My sister and I went to Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana yesterday. Louisiana is famous for it’s plantations. The Mississippi River was a major commerce highway, and our plantations line the roads along that muddy river that winds through our state. I’ve seen three since I’ve been home. Last year, I went to the Myrtles ( a haunted plantation) and to Laura which is one of the more recent tourist destinations. They have all been beautiful in their own right. Rosedown’s claim to fame is that it is mostly intact from it’s glory days. The State Park Ranger who conducted our tour yesterday said Rosedown still has 90% of its original furnishings – furnishings purchased mostly in the 1830’s. It was lovely.
The Garden (Click on the pics for captions.)
We arrived just after the 11 AM tour started, so we needed to wait an hour for the noon tour. We walked through the extensive gardens and sweated for the next hour. We sat for a spell in the rocking chairs on the front porch, wiping sweat from our brows and remarking at the huge “stick bug” that was on the rail. We wondered what the girls talked about sitting on this front porch. There were four girls in the Turnbull family. I imagine they talk about what girls always talk about … other girls and boys. I don’t imagine some things change very much. I said I wondered if one of them ever thought they’d be able to cool the air. I’m sure that would have been considered quite impossible in a time when 400 pound ice blocks had to be shipped from New Orleans once a month to cool milk and cheese. I wonder if any of them ever snuck into the ice house on a hot July day like we wanted to yesterday to feel the artificially cooled air on our dripping skin. We finally got into the house with its blessed air conditioning right at noon.
Sittin’ for a Spell
I have conflicting feelings about these plantations. They were successful because they had an enslaved workforce. Once slavery was made illegal, most of these plantations failed or became much less profitable. I talked to my sister about it this morning, and she said that they romanticize the way of life on these plantation tours, but the reality is that for most of the people on the plantation, life was pretty horrible. The Turnbull family had about 8-10 family members at any one time living an opulent, pampered lifestyle. Their home featured a built-in shower, 7 sets of China and furnishings imported from all over the world. They even had a Martha Washington tapestry hanging in the ladies’ sitting room. Their were about 450 slaves at the peak of the plantation’s success. For them, life was not glamorous at all. So, for the majority – a large majority – plantation life sucked. But that story is usually only hinted at in a plantation tour.
The Doctor’s Cottage
In the dining room, our guide told us that supper was served from about 2-3 PM because it was too hot to be outside. The Turnbull family would have a 4-7 course meal with each course being served on different china. The table yesterday was set for the dessert course. There was a shoo-fly that hung above the table that kept the bugs off the food. With the heat in Louisiana, all of the doors and windows had to be open to catch the breeze, and, of course, everything else came in, too. As I thought of all of those dishes in the heat of the day, I thought of the slaves that had to cook in that hot little kitchen outside with an open fire. They didn’t get to rest in the heat of the day. And they had to cook with fire. As much as I hate to wash dishes, all I could think about was who had to wash all of those damn dishes?? It broke my heart to think of it.
The Foyer and the Sitting Areas
Until I asked my sister about it this morning, I’ve never really talked about my feelings about slavery. Of course, I feel repulsed by the fact that it ever happened. That’s easy. What’s not so easy is the guilt I feel about it. I realize that I didn’t participate in it, nor did I make any decisions about it, but I believe that guilt is passed on through the generations for horrific acts. When the Bible mentions the ‘sins of the father’ being passed down, I believe it means the karmic debt that is passed through the generations. Even though a visit to a plantation brings up that karmic guilt that I feel as a southerner, I love to experience a piece of our history which can be all at once glamorous and romantic and painful and shameful. I hope that our plantations remain so that visitors – southern and otherwise – can see and experience a time in history when we were at our best and our worst in so many different respects. I have to wonder if there were people that lived in those homes and who owned slaves that were conflicted about what they were doing. I’m sure there were a few. I’d like to think there were many. But, who knows?
The Dining Room and Butler’s Pantry
I’ve noticed since I’ve been here in Louisiana that employees are treated differently than in other places I’ve lived. One friend of mine told me his employer never offered vacation time as a benefit until he got into management. For 20 something years, he could not take a paid vacation. I was horrified. He didn’t know there was anything odd about it. I know that for many, many years my sister got one week of vacation. I couldn’t believe that she never got an increase in leave time no matter how long she worked for that company. In my current role, I know that I feel terrible about how we compensate our teachers for the valuable work they do. And that’s a trickle down effect of the amount of money that the state deems necessary and acceptable for those that teach our youth and prepare them for jobs. My sister has said that she could double her salary as a teacher just by moving to Texas. I wonder if the value that is put on work and employees does not somehow stem from the attitudes that our forefathers had about slavery. Progress has been made, of course. But, if the bar was so low at one point that our southern society held slaves, why would it be surprising that progress in compensating and respecting employees is much slower than in parts of the country where that attitude never existed?
My sister takes her English classes on a Civil Rights tour of the South every year since she’s been teaching. She passes through Memphis after going to Selma and before she heads to Little Rock. She said she does it because she wants this generation of kids to talk to people who were there during the Civil Rights’ struggle. Her class also reads 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s slave narrative. His enslavement occurred in the area where her school is located. It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s another thing to see it and experience it. Lots and lots and lots of people died and lived awful lives during the times of slavery and in its aftermath. It is our legacy as white folk in the South – like it or not. I went to the Orpheum Theatre with my friend Jan in Memphis one evening. Jan is an African-American. Forgetting that life was different for her than me growing up in the south, I naively asked if she’d ever been to movies when the Orpheum was in its heyday. “Oh, yes,” she said. “But we had to sit in the balcony. We had to enter through a door in the back. I had to quit going when my Dad said he would no longer let us be treated like that.” I had forgotten… or maybe even more precisely, I never knew. While I could have had front row tickets, she did not have that right … that privilege. The karmic guilt spilled into my gut.
After we left the dining room yesterday, we walked in to the butler’s pantry. It was where the slaves staged the food after bringing it from the outdoor kitchen. In that pantry is the slaves’ stairwell. A narrow staircase winds up through the middle of the house. Our guide told us that they were not allowed to make noise as they climbed the stairs carrying buckets of water and whatever household supplies were needed upstairs. The steps were higher than your average stair. The wooden steps were worn in the center leaving a visible reminder of the hidden, painful efforts of the many who served a few. Karmic guilt washed over me as I took a picture while the ghosts of slaves stepped through my heart. The slaves were more integral to the success of that plantation and the way that family lived than anything else in the world. Without them, there would be no wealth … no decadent food … no built-in modern shower. The stairs in the house were built so well that almost 200 years later they don’t creak at all under the weight of a band of tourists. And they were totally uncompensated for their work. What does this white girl know of a slave’s life? Very few slave narratives exist. We read the history of the landowners and the privileged who lived lives of opulence and grandeur on the backs of those hiding in the stairwells trying not to make a sound. I heard them yesterday.