This New Initiative Wants to Change the Way Americans Think About Plantation Tourism

There are more than 600 plantations in the U.S., but only one focuses on and memorializes the experiences of the enslaved people who lived there.

Whitney Plantation honors lives of slaves with memorials, statues and sculptures
Photo: Elsa Hahne/Whitney Plantation

An elementary school project asking students to draw their family trees first sparked Kirk Brown's interest in his lineage. His parents are African American, both brought up in the South during the Jim Crow era, his father the descendent of an enslaved woman who was assaulted by a Confederate soldier. Eventually, Brown reached a point in his family tree where he could go no further — a confusing and painful realization for many in the African diaspora whose families were torn apart by slavery at one point or another.

But in adulthood, this pushed Brown to learn more about his family and others like it.

During his search, he had the disheartening experience of visiting a former plantation in Louisiana, only to find tour guides focused on the "ornate beauty" of the homes while other guests drank mint juleps and even got intoxicated on the grounds. Brown found it to be immensely disrespectful, albeit representative of the American psyche that he says comes with "this level of cognitive dissonance, where we only focus on the pretty parts."

"I come from a family that is rooted in generational trauma that's connected to all the ugly parts of America and the beauty of it, too," Brown said. "I love this country, and I want to play my part in it, but we really have to start calling the kettle black and say that we're operating in a state of denial."

According to Brown and other members of Melanin Meetups, an African American think tank founded by Brown, that process begins with rewriting the narrative of the Black experience in the U.S.

From that idea, The Better Together Project (TBTP) was born. Officially launched on Juneteenth 2020, the project has a three-pronged approach that seeks to honor and protect the African American experience by creating a spirit of reverence around it, starting with the hundreds of plantation homes that still stand around the country.

Whitney Plantation honors lives of slaves with memorials, statues and sculptures
Elsa Hahne/Whitney Plantation

Of the more than 600 plantations in the U.S., only one — the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana — memorializes the lives of the enslaved people who lived there. One of the major goals of The Better Together Project is to push more plantations to do the same.

"By memorializing plantations, that honors our experience, that honors the Black American experience, and it pays homage to those who built this country," Brown explained, adding that the Whitney Plantation can serve as a blueprint for changes that should be made to other sites.

Whitney Plantation honors lives of slaves with memorials, statues and sculptures
Elsa Hahne/Whitney Plantation

At the Whitney, visitors will find monuments dedicated to the enslaved people, explanations and examples of how their names were anglicized upon arrival at the plantation, and historical records focused on who these people were and where they came from.

Unlike other nearby plantations, the Whitney emphasizes the true impact of the atrocities that occurred on its grounds instead of focusing on the architecture of the big house. It's a place for learning and paying respects, and celebrations — like weddings often hosted at similar sites — are not allowed here.

Whitney Plantation honors lives of slaves with memorials, statues and sculptures
Elsa Hahne/Whitney Plantation

Though it will take time for other plantations to reach the level of memorialization seen at the Whitney, Brown said The Better Together Project encourages these sites to take small steps to move toward that goal.

"We can start as simple as the websites in terms of how these plantation homes are marketed. Describing something as beautiful and ornate where people were murdered and families were ripped apart...The cognitive dissonance blows my mind," Brown said.

Whitney Plantation honors lives of slaves with memorials, statues and sculptures
Elsa Hahne/Whitney Plantation

One of the first initiatives of The Better Together Project was the "Stop the Glamorization of Plantation Tourism" petition, which targeted Louisiana's River Parishes Tourist Commission to remove the name "New Orleans Plantation Country" from its website and stop advertising weddings and festivities on what Brown describes as sacred grounds and ancestral lands for African Americans. The petition garnered over 2,600 signatures, and with that, plus pressure from on-the-ground protests in New Orleans, the language in question was removed from the front of the website. The plantations, however, are still advertised as wedding venues.

It's a small step, and only a scarce handful of plantations have taken similar actions, but Brown says The Better Together Project is all about the long game of confronting the real legacy of these historical sites and the racism they gave birth to.

"When you begin to honor these homes and stop the marketing and start to push the slave narrative…it bleeds over into other symbols and monuments…It makes people question where there are other spots that need to be honored and treated as sacred ground," Brown said. "These plantations serve as ground zero for the roots of systemic racism and it just gets bigger and bigger."

Typically, Melanin Meetups are exclusively for Black Americans to have a safe space to come together, but the group has launched meetups specifically for The Better Together Project that will be open to people of all racial backgrounds. The first virtual meeting for The Better Together Project took place on July 12, with more scheduled for the future. Those interested in getting involved can start by signing the project pledge "to not only align with our goals to further memorialize our experience — but acknowledge your participation in old narratives that hinder us from moving forward together as a country."

Ultimately, the goal of The Better Together Project is to shift the consciousness of the American people to fully acknowledge this country's past, address how it affects the present, and then heal to create a better future.

"There's no culture war here. There's no trying to take something away from you," Brown explained. "It really is just a group of people coming together to heal and advance and move themselves forward."

Jessica Poitevien is a Travel + Leisure contributor currently based in South Florida, but she's always on the lookout for her next adventure. Besides traveling, she loves baking, talking to strangers, and taking long walks on the beach. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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