The Slaves’ Stairwell: A Visit to Rosedown

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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?

The Bedrooms

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.

The Slaves' Stairwell

The Slaves’ Stairwell

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.

 

 

 

11 thoughts on “The Slaves’ Stairwell: A Visit to Rosedown

  1. I have to tell you that I have shared these feelings. I even got to a point of resenting these plantations and grandeur associated with them. I’ve often wondered if anyone realizes just what we’re romanticizing. Should we really be displaying this as grand? I can appreciate architecture, furnishings, and all the things that make us want to look but like you I have very mixed feelings.

    When we first moved here I was ensnared by the history. Particularly the Civil War history. The more I read, the more I learned I really questioned why I was supposed to be so proud to be a southern, white woman. This was really good. I do enjoy the pictures. especially the one of you and my Susan on the front porch.

    • Yes, I know. It sometimes embarrasses me to be Southern because of that and some of the other ignorance that is all over the place. But, there is ignorance everywhere. I’ve seen blatant racism up north, too. And the unions started up north because workers were treated so badly. Even though they didn’t resort to slave-holding, they came pretty close. I think it all comes down to greed. The majority of Southerners were not plantation owners. But it was a part of our culture. And who knows how many were born into slave-holding families that were disgusted with the practice but had no power to change it.

  2. I think the distaste for decadent living at the expense of others is not limited to geography. We toured the Biltmore House, in Asheville, which was one of the “summer mansions” of the Biltmore family. It had modern refrigeration when everyone else was using ice blocks. And a full-size bowling alley and an indoor swimming pool! While the “living room” was larger than 3 houses one on top of the other, the maids’ quarters were about as small as a typical bathroom.

    • I agree. The unions were put in place up north because of the horrible working conditions for employees. Greed is not limited to geography. But slavery was. I believe it’s impacted our current Southern culture to a large degree. Asheville is in a Southern state, too. I think attitudes down here were probably the same as anywhere else… make money the best you can, but because slavery was legal, the South carried it to a different level. This blog was just an observation about how I felt Saturday. It wasn’t intended to be a research piece.

  3. Sharon, I enjoyed your blog. Seems like you and Susan had a nice time visiting. But, FWIW, I don’t really get the whole collective white guilt thing. First, let me say that slavery was horrible and is indefensible as an institution. Having said that, if I had ever owned a slave, I would be happy to apologize and make reparations, but since I never did I don’t think that should be on me. My ancestors were not even slave owners that I know of. My great-great-great-great grandpa, John Z Underwood was a wounded Confederate veteran, but one who never owned a slave. In that regard he was like the majority of pre-Civil War Southerners.

    Slavery was not exclusively a Southern institution and did not end in 1865. It has been around since the beginning of recorded history and still exists in some place in the world today. All of the original states were slave states at one time or another, it is just that some of them outlawed it before others. And, it is interesting to note that many family fortunes in the Northeast portion of the U.S. were built on the slave trade. Also, in the antebellum days, many northerners and Englishmen got rich on the cotton trade, even though they knew the cotton they were buying was grown and harvested by slave labor in the South.

    Another thing that I usually point out is that it is not fair to judge 18th and 19th Century people by 21st Century standards. There has been talk recently about boycotting the plantation tours due the the history of slavery. But, what would that accomplish. I do agree that we tend to focus on the romantic nature of the antebellum life, without paying enough attention to the slavery issue that made it possible. But, the Great Pyramids of Egypt were also built by slaves. Does that mean we should tear them down and not encourage people to see them anymore?
    The majority of the British Empire was built on slavery, particularly in the Caribbean. So does that mean we should feel guilty about going to Jamaica or the Bahamas?

    It is important to remember ALL of the history of a particular era. But no, thanks, I will pass on the personal guilt thing.

    Love ya!

  4. I agree with Robbie that we should not boycott the plantations as a protest of what was going on there. But I do think the people who give the tours could talk some about what life was like for the slaves. In the tour we went on, the guide just glamorized the lives of the owners and said nothing about the white elephant standing in the room. It’s interesting that both Sharon and I thought a great deal about what was NOT being said, but neither of us felt comfortable enough to bring it up. I think next time I go on a tour I will bring it up, just so that I know that everyone is thinking about both the glamour and the horror of it all.

    I talked to other people who said they have no “white guilt,” and I don’t criticize them for that. However, I know that my ancestors on my mother’s side did own slaves, so maybe that is why I feel uncomfortable about it. I’m not going to agonize over it, but I can’t say I don’t think about it from time to time. I will still enjoy going to plantations occasionally, and I would encourage others to do the same. But I think both sides of the plantation story should be told on these tours.

    • I actually don’t believe we have to have any particular reason or tie to the event to have feelings about it. Regardless of history or facts or beliefs, feelings are unique to each of us. One of the reasons I write is that I was told how to feel about things for so long that I lost the ability to determine what I felt. I was always measuring what I felt by how I should feel. With my writing, I get to own how I feel. I had no idea that we had relatives that owned slaves although I suspected it, and I still had feelings as stated in my blog standing in that dining room. In addition, I still have feelings about the differences I see in how employees are treated here and the amount of power they feel they have. I see it as having compassion for others, and if I feel some guilt along with it, I can’t change that. I feel the same way when I see a dog being abused and I can’t do anything about it, and it’s not my fault, but I feel guilty because I can’t take them all in.

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience. I have yet to visit Rosedown, but I look forward to seeing it during my next trip “down home” to Louisiana. I’m a direct descendant of Daniel Turnbull’s sister Susannah.

    Thank you for your empathy towards the hundreds of of people enslaved there as well. Not everyone (including some of the commenters) understand “the peculiar institution” and the complex differences between slavery as practiced in other countries and era’s and american chattel slavery (where people were considered solely as property). To add a plot twist – I’m also a descendant of enslaved Africans (the Turnbull’s are probably spinning in their graves). I train schools on race and equity practices in the third largest district in the nation.

    Michelle

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m glad my thoughts reached someone who is a direct descendent. This blog stirred a lot of comments on FB. I’d love to know your thoughts when you visit.

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