project visited three very distinct plantation sites on the U.S. mainland: Monticello in Charlottesville, VA; Sotterley in Hollywood, MD; and Kingsley in Jacksonville, FL. Kingsley and Sotterley are on the water and actually served as points of arrival for saltwater Africans, and Monticello is perched in the piedmont region at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. On each of these isolated settlements, “resident workers,” enslaved Africans and their children, grew tobacco, or sea island cotton, or food staples and marketable products to support the property owners. However, that is a very antiseptic description of the actual human history.

We first visited Monticello, a designated World Heritage site celebrating the principles proclaimed by the author of the Declaration of Independence. In the Smithsonian Magazine’s October 2012 edition, “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson” by Henry Wiencek, has caught the attention of many. To people’s surprise, this article reveals deliberately buried essential truths about plantation life and Jefferson’s complicit and active supportive role in enslavement:

(1) his unabated acceptance that his wealth and power required human slavery and chattel reproduction;

(2) his approval of human torture and punishment to force enslaved people to work and produce for the primary benefit of the Jefferson family; and

(3) his unwillingness, even when given personal opportunity and material compensation, to alter the social structure of a slave system that supported his life style yet continuously threatened his wealth and well-being.

Wiencek describes how Jefferson became increasingly committed to and dependent upon the wealth and privilege provided by land and slavery. Tracing his evolution, we witness Jefferson develop the rationale to justify his choices and discard his earlier ideals of equality and liberty. He was a smart man; he knew he was on a slippery slope, but the “good life” and operating a private kingdom were his primary goals. What is even more disturbing is not the story of the man himself but the astounding knowledge that historians and scholars through generations deliberately ignored and omitted information as they uncovered Jefferson’s many “dark sides,” which they studied in great detail. Members of the country’s best educational institutions chose to accent the positive and hide (actually eliminate) the negative. This is an example of how myth is created and replaces historical fact. In this case, given these repeated omissions and alterations of history, one can understand how a place where children were whipped for not meeting a nail production quota, where people were denied all manner of human rights, can be celebrated.

A romantic notion of the ante-bellum period, with its masters, mistresses, servants and grand estates, is projected as part of the American past. Along side that fantasy is the image of the lying, lazy, ungrateful, ignorant, untrustworthy black person who will “smile and lie to your face,” and whose behaviors must be tolerated. Both these notions reject what Jefferson realized as he created his wonderland on the “mount in the sky” – that human beings who have no control over their lives or families, have little or no means of owning or benefitting from the products of their labor, and face future generations of enslavement and oppression are dangerous, deceitful, and undependable to the powerful and controlling. This reality refutes the “good master” and the “happy slave.”

The next site visited was Kingsley Plantation. A “mixed” marriage between a man of European descent and his former African slave, a Senegalese woman, is an American anomaly – according to prevalent perception. During this second marriage Mr. Kingsley, we are told, evolved morally and socially under the influence of his African wife. The enslaved at Kingsley were armed to hunt food and to protect themselves from neighbors who detested an estate where workers operated on a task system, lived according to their traditional cultures and beliefs, and enjoyed unprecedented levels of freedom and movement on the property. The significant difference was that Anna Kingsley managed this plantation under a system that did not dehumanize. Off the plantation, the workers were legally slaves; on the estate, the workers, although exiled from their original homes and families, were aware that they were protected and had a vested interest. As a result, this plantation became a pimple in the region, and prior to the outbreak of the Patriot War Mr. Kingsley transported his wife and children to Haiti, where he felt they would be safe from neighbors who saw his plantation as a threat to an entire established way of life. Even after the War, given the violent and racist history of north Florida and south Georgia, many of the formerly enslaved remained on the grounds for protection and community.

Sotterley Plantation was our final farm. Only within the last several years has there been a concerted effort to address Africans and their descendants when relating its history. Each previous owner has been comfortable in the estate’s portrayal as idyllic, at times financially draining, but always with black people in the background. They were viewed as part and parcel – in the kitchen, in the spinning house, in the field, in the nursery, in the cabin – of the property but never as the engine that maintained and sustained the estate. The historical version is deliberately changing. New historical markers are posted with information that incorporates the stories of people who lived and worked, who chose their opportunity to resist and escape.

It was the staff at Sotterley who discovered the owners’ involvement in the human trade and requested that a remembrance ceremony for Akan people be held and a marker be posted on site to reflect that history. When viewed by Sotterley’s past emphasis and interpretations, their current response is welcomed and reflects a willingness and enthusiasm to now include all people’s experiences. That’s a good thing.

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