In the second place Clint Smith described in his book, How the Word is Passed, he visits the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. It is distinctly different as a historical site because it is dedicated to telling the story from the point of view of the slaves.
Smith asked his tour guide about reactions from white visitors vs. Black visitors. He wanted to know how white visitors saw the tour and the reality of the plantation.
The number one question asked the guide: “I know slavery was bad… I don’t mean it this way, but… were there any good slave owners?”
Were there any good slave owners?
Smith dives into the myth that perpetuates this question:
“The question, even if the visitors are unaware of it, is tied to decades of mainstream historical thought, in part thanks to the early-twentieth-century historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who propagated the idea that there were in fact many kind slave owners who provided a good life for their enslaved workers. Phillips’s assertion was built on the premise that chattel slavery was a largely benevolent system designed to uplift, protect, and civilize an inferior African race. In his 1918 book, American Negro Slavery, Phillips wrote, ‘On the whole the plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented.’ As historian Drew Gilpin Faust has written, it wasn’t until the 1956 publication of Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution: Slave in the Ante-Bellum South that this widespread interpretation began to change.” (p. 70-71)
Before Stampp’s work, no historian wrote about Black people and white people being equal. Earlier historians didn’t accept that as a “given.”
We carry around these myths that build nostalgia that keep us from truly understanding history. We don’t want to wrestle with the mess.
We MUST do better.