Slaves at Rosedown Plantation, the state’s most visited historical site, were “happy” and had “a natural musical instinct,” claimed the wording of an official exhibit sign at the state-owned and administered tourist location.
It was a mistake, said Brandon Burris, the deputy assistant secretary of State Parks. He didn’t know how long the sign had been posted, but it has now been removed.
“They always come up with ‘Oh, it’s a mistake,’ but no one’s responsible,” said Southern University Professor Albert Samuels. “I wish I could say I was shocked. But there is still a basic unwillingness to come to terms with the fact that slavery was an awful institution.”
The sign hung in the detached kitchen for an exhibit “Slave Life at Rosedown.”
About 850 enslaved people worked at what was one of the antebellum South’s richest plantations. The slaves, according to the exhibit, were awoken at 4 a.m. in their “prettily built and very comfortable” cabins to begin work by dawn.
“The slaves were well taken care of and happy,” the exhibit sign continues. At Christmas, the slaves gathered because they “have a natural musical instinct. It was wonderful how well they succeeded in their melodies.”
The stories are of unspeakable cruelty.
Burris said the sign doesn’t reflect what state historians or park administrators believe. Curators apparently were attempting to quote from a book called “Rosedown” by Sarah Bowman, one of the last members of the family who built the showplace plantation. The book includes a collection of observations visitors from antebellum times had written about the place.
But the sign failed to note that or to mention the source and was not punctuated adequately, Burris said. No other state historic site has similar signage, he added.
“Those signs are inaccurate,” Southern University Historian Charles Vincent said in a text, citing several scholarly sources.
Joe Grey Taylor's “Slavery in Louisiana,” for instance, noted that while masters usually provided their slaves with enough food, clothing, shelter and tended their medical needs, those in bondage had no control over their families, their bodies and their lives.
Professor Samuels’ teaching of political theory often dips into the rhetorical justifications for Jim Crow laws that segregated black and white communities through much of 20th Century and codified widespread discrimination that included restricting employment and disenfranchising voters.
After losing the Civil War, Southern leaders recast the war’s causes and aims. Slavery was described, and accepted by many, as a benign institution, he said.
A lot of plantation homes are presented today like ‘weren’t these the good ole days,’ which ignores the realities and reinforces clichés that still exacerbate racial tensions, Samuels said. “I’m not saying we should get rid of these things. But they need to be put in the proper historical context. We do ourselves no favors by pretending that thing didn’t exist when it did.”
Rosedown Plantation is visited more than any other of the state’s 19 historical sites – attracting 28,251 visitors for the fiscal year that ended June 30 and 16,791 visitors since then, according to the Office of State Parks, which oversees the historic sites. Rosedown raised $232,643 in revenues last year.
Plantations are a big tourism draw for Louisiana. At least a dozen privately owned plantations are open for tours, events, and overnight stays between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Most relive the opulence of the white owners. Only one, the Whitney Plantation near Wallace, is devoted to the lives of the enslaved.
The St. Francisville historical site is the Wednesday stop on American Cruise Lines Mississippi River cruises, for instance. The cruise, which attracts tourists from around the world, also visits Oak Alley and Houmas House plantations.
What makes Rosedown unique is that much of the plantation’s furnishings are original to the house. The buildings – including the main house, the doctor’s office, gazebos, barns – remain as do the formal gardens, which include many of the flowers, trees and bushes that were planted in antebellum times.
Built near St. Francisville by enslaved people in 1834 and 1835 at a cost of $13,109.20, the estate remained in the Turnbull family until the 1960s when sold to Milton Underwood, a Houston investment banker whose family was among the founders of the Texas Medical Center. The Underwoods restored the home and maintained the formal gardens. The state acquired the property in 2000.
Only Mount Vernon and Monticello – homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson respectively – remain with buildings and formal gardens as complete as Rosedown’s, according to the National Park Service.
“Rosedown represents one of the most intact, documented examples of a domestic plantation complex in the South,” according to the State Parks’ paperwork that led to the property’s national historic designation. “As the real version of the ‘Gone with The Wind’ stereotype, Rosedown, due to its completeness, enables one to appreciate first-hand the domestic world of the South's wealthiest planters.”