Like those of the Hollywood Tara, Oak Alley's trees are unencumbered by Spanish moss (a previous owner ordered it removed because she thought it looked creepy). There is something similarly sanitized about Oak Alley itself, one of several plantations at which guides dress in period costume. Ours, a portly man wearing a Confederate greatcoat, a broad-brimmed cavalry hat, and a tasseled sword, spouted a moonlight-and-magnolias patter so canned that I half expected a Confederate drummer boy to materialize and provide rim shots for his jokes. After the tour, I sat on the veranda nursing a mint julep sold to me by a middle-aged "belle" for $6 in a plastic cup imprinted with Oak Alley's address, phone number, and Web site. As I watched would-be Scarletts and Rhetts pose for photos beneath Oak Alley's eponymous oaks, I realized that during my plantation visits, the only people of color I'd seen, with the exception of two tour guides at Nottoway, were those sweeping the floors or serving the food. (Most guides managed to avoid saying what I came to think of as "the S-word," and conveyed the impression that, on their plantations, the antebellum masters had been benevolent patriarchs who treated their slaves as they did their own children. My Madewood tour guide introduced a 59-year-old woman in a maid's uniform, born on the plantation, as "a seventh-generation employee," a semantic whitewashing that made me squirm.) Perhaps I was feeling guilty at having so thoroughly enjoyed my taste of antebellum splendor at Madewood and Nottoway. But I knew that to experience plantation life fully, I should also be sharing a sparsely furnished two-room cabin with a dozen other people, eating salt pork and molasses, and cutting cane from "can see to can't see" (dawn to dusk) without pay. My reverie was interrupted when the plantation bell, once used to summon slaves to and from the fields, rang to announce the next tour.
There is, of course, no such B&B. But there is one River Road outpost that tells the story of life behind the big house. It had its genesis in 1991, when an African-American woman named Kathe Hambrick, who had recently moved back to Louisiana to help run the family funeral home, toured a River Road mansion. "The guide said the planter had owned 12,000 acres. I asked how many people had been enslaved there. 'I think about fifty,' he said." Hambrick was troubled. "What got me was the 'I think'—that they just didn't care enough to know."
Today Hambrick runs the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, about an hour south of Baton Rouge. Here, visitors are confronted by the flip side of the Aubusson carpets and Waterford crystal chandeliers:a pair of leg-irons; a spiked collar used to punish runaways; a photo of a slave from nearby San Francisco Plantation, his forehead branded with his owner's initials. A sign near the entrance asks, COULD THESE BE YOUR ANCESTORS?above the names of more than 500 slaves who worked on local plantations, names that Hambrick tracked down through courthouse records. These days, people come from around the world—as well as from the predominantly African-American communities in the surrounding area—to study this list and to search local cane fields for ancestral graves.
The next day, I drove north of Baton Rouge, where the refineries end with a final belch, to St. Francisville, where the meadows, forests, and red-clay hills haven't changed much since Audubon painted 80 of his Birds of America there. I stayed at Butler Greenwood Plantation, where the live oaks, grown from acorns brought from Haiti in 1799, are now so thick one can hardly see the sky. Butler Greenwood is one of the few plantations still in the family of its original owners. Its big house, a simple raised cottage built long before the one-upmanship of Greek Revival took hold, contains a comfy clutter accumulated over centuries: the original land grant signed in 1797; silverware that was buried under the camellias to keep it from falling into the hands of Union soldiers; an ivory-handled sword that was carried by the current owner's great-grandfather at Robert E. Lee's funeral. "We haven't thrown anything out in two hundred years," says Anne Butler, the seventh-generation owner, who also writes books and speaks at Southern Belle Writing Workshopsto help keep the family seat in the family. It was here that I found myself missing my family's Big House most acutely and spinning fantasies of living there myself and never throwing anything out.
As I strolled through the music room, from whose corner the rosewood French Pleyel concert grand that Butler played as a child hasn't budged since before the Civil War, I was reminded that the River Road—despite the artificial creamers and the logo-edplastic cups—is one of the few places left in this country where history isn't framed in a museum or re-created in Disney animatronics. It is history to be touched, tasted, lived in—it must be savored before it disappears. Every few years, another plantation succumbs to fire, age, or the economy. That morning, en route to Butler Greenwood, I had seen an allée of ancient live oaks, their branches draped with pale boas of Spanish moss, leading to a field of weeds.
Small wonder that, whether they are Scarlett wannabes searching for Tara, Civil War buffs soaking up the atmosphere, or descendants of slaves exploring their roots (or Yankee writers seeking a vicarious sense of continuity), people come to the River Road looking for something they've lost. In an era when the average American moves once every five years and everything from diapers to income is described as "disposable," the plantation houses of the River Road offer an impression of endurance that is precious—and stunning. The other day, a middle-aged tourist stepped into the Butler Greenwood dining room and suddenly stopped. "It smells just like my grandmother's house," he said. Then he began to sob.