Revisiting the Presentation of Slavery in Southern Museums: A Case Study – LSU Rural Life Museum

During the course of my Museum Studies class this spring, I became fascinated with the representation of slavery in Southern museums, and especially plantation house museums, after reading Lisa Hix’s February 2014 article, “Why Aren’t Stories Like ’12 Years a Slave’ Told at Southern Plantation Museums?” on Collectors Weekly. Subsequently, I also read Terry L. Jones’s April 2014 article in the Baton Rouge Advocate, “Louisiana plantation tours skittish on local history,” and then Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small’s Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (2002).

I contacted several Louisiana historical museums in search of museum professionals to interview for this assignment; here, I present my interview with David W. Floyd (no relation), Director of Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum. This telephone conversation has been edited for clarity. Emphasis is the speaker’s.

What is your educational background?

I graduated in anthropology and archaeology from LSU in 1979. I got involved in the Rural Life Museum when I wanted to do a student internship. I received a position for four years at the museum. I became personal friends with founder of museum, who became my mentor. I had a career in Louisiana state parks for about 15 years, then I was asked to come back to the Rural Life Museum to bring the museum in a different direction, make it more publicly accessible, create an environment that would not stress out LSU financially, and give the museum financial independence to allow them to do what they want to do.

Tell me a little about the history of the Rural Life Museum.

The museum itself began in 1970, with the idea that nobody was talking about what was happening behind the big house on the antebellum plantation, mostly in Louisiana. Let me paraphrase our mission, which you can read in full on our web site.*

We are an open-air museum interpreting the life of working class Louisiana, both free and slave, through vernacular architecture and working implements. We only collect from Louisiana, items with a provenance and clear history in Louisiana. All buildings have been moved here. Part of the concept is to do preservation on the original sites, but in cases where this is impossible and buildings meet our criteria, we will move them. All buildings at the Rural Life Museum are orphans, and they would be destroyed if we hadn’t taken them.

This was an original concept. Was meant to talk about the working classes of all the folks in rural Louisiana: the slaves on the plantation, the working places on the plantation: sick houses, overseers houses, kitchens, outbuildings, small and large that supported farm or plantation.

How does the representation of slavery fit into the work you are doing?

Normally when they talk about slaves on the plantation, they talk about post-bellum life, including those who are not of African descent who were now working on the plantation… what was the anchor to all this, to allow us to talk about it? All the buildings in our museum’s plantation section—except for the Welham Plantation, St James Parish,all except kitchen—would’ve been destroyed, for no other reason than to make room for more sugar cane fields, so they were moved to LSU by LSU and Mr. Steele Burden. They moved them as they found them on the origina lsite, and put them back in geographical position as they were originally found. You can visit our web site for a complete list and dates.

The slave quarters at the museum date from 1830 to 1850. They are all a group from the same place, and we put them back on our site as we had found them. With the exception of the trees in the background, if you closed your eyes, you’d say, yeah, that cabin was next to this cabin. We make an effort to furnish the buildings…

In 1970-71, the university, LSU, not only preserved the elements of slavery, but began to research and interpret slavery on the plantation. Museums pick a flavor of history they want to talk about. They will usually say, okay, we’re going to talk about plantation life and we’re going to do it from the point of view of the industrial revolution. When we talk about slavery here, we try to give people an understanding of what slavery was like in all of Louisiana—not just the slaves on one plantation. We know about them and can talk about them, but instead we ask, “What was a slave?” and “What can we say was universally say was true about slavery?” The answer is, really, very little. They ran each plantation individually based on their conditions, location, religious convictions, and a host of other factors.

Because we’re a university, everything is documented. We use diaries and letters and slave documents and, of course, one of the things that we picked up on a long time ago, in 1975 and 1976, was 12 Years a Slave. Dr. Sue Eakin, a professor at LSU Alexandria, studied 12 Years a Slave, and this was very important for us.This book gave us an outside view of what the slave system was all about in Louisiana. After 44 years of doing this, we’re still trying to get it right.

The reason I contacted you was because of the article in the Advocate, where you were quoted as saying, “There’s an interest in it. That’s why plantations are starting to cater to it. They were receiving pressure from African-American travelers around the country who wanted to know about the lives of the slaves.” And that article went on to note that the Rural Life Museum was one of the places doing it “better” these days.

What I was trying to say in the paper (and papers always get you wrong): this museum is well known worldwide. This museum is in Louisiana, and there were Creoles, free people of color. Louisiana has a specific history. Slavery isn’t always a racial deal; it’s an economic deal, and it became racial. From 1974, we started talking about all of the heritages of Louisiana. The core of this museum has always been the very first part of it, the slavery section, the plantation section. Basically, if you’re going to talk about plantations and plantation culture in the South, or if you’re going to talk about the 19th century and the antebellum period, then it behooves you to talk about slavery. Simply because more than half the population were slaves. If you don’t, you’re leaving out the majority of your history, the majority of the story. Because museums do what? Commemoration and education…

When were these buildings acquired and opened to the public? Are you seeing more interest in the history of slavery, including from both white and African American tourists?

It’s a generational thing, but not always. The Germans and French always want to hear about slavery. When they come to Louisiana, there are three things they have to see outside of New Orleans: they want to hear about slavery and the quarters on the plantation. Believe it or not, they want to have a piece of cotton, and they want to see what okra looks like. Europeans were always interested in it, because it was so different. Come on, even the grand homes along the River Road, and in Natchez, are not the grand chateaux of Europe, I mean… come on. [Laughter]

Domestically, there was… your grand-mama, would’ve been my great-grand-mama, and she didn’t want to talk about it… they grew up with black playmates… Remember less than one percent were planters; the rest of us were either not here or, you know, plain folk.

So another thing we found out over the years was that African Americans of a certain age didn’t want anything to do with it. Up until the 1980s, slave buildings on sugar and cotton plantations—one and two room cabins—were still being lived in. As far as they were concerned, slavery didn’t end until 1968, 1970. So to relive those traditions is unpleasant, and many didn’t want to do it. Now, I’d say that the 45 year-olds and below, it’s started to change. It’s one generation removed from that 70 and 80 year-old that’s there now. Now there is your generation. There is more open dialogue with your generation, 30 and below [sic!], students, there is more open dialog…

So who is your typical visitor these days?

We have groups from Dallas; Houston; Jackson, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; all of Louisiana, including Southern University, Loyola, and Dillon.

What are some of your upcoming events or exhibitions?

We have amassed a large collection of slave-owned items. Not all were shackles and handcuffs, not all…. We’re talking about personal items: dolls, basket, shoes, things that give you a better sense of what these folks were doing and how they lived.

Right now doing an excavation of a sugar plantation—our archaeological lab has a Facebook page—and we’re in the middle of putting brand new exhibits up dealing with the plantation and slavery. In my mind, they go hand in hand. Talking about one or the other… it doesn’t work that way. Three years ago were given a donation of a slave pen, we put it inside our exhibition space. It is from circa 1840, from a sugar plantation in Iberville Parish—this slave pen will be the anchor for our exhibition to talk about slavery.

What do you hope visitors will learn at your museum, or takeaway from a visit?

There are two Louisianas: the Upland South and the Gulf Coast South. So we talk about that from both the economic and the social point of view, trying to give people a grasp of how this thing worked. Our story is different, because in Southern Louisiana, in the Gulf South, you can’t have dirt floors… ours are pier and beam—they had wood floors. In the Gulf Coast South, they had mats—it was universal almost. Like still today, in the Caribbean they sleep on mats and roll them up in the morning and have living space— that’s still done. Our story in the Upland South is somewhat similar to Texas and some of the other states. From Galveston all the way to Apalachicola, it’s seen differently. You’re talking about a culture that has more connection, religiously and culturally, to the Caribbean than it did to Philadelphia, Boston, or even Charleston. It’s really different, and our visitors really want to hear that.

Most people don’t know the difference between a farm and a plantation—if they don’t know that, how are they going to understand what a plantation was? You speak a language, a nomenclature, that’s gone and forgotten—what’s an overseer? A foreman? An engineer? Not what you think they are. Nine times out of ten, they were slaves, but they were also held in high regard. Spend two hours with a school group and their teachers. It’s pretty intense; but, no, it’s not all whippings. That’s why 12 Years a Slave was so great—not all planters were unjust—did they own you? Yeah. Could they whip you? Yeah. Could they sell you? Yeah.

I tell people all the time—a farm is a mundane, routine operation. That is by design. You do things on a schedule. In order to be successful, you have to. Wintertime comes, you’re clearing things, repairing fences,… it’s all seasonal. You work in those fields until harvest time, depending on whether it’s sugar or cotton. If you were born on a plantation, say 3rd generation, you’d never left. You’d heard of New Orleans, of Baton Rouge, but you lived your life, kept your nose clean, got into a routine.

But what is a gang? What is a driver? Now you’re getting into the psychological warfare of the plantation. Why are all the cabins in rows? Why weren’t they in rows in the 18th century? We believe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a lot of national awareness of slave revolts. For Louisiana whites, the two scariest were the Haitian revoltand the 1811 German revolt, which happened in St Charles Parish in New Orleans. And then of course the Nat Turner Revolt up in Charleston.We have good evidence that they started putting houses in rows and segregating the population (unmarried females from males) to police them. By the 1850s, they were in uniforms. Northup [author of 12 Years a Slave] talks about that, the “plantation suit.” The Turnbulls at Rosedownhad five plantations. If they needed to get the cotton in, say, in a rainy season, they had to get the cotton in quick. So they had to borrow slaves. They made some of them wear indigo, some white, so they could tell them apart.

We are still under the sin of slavery. Everything that goes on, and I don’t just mean in the South, but I mean in this entire country, hinges on what happened up to 1861. Jim Crow and everything on is the after-effect.

How do you see your work within the larger context of historical museums?

We had to learn in the 1960s and 70s. Historians before that, they viewed history differently; history was great events that shaped the country or affected it and reevaluated it. So the Louisiana Purchase was a great event. The western movement was a great event. And so, the Civil War, obviously… and then when you talk about slavery, books always talked about it from a political point of view, talking about the Missouri Compromise, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War—it was from that point of view. It never talked about the individuals, because they didn’t consider that history. And the history and architecture of every day people didn’t mater.

Sam Hilliard.Plain Folk of the Old South.Time on the Cross [The Economics of American Negro Slavery].Slave narratives got published. Finally historians started grasping that, really, this is what history is, this is the history of the United States. So that’s what this museum is.

*The LSU Rural Life Museum’s mission is to provide and sustain a publicly accessible center for the collection, preservation, and interpretation of the material culture, cultural landscapes and vernacular architecture of Louisiana and the Lower Mississippi River Valley.

Located on property donated to LSU by Ione, Steele, Pike and Jeanette Burden, the museum services to both educate and entertain students and visitors of all ages. The facility, while technically part of the LSU campus, operates with only partial funding from the University. Approximately eighty percent of operating revenue is generated from admissions and Friends directed fundraising initiatives. It has become a popular destination for more than 25,000 visitors each year, adding tourism revenues to the local economy as well as serving as an educational laboratory for students.

The LSU Rural Life Museum represents Louisiana history preserved. About Us, Rural Life Museum, retrieved April 25, 2014.

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