The Plantation Myth is Alive and Well in Savannah

Last summer I delivered a talk as part of an NEH program at the Georgia Historical Society on the Civil War and historical memory. One of the highlights of the visit was the tour we took of Savannah’s historically black communities. The most memorable stop for me was the federal housing project in Yamacraw Village, which includes an administration building that is a replica of a famous plantation home.

For my latest op-ed at Bunk I decided to dig a bit deeper into its history and try to provide some historical context.You can read it here.

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16 comments… add one
  • Rob Baker Feb 3, 2018 @ 6:10

    A bit different but right up your alley, what do you make of the prevalence of slave abuse stories on the various ghost tours in Savannah?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 3, 2018 @ 6:21

      Can’t say I’ve given it much thought.

  • Rob Baker Feb 2, 2018 @ 10:42

    I did not know this – and I vacation there every year.

    This is disheartening to read. Especially when you have historians and preservationists at houses such as the Davenport House and the Owen-Thomas House who are doing wonderful work of uncovering the stories of slaves who labored there.

  • Keith McIntyre Jan 25, 2018 @ 10:49

    The administration building was constructed in an architectural style relevant to the area. Reference Mills Lane’s book on Architecture of the Old South – a classic. Racism had nothing to do with it. You are looking for spooks and finding them where none exist.

  • Yulanda Burgess Jan 20, 2018 @ 8:22

    Thanks for introducing me to Bunk.

    I think we are in a “I Too” moment where interpreting the existence of African Americans and their existence in our historical is being reevaluated. The plantation houses and slave dwellings are included in that process. There are very few of these slave dwellings that exist. The Slave Dwelling Project is an effort to rediscover this neglected past. In the case of the Hermitage slave dwellings, I’ve had an opportunity to interpret the lives of enslaved people to the general public who have had an opportunity to see those living spaces. The cabins give a sense of what the enslaved people’s living spaces where like. Henry Ford brought two to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. I think that the horrors of our past that remain in a dwelling is a opportunity to have discussions that should be more inclusives.

    I am striving to visit the plantation house associated with my enslaved ancestors as I know that they helped build it. Seeing and touching that dwelling will physically tie me to their past. I am grateful that it wasn’t torn down.

    • Meg Groeling Jan 20, 2018 @ 11:26

      Yulanda–thank you a million times for, “I, too.” Let’s have a t-shirt made or something. Balm to my eyes, and my heart. Where do you interpret?

      • Yulanda Burgess Jan 22, 2018 @ 12:06

        I am Michigan based but interpreted at several sites and events throughout the US and Ontario. I am not that active anymore. My focus lately has been slaying mis-education regarding history. Thus, my interest in following Mr. Levin.

  • hankc Jan 20, 2018 @ 7:26

    difficult to fathom how a reproduction of a plantation manor is deemed ‘historical’.

  • Bex Jan 20, 2018 @ 6:09

    Great article. This certainly gives the old saying ‘stuck in the past’ a whole new meaning. It’s disturbing how many people like to indulge in this ‘nostalgia’, creating a very sugar coated image of the old South, one that denies the suffering of African Americans. This mock-up plantation is just one of many examples throughout history trying to recreate so-called ‘times gone by’, when in reality the people who decide to have weddings in replicas like this are living in a fantasy, one where rampant racism and classism was nonexistent.

    It’s not just these Disneyland-esque mockups and films like Gone with the Wind which perpetuate the Plantation Myth, it happens all the time in literature. As an aspiring author myself I was shocked at first to see how many fiction authors, especially those writing romance told their stories from a Southern perspective rather than a Northern one, but now I think I know why this is the case. Obviously the North wasn’t ideal, in fact most of those who fought for the Union most likely didn’t have the well-being of the slaves in mind, but the North ultimately did the right thing in the end, emerged the victors and the South became the losers, the ‘underdogs’ so to speak and their society changed forever. The world of historical fiction and society in general, loves an underdog story, and one of a lost world or culture. In the eyes of some of these authors, it’s a perfect cocktail, even if it ends up glossing over the very real oppression and abuse that black Americans faced.

    The idea that the old South was a place of romance and beauty is a mindset that dominated the 20th century and dominates the South today. The concept of the ‘kind master’ and his ‘happy slaves’ is still very popular in fiction, even today and even after Disney tried to make people forget ‘Song of the South’. I can see why books and films which romantiscise the South still sell so well and why plantation replicas like the one you described are still standing today, despite the outcry against them and the despite the fact that most Civil War historians don’t support the ‘Lost Cause’ myth. Since Confederate monuments are only just beginning to come down I sadly doubt that the Plantation Myth will go away anytime soon. It kind of reminds me of people in my country wishing for the so-called ‘glory days’ of the British Empire despite the amount of suffering British colonialism caused across the globe and the fact that many countries are still recovering from it to this day.

    • London John Jan 20, 2018 @ 11:55

      Your last sentence is very true. I think perhaps the activism over confederate monuments in the US is inspiring us to notice and in due course act on the monuments (of all kinds) of British colonial history.
      As for the “Plantation Experience” offering, I first learnt about that from “The Cutting Season” by Attica Locke. Sometimes fiction can get inside situations in a way factual writing can’t.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2018 @ 14:00

      I highly recommend Nina Silber’s book The Romance of Reunion, which explores the attraction of the Old South in Northern fiction and other venues at the turn of the twentieth century.

  • Waymon Hinson Jan 20, 2018 @ 4:51

    I find this post compelling and will read it again this afternoon. Placed against the research I am doing around African American land ownership and dispossession, this post rings a bell. The fact that we gloss over so many aspects of our peoples’ history while failing to understand the challenges that they went through to gain personhood, the right to vote, the right to work as freed people, and the right to own property after years of being owned property is a grief that our country has yet to face and face well. That we glorify all manner of things via redeveloping such sites or erecting such monuments is a part of the unresolved narrative of the USA.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2018 @ 4:58

      Hi Waymon. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • David Kent Jan 20, 2018 @ 4:45

    Thank you so much for the “bunk” website Kevin. I read the first two articles in the civil war section, as well as yours concerning Yamacraw Village, and was happily informed by all. It’s great to see articles that add people’s thoughts who were there living it. My sister is a grade school teacher, and I will send her a link to it. Very enlightening articles……

    • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2018 @ 4:47

      Hi David,

      Thanks so much for the positive feedback.

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