- Former plantations and estates, which once downplayed the role of slavery, have begun making the issue a central topic in their tours.
- In some cases, like that of former US President James Madison’s estate at Montpelier, program directors have incorporated videos that link the history of slavery to contemporary examples of systemic racism. This has led some angry visitors to make complaints that the tours are “politicizing” history.
- While many visitors appreciate this focus on slavery, some rankled visitors have taken to review sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp to vent their frustration at what they see as political bias and so-called political correctness entrenched in the tour process.
- Insider spoke to the Vice President of Visitor Programs and Services for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation who said the tours shouldn’t shy away from the truths of slavery and says they have a responsibility “to help people understand the complexity of history.”
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
For much of their history, the former plantations and estates owned by America’s Founding Fathers have tiptoed around the history critical to the building of these massive sprawling mansions. Most plantation tour sites eschewed engaging in a thoughtful discussion of slavery, instead choosing to focus on the architecture and landscape of the homes. Now, at many of these locations, that conversation is changing. But not everyone’s happy about it.
In recent years, some of the nation’s largest and most prominent plantations have flipped the script and chosen to tackle the subject of slavery head-on. While many have applauded the increased focus on what some academics have called “America’s original sin,” others, according to a recent Washington Post story, have balked at what they see as the injection of a biased political narrative into tours about prominent American historical figures.
On June 4, 2017, Montpelier, the plantation once owned by former president James Madison, opened its current slavery exhibit,“The Mere Distinction of Colour,” to the public. The exhibit relies on archaeological and historical research with the stated goal of “telling a more complete, holistic American story.”
The exhibit walks tourists through the dark cellars and sprawling open fields where enslaved people worked. While these types of exhibits have existed in various forms for decades, Montpelier’s is somewhat unique in its explicit attempt to link the history of slavery with racial injustices seen in contemporary American issues.
Those who walk through the Montpelier tour are told stories by living descendants of some of the very enslaved people who once lived, and died, on the plantation’s grounds. An entire room of the tour is dedicated to what the museum calls, “slavery’s lasting legacies,” and an accompanying video explaining slavery’s extending arms that reach into modern times
Some visitors took to Trip Advisor to offer up low-rated reviews, which made specific mention of the visitors’ discomfort – or even outrage – around what they saw as a politicization of the tour.
“Visited Veterans Day weekend,” a Montpelier visitor who goes by the username kenh731 wrote on Trip Advisor. “The ‘distinction of colour’ exhibit featured an anti-police, Black Lives Matter video rant that was showing police shooting videos and other propaganda based on lies. Really political. Really distasteful.”
On Yelp, many of Montpelier’s negative reviews were similarly imbued with political unease. One reviewer by the name of Gee C., worried that the tour presented a biased liberal narrative that could potentially influence his kids.
“Oh my God, what is happening in this country?” they wrote. “I will not come to this place with my children again. This lovely monument to one of the main founding fathers is now also polluted by PC history lessons and violent racial strife videos thrown into the visitors’ faces to promote today’s notions about white guilt.”
Another Yelp reviewer wrote: “I would recommend anyone save their money and skip this PC [politically correct] tourist trap.”
Montpelier receives complaints about the documentary every month, according to The Washington Post. Price Thomas, Montpelier’s marketing and communications director, told the Post that the video may be explicit in its messaging but added, “You can’t talk about slavery as a relic of the past.”
Montpelier did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
“It was political correctness at its worst. I’m sorry to see Monticello has become such a sell-out.”
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s former estate, is located about an hour to the west of Montpelier. There, in part due to renewed criticism over Jefferson’s slave-owning past in popular media, the organisation has spent the better part of the last decade refocusing the way it talks about slavery. This has come through the reconstruction of houses where enslaved people lived and other slavery-specific programs and tours meant to highlight the historical reality.
Monticello also makes it a point to draw a linear line directly from slavery to the modern-day. In an interview with Insider, Gary Sandling, Monticello’s vice president of visiting programs and services, said tour guides are instructed to think deeply about the ways slavery impacted the estate.
“We’ve tried to make sure that in all of our training our tour guides are thinking about how slavery pervades all aspects of life at Monticello and can talk with visitors about that,” Sandling said.
One method staff at Monticello uses to focus on the stories of individual slaves, Sandling said, is to use the word “enslaved person” rather than “slave.”
“If we talk about Jefferson’s enslaved butler we want people to understand he’s not a paid servant,” Sandling said. “We want people to think about him, this actual person, and not some cinematic construct of an enslaved person they have seen in a movie.”
This seemingly small distinction has been a significant point of contention for those already concerned with what they see as a politicized Monticello. Sandling said some visitors complain about the use of the term enslaved people and say it’s too politically correct. Others, he said, upon hearing the phrase “enslaved person,” cross their arms and roll their eyes.
Insider spoke to one of the reviewers, Sig9m, a 66-year-old retiree whose real name is Rich Ayers. Ayers said he visited Monticello this year and on another occasion seven years ago. In his opinion, this year’s visit felt far more politicized.
“The whole slavery thing was overplayed,” Ayers told Insider.
Ayers pointed out that slavery was a common practice at the time and said he felt the most recent tour spent much more time criticising Jefferson’s character, who he described as a “less vicious” type of slave owner.
Jefferson, historians note, was not actually a “less vicious” slaveowner. A 2012 New York Times review of Henry Wiencek’s book on Jefferson, “Master on the Mountain,” noted that he “sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time”
Jefferson also “advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks ‘outlaws’ in America,” the Times reported.
Another reviewer who went by the name Jeff K, also said they had seen a change over time in the way guides presented information at Monticello.
“I have taken this tour many times over the years,” he wrote on Trip Advisor. “Unfortunately the tour has become a heavily politically biased presentation. While we all agree that slavery was horrible, about 75% of the tour is centered on that subject and little regarding Jefferson’s accomplishment.”
The user Katherineb463 echoed that concern describing the Monticello tour as, “political correctness at it’s [sic] worst.” The reviewer went on to categorise those in charge of organising the Monticello tour as “sell-outs.”
While Sandling said Monticello does receive some alternative forms of criticisms from visitors, the majority of critiques were limited to the online comments. Some of the complaints, Sandling said, centre around proportionality and the amount of time spent discussing slavery compared to other topics.
“Our goal is to help people understand the complexity of our history.”
One of the site’s daily tours, called Slavery at Monticello, (the tour even has an accompanying phone app) details the lives of the more than 400 enslaved people who once lived and worked on Jefferson’s plantation. A video accompanying the tour features a narrator explaining how slave labour was utilised to make Jefferson’s food, his scientific instruments, and even his furniture.
But Monticello, like Montpelier, attempts to use the tours to tie together the history of slavery with the current realities of black Americans.
“We ground what we talk about in the history of this place but we say to people that this history has a through-line that goes well past the end of slavery because of race and racism,” Sandling said. “Making that connection was something that we felt was important.”
Ayers, the negative reviewer who spoke to Insider, agreed that slavery was horrific and previously underexplored, but said plantation sites like Monticello should refrain from making connections to the present day. “It’s a tour of Monticello,” Ayers said. “Going into the civil rights era and later is bleeding it out.” Ayers continued on, saying, “I look at our country now compared to 30 years ago and we’ve come a long way.”
A significant portion of the Monticello experience today attempts to wrestle with the paradox of how the same person who wrote the Declaration of Independence could simultaneously hold dominion over hundreds of humans. Despite publicly opposing slavery at times, Jefferson only freed seven of his hundreds of slaves, a point made by Monticello’s tour guides. Those guides, according to the Post, are now referred to as “interpreters.”
When asked whether these decisions could be seen as politically motivated, Sandling countered by saying the tour is not telling people how to vote or what to think.
“We’re simply trying to show that history has implications for the current day in all of its aspects, the parts that are difficult as well as the parts we would like to celebrate,” Sandling said.