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The Persistence of Whitewashing

How can Americans have such different memories of slavery?

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In early April, Southern Charm—a reality show about Charleston’s aristocracy—invited viewers for a fifth season inside “the gates of their centuries-old plantation homes.” It is a disturbing thought for anyone who stops to consider the experiences of the men and women who were enslaved there. Yet this form of nostalgia remains surprisingly common. Until recently, you could rent Southern Charm star Thomas Ravenel’s manicured Brookland Plantation, whose slave cabins were abandoned during “the War Between the States,” according to the architect who renovated it. You can still “add a little southern elegance” to the happiest day of your life with a plantation wedding, at a venue such as Boone Plantation, where parts of The Notebook were filmed and nine slave cabins (of 27) still stand.

The New Press, 464 pp., $28.99

The plantation is the Rorschach test for America’s soul: You either see moonlight and magnolias or a crime scene. How can Americans have such different memories of slavery? That is the driving question in historians Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts’s book Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, a work that, for the first time, maps competing memories of slavery from abolition to the very recent struggle to rename or remove Confederate symbols across the country. The aim of the book is not simply to reject “whitewashed memories of slavery.” What matters most for Kytle and Roberts is “how whitewashed memories have been used in modern America,” from the Black Codes and Jim Crow to debates over affirmative action and reparations, to deny the suffering that slavery and its legacies still cause today. 

In Denmark Vesey’s Garden, Kytle and Roberts focus on slavery denial in Charleston, South Carolina, which earned at various points the nicknames capital of slavery, cradle of the Confederacy, and cradle of the Lost Cause. There were nearly as many enslaved people in Charleston in 1790 as the total number of residents of Charleston today. Nearly half of all enslaved people in the United States passed through the city, which, by the 1850s, was home to every euphemism for human trafficker: brokers, auctioneers, commision agents, slave-trading firms. Slavery was the “very blood of their veins,” according to Robert Bunch, a British spy who infiltrated the Charleston elite. Indeed, Kytle and Roberts tell us, by the mid-1850s three out of four white Charleston families enslaved another human being.

White residents began to deny the brutal realities of slavery as a way of suppressing anti-slavery ideas and possible rebellion. They reacted particularly to an uprising in July 1822 led by Denmark Vesey. A formerly enslaved man whose family was still held captive, he planned to revolt with other members of the church they had formed. Vesey’s plot was foiled and he, along with more than 30 others, was executed. Soon after, the South Carolina legislature started to put measures in place to prevent another such attempt. They passed the Negro Seaman Act, which prevented free black sailors from leaving Charleston Harbor and spreading “subversive ideas.” South Carolina Congressman James Henry Hammond and Senator John C. Calhoun created “gag orders” in the House and Senate against anti-slavery petitions. As Calhoun and Hammond suppressed antislavery ideas, they promoted euphemisms (“peculiar institution” was Calhoun’s invention) and fictions about the benevolence of slavery.

It is astonishing to read the words of many slaveholders who actually came to believe that slavery was a benevolent system and were sincerely shocked to learn otherwise. Kytle and Roberts document how the “cherished fantasies” of Charleston’s wealthy white planters were “turned on their head” with several moments of clarity after emancipation. “The conduct of the Negro in the late crisis of our affairs has convinced me that we were all laboring under a delusion,” wrote Augustin Taveau in letter published by the New-York Tribune. “I believed that these people were content, happy and attached to their masters … If they were content, happy and attached to their masters, why did they desert him in the moment of his need[?]” So too wondered John S. Wise, a congressman and slaveholder, “Were the negroes not perfectly content and happy? Had I not often talked to them on the subject? Had not every one of them told me repeatedly that they loved ‘old Marster’ better than anybody in the world, and would not have freedom if he offered it to them?”

For a decade after emancipation, black Charlestonians largely won the battle for the memory of slavery. Festivals of freedom were held on the Citadel Green, where cadets were trained to guard against insurrection. Funeral marches for slavery, complete with a hearse and coffin marked “Slavery Is Dead,” proceeded down the streets (which was “by no means pleasant to the old residents,” reported The New York Times). Two hundred and fifty-seven Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison camp were given proper burial in what historian David Blight calls the first Memorial Day in his book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory; three thousand black children sang “John Brown’s Body” at the event.

But soon the whitewashing of the memory of slavery gained ground, and the paternalist logic for slavery was now used to justify Black Codes that restricted the rights of freed-people. “The general interest of both the white man and the negro requires that he should be kept … as near to the condition of slavery as possible,” wrote Edmund Rhett, a former Virginia slaveholder. The general interest of whites was not only a reassertion of their social status, but also a fear of black competition and “negro rule.” “The whites seem wholly unable to comprehend that freedom for the negro means the same thing as freedom for them,” reported Sidney Andrews for The Atlantic Monthly. “Even the best men hold that each State must have a negro code.” While the Black Codes were outlawed in 1866, only to be replaced by the regime of Jim Crow ten years later,  white Charlestonians began to hold their own Memorial Day services for Confederates and claimed to be truly responsible for abolishing slavery. 

In the early decades of twentieth century, education, Kytle and Roberts write, “became a chief front in the memory battle.” South Carolina blocked textbooks from the North; instead, Mary C. Simms Oliphant revised and, ultimately rewrote, a history book by her proslavery novelist grandfather William Gilmore Simms, one that taught “most slaves were treated well.” It remained in classrooms through nine editions from 1917 to 1985. The South Carolina Negro Writers’ Project began in the 1930s as a project of the Works Progress Administration, with the goal of collecting essays by black writers based on interviews with formerly enslaved people, but folded in just 16 months. Meanwhile, tourist brochures and guidebooks from the 1930s included pictures and descriptions of black people working as “loyal, true, and faithful house servants” and greeting visitors at the city gates, inviting white out-of-towners to visit a world that had been otherwise lost to time and law. From Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben in the kitchen pantry to the “Heart of Dixie” stamped on Alabama license plates, images of a whitewashed South had proliferated by the mid-twentieth century.

At the center of the battle over slavery’s memory is a question: How much truth about their ancestors can the descendants of enslavers bear? Perhaps the clearest answer is found in the presentation of plantations today, or what Edward Baptist argues ought to be called slave labor camps. Neils Eichhorn, writing in The Journal of the Civil War Erarecalls one tour guide referring to enslaved people as “servants” and “like family.” A study by David Butler surveyed 1,000 tourists at Laura Plantation in Louisiana. The groups most interested in learning about slavery are foreign-born whites and, secondly, black Americans; white Americans were interested in almost anything but slavery. “Few things troubled white Southerners more than the notion that their ancestors had actively engaged in the sale of men women and children and facilitated the destruction of families,” write Kytle and Roberts. 

On such tours, visitors will rarely get to see the physical reminders of slavery—the dwellings and other buildings where enslaved people lived and worked. There is no record of how many slave cabins remain, according to preservationists, since many that may exist would be on private property and others were recorded, and forgotten, as “minor buildings” on the National Register of Historic Places. Stephen Small, an African American studies professor at Berkeley, has conducted research on slave cabins since 1995 in eight states and estimates merely several hundred remain from “an original pool of hundreds of thousands of cabins.” Some might argue that plantation owners did not always make a choice to erase the physical evidence of slavery on their property: Many slave cabins were wooden structures that were allowed to rot whereas the main house was either kept up or renovated.

Yet it is very convenient, according to Derek Alderman, founder of the
Race, Ethnicity, and Social Equity in Tourism project, that such structures no longer remain. It allows tour guides to redirect visitors’ attention to the “big house” with its pristine artifacts and to avoid any mention of the terror that made all that spectacular wealth and grandeur possible. Through this process,
according to one group of anthropologists studying colonial Williamsburg, the whitewashed past becomes something visible, tangible, and factual, while slavery becomes intangible and difficult to grasp. Even when slave cabins are preserved, they are not always preserved respectfully; at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation in Georgia, one of the slave cabins now houses a restroom. 

Denmark Vesey’s Garden tries to land on a hopeful note, highlighting those plantations that have attempted to present an unvarnished memory of slavery. Drayton Hall, for example, has added tours that focus on enslaved people and Eliza’s House at Middleton Place now features a wall with the names of more than 2,600 human beings who were enslaved there. Elsewhere, Whitney Plantation in Louisiana includes a wall inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Danny Drain’s now-closed Slave Relics Museum allowed visitors to hold and bear the weight, at least for a few moments, of shackles and instruments of torture; Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project seeks to preserve and educate on the remaining cabins before they disappear.

While Denmark Vesey’s Garden shows the persistent fight for honest memory, the authors harbor no illusions that now is a time to celebrate. Indeed, the very church founded by Denmark Vesey was the site where Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in 2015, an act he carried out after visiting plantations and Confederate landmarks. The next year, a New Orleans contractor hired to remove confederate monuments faced not only death threats, but the torching of his $200,000 car. And in Charleston, an 80-foot-tall statue of a proud John Calhoun—seventh vice president, defender of slavery as a “positive good,” and ancestor of Southern Charm regular Kathryn Calhoun Dennis—towers over the city’s Holocaust memorial, dedicated with the words, “we will never forget you.”