Race, Labor, and Plantation Tourism in the American South Arianne Urus
Arianne Urus. Sign at Boon Hall Plantation, South Carolina.
The road north through Florida towards Georgia and South Carolina is dotted with billboards particular to the American South. A glass of iced tea aside a swinging lawn chair invites you to sit down and have a sip as your eyes survey a lush green lawn, a gleaming white manor house, and an arc-shaped swimming pool beneath a wide old oak tree dripping with Spanish moss. Variations on this image aim to draw drivers’ attention to the Reynolds Plantation Spa in Greensboro, Georgia, where they can have an “Intuitive Healing Massage” ($155), go on a “Group Power Hike” ($30), or have a “Georgian Rain Experience” ($245), in which they can be massaged with sugary peaches which are then washed away in an artificial indoor warm afternoon Georgia rain. At the Liveoak Plantation Townhomes in Savannah, a family (dogs and cats too!) can move into an air-conditioned apartment with oversized closets. Altogether, the billboards link opulence to the word “plantation.” They project images of the romanticized South of Gone with the Wind, suggesting that the road-weary driver might somehow acquire the genteel manners and grace associated with the aristocratic old South at these modern sites of privilege called plantations.
Yet while twenty-first-century plantations cultivate this cachet, notably – and perhaps not surprisingly – absent is the history of the laborers who did the cultivating that made a romanticized luxurious past thinkable in the first place. In short, then, the pairing of the word plantation with luxury resorts and residences in the twenty-first century empties the word of its potency, rendering it devoid of politics, place, or history. It erases the violent and exploitative character of the plantation economy in the antebellum South, and the slave labor— the bloody stain on the fabric of American history— upon which it relied. It also erases the way these scars persisted long after plantation slavery ended in the long legacy of legal and extralegal modes of subjugating African Americans after emancipation. Yet in spite of these erasures on the discursive level, one need not look hard to find the scars evident in the physical landscape and the geographic distribution of racialized communities. Perhaps out of some attraction to this grotesque environment of poorly erased injustice, I got off the highway and visited Boone Hall Plantation, ten miles north of Charleston, as recommended by the New York Times.
Boone Hall Plantation & South Carolina History
Slavery in Charleston has a history that cannot be relegated to some abstract past tucked away in the pages of history books. Rather, it is a living history embedded in the physical landscape of the region. Charleston was a vibrant port in the colonial and early national period, where rice, indigo, and, of course, slaves were traded and the white elite amassed great wealth. Slavery was instrumental to Charleston’s economic success. Yet until the 1990s visitors to Charleston’s historic sites would learn little about slavery’s role in the city’s past. The subject was met with silence, because for white American Southerners—and, for that matter, nearly all white Americans— the memory of slavery made them uncomfortable, and was deeply sublimated. An eerie reminder of this at Boone Hall Plantation is a sign next to a few small rows of cotton crop beside the parking lot, which asks that visitors do not pick the cotton. A strange dynamic of American amnesia is at work when tourists are ordered not to pick a crop that slaves were forced to pick at that very site with a whip for centuries.
In the past two decades, however, visitors to Charleston have begun to learn about the city’s prominent role in the slave trade, and the economy’s reliance on slave labor. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, there were as many slaves in South Carolina as there where in Georgia and Virginia, though those states were both twice its size. The port of Charleston is not the only site of slavery’s physical legacy. The vast outdoor slave marketplace— “The Slave Mart”— still stands, as do the townhouses of wealthy planters and South Carolina governors who lived with their slaves, and plantations beyond the city limits. Though Congress outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, domestic trade in American-born slaves thrived until slavery was abolished after the Civil War (1861-1865). More than a million American-born slaves were sold in the antebellum South. Slaves were tremendously valuable, selling for as much as $40,000 (adjusted for inflation)— a figure greater than the value of some small plantations.
At Boone Hall Plantation, oaks canopied with Spanish moss line the entry drive. The so-called “Avenue of Oaks” leading to the main house boasts 88 oak trees and is nearly a mile long, and its majesty led me to ponder the grandeur of the 1,452-acre plantation I could only glimpse through the weave of bark and leaf. What was visible between the trees, however, were the rows of slave dwellings looming like dark shadows just beyond the tendrils of Spanish moss. While I was struck by the painful juxtaposition of the magnificent wealth of the avenue and image of the slaves whose aching, tired, beaten bodies slept in those cabins, any nineteenth-century visitor would be impressed by the intentional display of planter’s tremendous wealth— not just in land, but in human chattel. Ever the grumpy academic, even on vacation, my critical eye was drawn to these sites that laid bare the violence of great wealth.
Boone Hall Plantation’s history, spanning the late seventeenth century through the present, embodies a trajectory of capitalism; it is a site of a violent mode of production where the owners are ever further removed from the materiality of that production. Between its founding in 1681 and 1935, a series of Charleston-based planter families resided at Boone Hall year-round, where they could view their slaves’ quarters from the patio of their mansion. The twentieth century saw the plantation owned in quick succession first by a Canadian diplomat, and then by a Russian prince, until it was finally sold to a North Carolinian family, the McRae’s, in 1955. Foreign ownership of the plantation is indicative of a broader trend of slave-economy nostalgia that saw wealthy northerners and international figures purchase plantations for use as vacation homes. The McRae family opened Boone Hall to the public in 1956, and the current heir lives in California.
Amidst the persistent aura of planter nostalgia that hangs over parts of the South like branches of a weeping willow, Boone Hall has changed to meet the demands of capitalist agriculture. In the antebellum period the plantation produced cotton and bricks. After emancipation, however, labor-intensive cotton production proved too costly for many planters. At Boone Hall, the owner, a former Confederate officer named John S. Horlbeck, responded by shifting to pecan production. By 1904, it was widely believed that Horlbeck’s pecan grove was the largest in the world. The tour guide informed us that if we were to have eaten a pecan anywhere in the first half of the twentieth century, it most likely would have come from Boone Hall. Now strawberries, blueberries, pumpkins, watermelons, and tomatoes are Boone Hall’s primary crops.
But perhaps the main way Boone Hall Plantation makes money now is by cashing in on the idea of the romantic antebellum South. In addition to being featured in movies and television productions like Roots, The Notebook, North and South, and Days of Our Lives, it is a popular wedding venue—so popular, in fact, that Hollywood sweethearts Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds were married there in 2012. These uses of Boone Hall are not without discordant voices, however. One wedding website even offered a trenchant critique of the grotesque transformation of this site of enslavement, warning wedding planners that whatever the beauty of the Spanish moss, “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Actually, no such thing was said on any wedding website; that was just the ghost of Marx speaking to me while I read about how couples can celebrate their love at sites like the cotton dock (which Lively and Reynolds opted for) or the gin house, where the cotton that slaves picked was processed and stored. One promotional image shows a cocktail hour beside the slave cabins.
Geographic Continuity: Slave to Sharecropper to Migrant Labor
The thread that connects the multiple lives of Boone Hall Plantation over the past 400 years is labor. Visitors learn about Boone Hall’s transitions in ownership and agriculture, but beneath these market-driven changes there is continuity in the plantation’s reliance on exploitative labor. And while Boone Hall is open about its slave-owning past, with an exhibit about various aspects of slave life mounted in the cabins, visitors are presented with a sense of overwhelming difference between then and now. Keeping with the comfortable narrative of the paternalistic master (does any plantation tell visitors of an especially sadistic owner or overseer?), the tour guide informed my group that after emancipation many Boone Hall slaves chose to stay on as sharecroppers, and their descendants worked the same lands as their ancestors until the 1940s. In other words, the African-American labor of Boone Hall changed from property to person at the end of the Civil War, but the spatial and material realities of their lives remained much the same.
A consideration of the specificities of place, however, highlights these continuities between the life circumstances of Boone Hall’s slaves and freed descendants. We might think of these structural continuities on the level of deep structure, namely ecology. Centuries of mono-crop cultivation on plantations rearranged the American South from a space of forest and grazing lands to what historian Walter Johnson calls an agro-capitalist landscape. These environmental changes constrained how freed slaves (or any small farmer, for that matter) could work the land. Soils depleted from centuries of monoculture could not support subsistence farming. The expensive chemical inputs that compensated for this type of depletion beginning in the early twentieth century further conspired to ensure African American marginalization.
In addition to occurring at an ecological level, these structural continuities are evident in the literal structures that workers inhabited at Boone Hall. Made of bricks (which were of course made by enslaved people) in the 1790s, the slave cabins housed generations of workers at Boone Hall. And though after emancipation they could no longer be accurately called slave cabins, the linguistic shift meant little in terms of relation to reality; the descendants of enslaved people lived in those cabins while working as sharecroppers until the late 1940s. Boone Hall slaves tended cotton and made bricks as property, while sharecroppers picked pecans as free persons, but compensation for their labor did not do much to improve the material conditions of the sharecroppers from their enslaved parents. Indeed, as the tour guide mentioned in passing, they were nearly all indebted to the plantation’s general store, which, incidentally, currently serves as the visitor welcome center. Sharecroppers might not have been bound to the soil of Boone Hall through enslavement, but they were bound by debt they would never be able to repay.
The story of Boone Hall Plantation as a space of exploitative agricultural labor does not end with the fade of sharecropping in the 1940s, nor does it remain circumscribed to the bodies of African American slaves and their descendants. As I rode under willows and through marshes, the mid-morning sun high and bright, the guide pointed out where strawberries, blueberries, and watermelons were currently being cultivated. Painted personifications of strawberries with smiles framed the lines of the actual crops, an accoutrement apparently constructed for children’s birthday parties and school trips.
“Who harvests the crops now?” I asked, making eye contact with the wooden face of the strawberry during a lull in the tour guide’s speech about blueberry pie eating contests.
“Migrant laborers. They come in the summer and then go back to wherever they come from. Meh-hee-ko,” he replied, interrupting his drawl for an attempt at Spanish pronunciation before returning to talk of pies.
Legal Continuities: The Persistent Reliance on Disenfranchised Labor
Whether slave, sharecropper, or migrant, Boone Hall Plantation (and agro-capitalism more broadly) has depended upon the disenfranchisement of labor. Indeed, profitability for the propertied class has consistently relied on the legal marginality of the laborers. While the crops, owners, and race of the laborers at Boone Hall have changed in the century and a half since emancipation, the legal erasure of the laborers’ personhood persists. African American slaves were considered as 3/5 of a person in antebellum census counts, and their exclusion from rights to move freely, trade, keep their families intact, and testify in court served to underscore their legal status as property, not people. The systematic denial of African American personhood in the antebellum period was enshrined in a series of “slave codes” enacted on the colonial and later state level. Based on the English slave code used in Barbados, South Carolina’s slave laws were generally considered the most draconian in the United States. In a legal endorsement of the sanctity of cash crops and white skin, death was to be the punishment for infractions as minor as destroying crops or bruising a white person. Considered property under the law, the accused slave could not appear in court or defend him or herself.
Even after the constitutional ban on slavery in 1865, Southern states found new ways not just to deny African Americans full citizenship, but also to compel them into involuntary labor as well. Beginning with South Carolina, Southern states passed “black codes” in 1865 and 1866. Eerily reminiscent of slave codes, these new laws restricted African Americans’ right to own or lease property, conduct business, or move freely. The newly freed African Americans could not vote, testify in court, or sit on juries. In South Carolina, the black codes created separate courts for African Americans, and, in another reminder of the power of the commodity in these legal codes, sentenced those found guilty of stealing cotton to death. But perhaps the most pernicious component of the black codes was the vagrancy law. According to the new vagrancy laws, unemployment was considered criminal behavior. The black codes established a particular tax for all African American men and unmarried women, and failure to pay constituted vagrancy in South Carolina. From the vagrancy laws arose the notorious convict-lease system, whereby local sheriffs hired out imprisoned African Americans’ labor for no pay. In South Carolina, the vagrancy laws enabled local sheriffs to impress the children of impoverished parents or parents deemed dishonest or insufficiently industrious into forced apprenticeship. No longer forced to work with the whip, their unpaid labor was compelled by the law.
The black codes, by limiting property rights and commercial privileges of African Americans, had the effect of keeping many of those who remained in the South confined to plantation work. As planters retained their material if not their human property, sharecropping evolved as a quasi-feudal solution. The landlord provided land, a small house, tools, seeds, and sometimes work animals, and often loaned money for food and other necessities to the sharecropper. After the harvest, the landowner seized the majority of the crop, and the sharecropper received a small portion— usually one-third— which he (and it was almost always a he) would use to pay off his debt. The result was a near permanent cycle of indebtedness that ended only when farm mechanization rendered human hands increasingly obsolete, which occurred in the 1940s in South Carolina (the same time when the last Boone Hall sharecroppers left the slave cabins and the plantation).
In addition to remaining in much the same place when it came to their conditions of labor, African Americans also continued to face horrible violence. There is perhaps no better evidence of this continued threat than lynching, which continued well into the second half of the twentieth century. Mobs of angry whites (most notably the Klu Klux Klan) acted extra-judicially to publicly murder African Americans by hanging them from trees, often in front of large crowds, prompting Billie Holiday to sing famously that “Southern trees bear strange fruit.” According to the Tuskegee Institute, 3,446 African Americans were lynched by whites between 1882 and 1968, peaking in the 1890s. Gender proved a flashpoint for these killings, with some African American men murdered for simply looking at a white woman. These murders may have been extra-legal, but they often occurred with the tacit if not explicit approval of legal authorities. Not surprisingly, perpetrators of lynchings were seldom prosecuted, and fewer than 1% were ever convicted.
Migrant laborers are not subject to black codes, but their situation is similarly precarious as sharecroppers’ was in the near-century after the Civil War. The migrant laborers at Boone Hall Plantation might no longer live in the brick cabins the slaves built and the sharecroppers later inhabited, but their disenfranchised status is an evocative marker of continuity in agro-capitalist economic relationships. Earlier this year police in Washington killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an unarmed and undocumented laborer from Mexico who had come to the U.S. ten years earlier to work in an orchard. In 2011 Alabama passed the country’s most draconian anti-immigration law, prompting Latin@s to disappear overnight for fear of being deported. The fields were left abandoned at harvest time. Though structurally necessary for agro-capitalism, migrant laborers, like the slaves and sharecroppers who came before, cannot appeal to the police or state legal structures to protect them.
The Bourgeois Critique of Slavery
Of course these waves of labor exploitation following the abolition of slavery (if slavery were the tragedy, sharecropping the farce, then what do we say of migrant labor?) should not be entirely surprising. After all, the argument of many abolitionists in the nineteenth century – a movement that spanned the globe – was not simply that slavery was morally wrong but that it was unprofitable. According to what historians have termed “the bourgeois critique of slavery,” abolitionists argued that free labor was more beneficial to society because, inspired by the fruits of their labor, wage workers would set out along the path of upward social mobility. Slaves, denied the self-interest of such free laborers, would not develop the extolled Protestant values of discipline, diligence, sobriety, and thrift. Furthermore, abolitionists held that slavery diminished the chance of thriving working and middle class to develop in America, because yeoman farmers, artisans, and small merchants could not thrive when slaveowners reaped profits thanks to free labor. If slavery was the problem for bourgeois abolitionists, capitalism, and all that accompanied it, was the solution.
Marx’s Letter to Lincoln
Other observers of America’s peculiar institution also saw the Civil War and abolition as a path toward capitalism triumphant, albeit with very different ends in sight. Indeed, we may begin to see our way past the layers of alienation and invisible labor intersecting in a place like Boone Hall in the insights of a November 1864 letter addressed to Abraham Lincoln, referred to as “the single-minded son of the working class.” The author of the letter, none other than Karl Marx, saw slavery as a stain on American society not for moral or economic reasons, but because it prevented the working class from uniting. The mid-nineteenth century was a time in which many social relationships were being reimagined. From the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 to the Ottoman land laws of 1858 to the American Civil War, the question of free labor figured prominently. In the blue coats of the Union soldiers, Marx suggested, “the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.” It is with these hopes that Marx gleefully welcomed what he called “the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.”
And yet so much remains to be done today. The startlingly high incarceration rates of African Americans—their freedom now seized by the prison-industrial complex—and the drug laws this results from, civil forfeiture practices in local police departments that overwhelmingly target the poor, the economy’s over-reliance on low-cost laborers, who, due to harsh immigration policies, must come to the U.S. illegally, function as the twenty-first century’s Jim Crow. The legal exoneration of the white police officers who murdered the unarmed African Americans Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York last year are unfortunately among many examples of America’s slavery hangover. These atrocities are a stark reminder that racially-charged violence is not limited to the South. Rather, police brutality against people of color is endemic across the country. When a police officer shot Walter Scott in the back eight times during a traffic stop in North Charleston last month, racialized violence made another appearance in the region where its history runs deepest. The work initiated worldwide in the mid-nineteenth century—emancipation, land reform, the expansion of citizenship—is unfinished. The idea of the redeeming capacity of capitalism, the lure of the rags to riches story, remains a powerful element in American discourse. It is the source of the power the plantation vacation billboards along the highway possess to prompt a driver in a beat-up car to believe that he, too, can join the elite, that she, too, can live sumptuously, even if just for the brief illusory moment of a weekend getaway. The bourgeois critique of slavery rested on the idea that capitalism would heal America’s social ills, but the past 150 years have shown that instead capitalism has perpetuated a vast matrix of oppression. The American narrative in which the horrible injustices of the national past forever follow a telos of progress towards freedom, equality, and justice, wherein the present is always better than the bad old days, and the future, by that fact, redeemed, must be reexamined. We must listen to the calls of the brave people—both famous and unknown—who have, since the beginning, sparked resistance, who did not submit quietly to subjugation. None of us can be free under the capitalist system that keeps racial, class, gender, and imperial oppression in place.
 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 15.
 Karl Marx, “Address of the International Working Men's Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America.” Letter to President Abraham Lincoln. 22 & 29 November 1864. Marx & Engels Internet Archive, marxists.org.