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back to index A Brief Ethnography of Magnolia Plantation: Planning for Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Chapter 11: Local People Speak of Slavery

Black and White Views on Addressing Slavery

Slavery initially met little support as an interpretive topic, although individual interest in interpreting it varied somewhat with age and social features, such as ethnicity and kinship, business, or labor relationship to the Hertzogs’. Several older blacks – former Magnolia tenants – and whites, appeared uncomfortable even discussing the possibility of considering slavery. They avoided eye contact with Crespi, for example, and hesitantly addressed the topic. The two local interviewers themselves objected to raising the topic. Nearly everyone’s immediate response was that slavery was an unacceptable interpretive topic. Some whites were concerned with how outsiders, including visitors from other regions and with other views, would perceive local people and cultures if slavery was discussed. Some elderly black former tenants, who found discussions of slavery untenable, commented that managers and their treatments of the labor community could differ significantly among plantations. Unlike other places they had heard of, “there was no brutalizing at the Hertzogs’.” They thought this plantation had a high regard for its labor community. In these public conversations, they dismissed the possibility of mistreatment by conceptually excising Magnolia from the mainstream 19th century plantations with the comment that “it’s in a class by itself.” White and black people preferred interpretive programs that would highlight events of the present century, especially “our times,” the times they remembered and often enthusiastically described. Their reluctance to conceive of slavery as an acceptable public topic tended to diminish as the conversations progressed, or during subsequent conversations, when the initially reluctant black and white respondents modified their initial opposition to public discussions of this thorny issue.

The initially reticent black people and whites came to agree with those few who had unambiguously supported an interpretation of slavery that the topic was legitimate. But, people insisted, it should not be the major or single focus. Slavery was acceptable only if presented as one phase in a historical sequence of phases that ran the gamut from Magnolia’s inception through its transformation from a traditional plantation to the presently mechanized farming operation. The National Park Service was asked to contextualize the story in terms of political, demographic, economic, and other conditions so that slavery would not be presented in isolation as a comment about local morality, or the lack of it, or a comment about economic decisions alone. Rather, slavery should be portrayed as a response to diverse regional and national conditions.

The language of slavery also drew some comment. Several whites and black former residents noted the offensiveness of describing the cabins as “slave quarters.” Just call them “quarters,” they argued, because a succession of different categories of workers occupied them and it is misleading to depict the cabins as just housing one kind of worker. Moreover, several black people who had occupied the cabins as day laborers, explained, “if you say people lived in the slave quarters in this century, you are implying they are slaves.” Former resident laborers asserted that the park must “make it clear that tenant laborers were not slaves.” One black person who had grown up in Magnolia’s sharecropper area was even offended at the suggestion that she might have been a tenant in the quarters. On the other hand, because the cabins were constructed to house enslaved people, some whites argued, they should be called “slave quarters.”

Blacks and whites without direct ties to Magnolia or who were several generations removed from the resident labor force seemed more comfortable speaking of slavery. They suggested that “the National Park Service must talk about slavery because that’s what made the plantation work and we can’t make believe it didn’t happen.” Another noted that “slavery must be mentioned because it is the background for discussing how Magnolia evolved from slavery to respect for colored people.”

Blacks Suggest Topics on Slavery and Its Aftermath

  • Resistance to enslavement, including the Underground Railroad.
  • Social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions of the slave community.
  • Adapting to freedom: abolition, reconstruction, and their aftermath.
  • Black roles today.

One black respondent from urban Natchitoches, without direct ties to Magnolia or the countryside, vigorously argued for a generic discussion of slavery as a despicable “evil institution” that dehumanized people, depriving them of the skills and education required to effectively survive after manumission. To convey to visitors the full impact of an institution that enslaved the mind and the spirit, he observed, the aftermath of slavery needed explication. “The tragedy of slavery was that some people didn’t know how to deal with life without having someone there to tell them. Slavery kept people from developing survival skills.” Moreover, he argued, slaves must not be portrayed as passive victims. They were also people who created strategies to protect themselves and also planned and implemented insurrections. Draw attention to the possible presence of the Underground Railroad, he argued, and to the Lemee house on Jefferson St., which might have been a station on the Underground Railroad.

A young black person whose grandparents were from the Hertzogs’ place argued that it was imperative to share the plantation history with younger people. Otherwise, the story would be lost in the future and young people would not know of the past difficulties. Indeed, several people prevailed upon the National Park Service to convey “old time talk” or black history to younger people so they could better appreciate their elders’ experiences as well as their presently improved situation. One individual was forceful about needing to “preserve the memories of our people from generation to generation but, when we speak to blacks, we must talk about slavery with compassion. Whites will be in the audience too and because hardships were suffered by everyone, black and white, you must tell the story from white and slave perspectives. Talk about harsh things too, and good things.” He added, as others had, the National Park Service should “end the story where it comes out now. Even if things may not be the way everybody wants them, they still progressed to a degree.” Blacks are among the professional people now, and that should be made clear. Still, said another who found the slavery topic difficult, “if you must talk about it, then get into it and get out”; do not dwell on it.

Few black respondents discussed the emotional pain their parents and grandparents might have experienced at the plantation or Natchitoches parish in general. One, however, recalled how tearful her father became when describing what older people said and how difficult it was for him to talk to her about it. This same woman added that people refused to discuss the past, whether the topic was slavery, abolition, or Jim Crow eras, because they were too hurt and angry; they don’t want to remember a past that robbed them of their humanity. “Why did black men hang from the trees?” she asked rhetorically. And “how could some people tell other people to go to the back of the bus or not drink from their water fountain or get off the sidewalk? God wouldn’t be a just God if he would let this still happen.” Its difficult to talk about, this individual recognized, but, if the National Park Service is to discuss those days, “the Lord will show you how to talk about this in a way that doesn’t offend people, but to speak as necessary; not to hurt people or create pain, but to make them understand more.”

Whites Suggest Topics on Slavery and its Aftermath

Several suggestions were made about sequential changes that would express the plantation’s evolution and also give visitors a sense of a dynamic rural scenario. One proposed sequence is:

  • Indigenous occupations;
  • Slavery;
  • Abolition and emancipation;
  • Reconstruction;
  • 1910 Boll Weevil infestation;
  • The Great Depression;
  • World War II;
  • Mechanization;
  • Rural depopulation;
  • Out-migration to Natchitoches and elsewhere.

Another suggestion was to organize interpretation around major decision points, such as:

  • How to cultivate a plantation without mechanization.
  • Why feudal management styles were pursued.
  • Whether to rebuild the plantation house after the Civil War.
  • Strategies for responding to the 1930s economic crisis.
  • How to manage pressures for mechanization and economic diversification.
  • Choosing tenancy and sharecropping arrangements.

Whites also suggested discussing occupational diversity among slaves as a way to describe social as well as economic and political relationships between enslaved people and their owners. Another potential topic was the hierarchical relationships within the slave community that were based partly on the different occupational roles and could lead to greater advantages for some slaves. Concubinage as an acceptable relationship between French Creoles and Creoles of color in the 19th century was another suggestion.

Whites also raised the economics of slavery as another possibility. They thought it would be instructive to show that slaves were defined and treated like commodities in an economic system in which decisions to use slaves reflected business considerations and market-based economic rational choices. Another suggestion was to consider the operation of the plantation commissary and the forms of debt peonage based on payment with scrip/coins that perpetuated the system of labor dependency even after slavery was abolished. It would be important, people suggested, to show both sides of the system, using ledgers and other historic documents that tell a story about people and the economics of slavery over the past few hundred years. The story might also be told by using different cabins at Magnolia to interpret the historical sequence from slavery to the end of tenancy.

The potential racial composition of the interpretive staff raised some interest. One white person wondered about the race of the future park interpreters and mentioned his own discomfort—a feeling of being targeted—when he visited colonial Williamsburg and a black interpreter told the story of plantation slavery. The respondent was not suggesting limiting the staff to white people but raising the relationship between ethnicity and interpretive roles as a discussion point.

Creoles of Color Views on Slavery

Creole participants in this study came primarily from the heritage area, not Magnolia. Many were the offspring of planters or landowners themselves, mostly of modest holdings, and some were offspring of people who once sharecropped or rented plantation land along Upper Cane River. They necessarily brought a different personal history and interpretive grid to the discussion of slavery, partly because some of their ancestors might have been slaves and others were recalled as landholders who depended on slaves themselves. At different times in their own family histories, different ancestors might have played both roles. Interpreting slavery to the visiting public was not a difficult or contentious issue to this group. They seemed to agree that slavery “should be presented like it was a sign of the time, not that anyone blessed it or thought it was right.”

Noting that their Creole ancestors also ran slave-driven plantations, some people perceived slavery as a rational economic choice that responded to labor needs prior to the introduction of mechanized farm equipment. As one person commented, “If you had land, you had to have some help in the days before John Deere.” He added, “If you had any intention of surviving in business then you use the labor that’s available; in this case it was slaves and it happened that slaves were darker skinned.” It was business, not morality, that prompted planters to buy and sell slaves, he argued.

Considering slavery as implying a reciprocal economic relationship, one person remarked that the owner was responsible for people from birth to death. Slaves, on the other hand, had a job to do and were paid for it in food, clothing, and shelter. In addition, Magnolia’s brick quarters were cool, making for a more comfortable, healthy, cabin. One person illustrated his argument about slavery as a rational economic choice by adding that use of bricks did not reflect the landowners’ graciousness as much as the need to have slaves making bricks for other structures. Further, he said, it was important to keep slaves occupied throughout the year, even when agricultural demands had peaked, and brick-making kept the workers busy. The Creole respondents also perceived their landed ancestors as having given slaves relative freedom and no mistreatment in order to avoid encouraging counter-productive, unsatisfactory job performance or runaways. Compared to South Louisiana where, they said, cruelty to slaves was common, Cane River planters were lenient.

A point no others had made about slave history was offered by one Creole woman who observed that slaves had their own complex history. Slaves were often “real classy” people when they were in Africa but were brought here to be treated without dignity. Despite that treatment, she continued, some blacks were very smart and capable and became mechanics, carpenters, and preachers.

Events, Activities, and Perspectives to Avoid

Black Concerns

These emphasized the need to be treated with dignity and not stereotyped:

  • Don’t refer to us as slaves or to our houses as slave quarters. We were free laborers when we lived there at the Hertzogs’.
  • Don’t get dressed as old mammies or try speaking the way you think slaves must have sounded. In effect, don’t mimic or mock them.
  • Don’t try to act the way you think slaves did. Again, don’t mimic or mock them.

White Concerns:

  • Discourage heavily capitalized hotel development in historic Natchitoches which would create traffic problems, reduce the historic qualities of west Natchitoches by choking narrow streets and bridges, threaten historic streets with widening, and unfairly compete with historic inns.
  • Help preserve the environmental and cultural qualities of the area. “Keep it from becoming too civilized,” overpopulated, overbuilt, and converted to a playground where new water sports, for example, or development leads to degeneration of habitat and lifeways.
  • Hire local people as Magnolia storekeepers and park managers or people with experience in Natchitoches and Magnolia in order to respond to public queries in a knowledgeable manner.
  • Don’t portray us as forcing poverty, such as keeping blacks barefoot, and powerlessness on black people.
  • Be aware of southern sensitivities by conveying non-judgmental portrayals of southern culture and sensitivity to potentially adverse effects of tourism and development.

Creole of Color Concerns:

  • Direct people and vehicles to a cultural center in Derry to learn about Creole culture, and discourage them from going to Upper Cane River on Highways 484 and 119. Channel traffic away from side roads. Keep Magnolia traffic on Highway 1, straight to Magnolia, and avoid roads used by working tractors and trailers. Teach visitors to respect privacy of Creole homes and driveways, and avoid creating heavy traffic.
  • Avoid bringing people from National Park Service offices in Natchitoches or New Mexico or from Cajun areas to interpret Creole culture. Interpret it through oral histories or other activity, and hire local Creole people.
  • Work with Creole preservationists. Use sensitive local people qualified for interpretive work. Don’t use people to work as National Park Service guides and make them wear aprons and antebellum dress.
  • Cajuns are not wanted here to tell visitors what Creoles do. We wouldn’t tell visitors what Cajuns do or what they are about.
  • Don’t just have people reading something from a book.
  • Don’t do living history (no consensus about this activity).
  • Discourage visitors from taking Creole children’s photos (no consensus, its acceptable to do so if prior permission is given).
  • Protect and respect Creole privacy by reducing the National Park Service presence. Keep the area a quiet community without motels and restaurants on the river. Discourage wealthy subdivisions with locked gated communities or trailer parks. Keep wealthy people in subdivisions from putting retaining walls around the river banks because the walls are threatening the integrity of their own banks downstream.
  • Avoid having the park become so touristy and commercial that local people become “like monkeys in a zoo that tourists drive by to see how Creoles look. Photos should not be taken of us. Don’t make this place like Santa Fe where all those people (Indian vendors in the plaza) were selling their wares.”
  • Staff at the park tourist center should be informed about all local tourist opportunities, be prepared with readable area maps and brochures, and learn enough about visitor interests and schedules to direct them appropriately. For example, visitors should know that Melrose closes at 4 P.M., and that they can use Highway 1 or take the river tour. Installing restroom facilities at the center and the park is essential.

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