A few years ago, people touring the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah, Ga., would have heard a lot about George Owens, the lawyer, farmer and Congressional representative who lived in the massive neoclassical home in 1833. And about banker and slave trader Richard Richardson, for whom the house was built in 1816. They might have heard Emma Katin’s name, but not about how the enslaved black woman spent most of her nights sleeping on the wooden floors of the house, so that she could be available at all hours to the infants in the Owens family.
They wouldn’t have heard about the 14 other enslaved people who lived there. And there’s a good chance that guests would not have heard about the 400 other slaves the Owenses had on their other nearby properties.
“Those pieces of the story would have been missing because she would have been treated as an accessory to the Owens’ lives,” said Shannon Browning-Mullis, a curator of history and decorative arts for Telfair Museums, which owns the house and has been in charge of rethinking the way its history is told.
In cities including Savannah and Charleston, S.C., where Confederate statues, elegant mansions and plantation weddings are common, tourism has often taken the form of nostalgia for the antebellum South, Southern charm and Southern hospitality. For years, tours of historic homes would focus on their architecture and fine furniture, but not on how the wealth so clearly displayed depended on enslaved labor.
There is a growing consensus among the interpreters who guide people through historic properties that by excluding stories of the enslaved, institutions like historical societies, museums and tour companies have sent the message that power and wealth were not directly connected to slavery, and racism, and erased the stories of the black people who built these cities.
Now that’s changing.
“When we come to see historic houses, often we are coming to see what it looked like to live in the past and a lot of us are sometimes just coming to see a pretty house,” said Lacey Wilson, a historic interpreter for Telfair Museums, to a group of tourists on a recent tour. “What we’re looking at is the political power of the people who lived here. All the beautiful decorative objects throughout the house — the money coming for all these things came primarily from the enslaving of other human beings.”
During Ms. Wilson’s tours, visitors hear that 26 people could sit at the Owenses formal dining room table when it was extended; that the crown molding that runs just below the room’s ceiling was rare at the time it was created; that the rooms were fully carpeted to show off to guests that the family was well-off.
But Ms. Wilson doesn’t stop there. She explains, in detail, that the presentation of wealth wasn’t possible without the enslaved people on the property. The meals served on that elaborate table were prepared by a black butler named Peter; the crown molding was dusted multiple times a day; the carpet was taken apart at least twice weekly, beaten and spot-cleaned with boiling water by the enslaved people in the house, including the children.
“The first thought coming in is how beautiful this room is, and it absolutely is, but this is how the Owenses and Richardsons would have wanted you to see this space,” Ms. Wilson said in the house’s second dining room. “It’s more than likely that is not how the enslaved people would have seen the space.”
In November the house was renamed to include “and Slave Quarters” in its title.
Stories of urban slavery
The shift toward telling stories of slavery more accurately and fully has happened over the past few years and has been most visible on some plantations like Oak Alley and the Whitney plantation in Louisiana, at the McLeod Plantation in Charleston and at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia. The shift has also been visible in museums around the country. The opening of the National Museum of African-American History in Washington and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama have forced institutions to reckon with how they tell the stories of the African-Americans who built so many of the buildings tourists come to see. Later this year, the International Museum of African-American History will open in Charleston.
When many Americans think of slavery, they have the misconception that it was strictly an agricultural institution, with black people forced to labor on farms, picking cotton, sugar and tobacco. But historians say that by 1860 slaves made up 20 percent of the population in major cities, and in Charleston black people outnumbered whites. Urban slaves, like Ms. Katin, were forced to work night and day for wealthy families. Many of the houses where they labored were home to prominent politicians of the day, and are both popular tourist and school field-trip destinations.
“The thing about historic houses is that they play a key role in educating America in who we are as a country,” said Elon Cook Lee, a historic house consultant and the president of the Black Interpreter’s Guild. “Elementary, middle and high school students come year after year and in many cases this is their first time learning about slavery.”
At the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, questions of how enslaved carriage drivers, cooks, butlers, gardeners, laundresses, nursemaids, carpenters and seamstresses would have seen the home where they toiled are now central to tours of the property.
In that home, tours focus on where the enslaved worked and slept, not where the white families socialized. The tours begin in a basement and visitors are taken through the servants’ hall, the kitchen, the ancillary kitchen and the slave quarters. In those quarters, they see where Ann and Tom Greggs and their children Phoebe and Henry slept; where Dorcas and Sambo Richardson, and their children Charles, Rachael, Victoria, Elizabeth and Julia slept; and where Betsy Crutchfield and her children Thomas, Jane and William slept.
A few miles away, at the Nathaniel Russell House, there is an effort to make storytelling about urban slavery more inclusive of the experiences of the enslaved. Two years ago, artifacts were found in the space where the enslaved would have lived from around the 1830s to the 1860s. The house belonged to the slave trader Nathaniel Russell in 1808 and was later home to a governor, Robert Alston.
When Lauren Northup, director of museums for the Historic Charleston Foundation, leads a tour or when visitors listen to the self-guided audio tour of the house, they hear how the enslaved people in the house and the white family would have interacted in almost every room. The differences between the spaces where the white family lived and socialized compared to where the enslaved toiled are stark. Tourists also hear, again and again, about how every aspect of the house, which was built by a wealthy merchant, was designed to let the owners see and control the enslaved.
Most guests at the Nathaniel Russel House remark on the beauty of the mansion and its décor, Ms. Northup said, adding that she reminds them that the house was built with the purpose of “keeping people in, keeping people from seeing each other, from socializing, from talking,” she said. “It was a prison. That is what I’m trying to make people understand — you are in a beautiful prison.”
Galvanized by church shooting
Ms. Northup said that her organization has been actively working to change its storytelling since the mid-1990s. But in 2017, when she, with the help of art conservator Susan Buck, discovered that much of the original fabric of the slave quarters were intact, with artifacts, there was an urgency to study, preserve and open the space to the public.
In the wake of the shooting, the church became a tourist destination and a symbol of resilience and community, but also of what can happen when communities don’t confront racism or tell their histories honestly.
“If there was any good to come out of the tragedy that happened at Emanuel, it was that it showed people that we still have a racial problem in Charleston, in America and we have to talk about it,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby, vice president of the Charleston N.A.A.C.P. “The history in tours, the history of the Civil War, still affects criminal justice today.”(The reverend, like many African-Americans, prefers the Gullah Geechee tours in Charleston, which tell the stories of the descendants of West Africans who were brought to America’s southeastern coast more than two centuries ago.)
Of the 400,000 enslaved people who were brought to the United States, 40 percent arrived in Charleston before going anywhere else; the city was the wealthiest in the colonial era, in large part because of the labor of slaves. A 2017 College of Charleston study found that the wealth gap between white and black families in the city is as large as it was half a century ago.
After the Emanuel shooting, “things changed in Charleston,” Ms. Northup said. “That was such a watershed time for Charleston because of Emanuel. The community fundamentally and irrevocably changed.”
Increasingly, the people going on house tours are looking for more history and are trying to satisfy “a hunger” for history and truth, Ms. Browning-Mullis in Savannah and Ms. Northup in Charleston said.
A search for more factually accurate information about slavery and African-American history in Georgia is what led Jason Lumpkin, a pastor in Atlanta, to the Owens-Thomas House with his wife and two daughters in March. Mr. Lumpkin was surprised with how well the experiences of the enslaved were explained, and he appreciated that he did not have to specifically request information about black people as if it were supplementary.
“A few years ago, we did a tour where slavery was just glossed over and I had to ask about it to hear about it,” he said. “I don’t feel like that was the case at the Owens-Thomas House. They were intentional to talk about slavery and the issues associated with it and address them head on. I appreciated the fact that as bad as it was they were honest and in-depth.”
Mr. Lumpkin said that in addition to passing down stories about ancestors who were enslaved, he and his wife try to find different ways of teaching their daughters about their family history, and that history is incomplete without a discussion of slavery.
“I don’t trust the school system to tell them the true story of slavery,” Mr. Lumpkin said. “Knowing there are discrepancies out there in how that history is told, it’s even more important that as parents we be intentional in making sure our daughters understand and learn outside of school, and tours like this are a way to do it.”
A long way to go
Changes in the way history is presented aren’t universal, but changes made by a few houses may inspire others to follow suit. After all, the Nathaniel Russell House as well as a handful of others that are currently rethinking their tours all said they looked to the Owens-Thomas House for lessons in how to do better.
Ms. Cook Lee, of the Black Interpreters Guild, said that how stories of the enslaved are told matters because when black children hear about slaves as “window dressing” or accessories to the lives of white families, the children’s own perceptions of blackness can be negatively affected.
“Kids start to think, ‘my ancestors just stood in a back corner with no thoughts’ or ‘I wish I was white because white people do so many great things and are creative and smart,’” Ms. Cook Lee said.
Historically accurate tours can give black children in particular a link to their American identity instead of a perception that they aren’t as central to the American story as their white peers. “I’ve had ancestors fight in nearly every war and that makes me feel a connection to this country,” she said.
52 PLACES AND MUCH, MUCH MORE Follow our 52 Places traveler, Sebastian Modak, on Instagram as he travels the world, and discover more Travel coverage by following us on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our Travel Dispatch newsletter: Each week you’ll receive tips on traveling smarter, stories on hot destinations and access to photos from all over the world.