FEBRUARY 5, 1996
The NewsHour begins its tribute to National Black History Month by visiting an exhibit on how African Americans endured plantation life. Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports from the Martin Luther King Public Library in Washington.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Since 1926, February has been the month for celebrating black history, but celebration is sometimes in the eye of the beholder as the Library of Congress found out when it mounted an exhibit depicting the architecture and social life of the plantation South. Protests led to the Library's cancelling the exhibit, but it was almost immediately picked up by the Martin Luther King Public Library in Washington with no protests from anywhere.
The exhibit, "The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation," went up at the District of Columbia Public Library last month. The collection of photos, interlaced with the narratives of ex-slaves, had been removed from the Library of Congress December 18th, just hours after it had been installed. The reason: Some African-American employees were offended by many of the images in the exhibit, particularly one of a white overseer on a horse looking down on black cotton pickers. They thought he was carrying a gun. After dismantling the plantation exhibit, library officials asked for understanding in light of the difficult climate left by a recently settled anti-discrimination lawsuit. The current exhibit, originally titled "Back of the Big House," is based on a book by John Vlach, an American studies professor at George Washington University. He walked us through it.
JOHN VLACH, George Washington University: In this entry panel, what we have, if we might look at this large panel here, is I think the key statement of the entire exhibit, because the idea of the exhibit is to give the slave perspective, and this a view of a plantation from the fields, looking from the place where work was done, past the collection of buildings that were the quarters--these are remnants of slave quarters moving towards a kitchen over here and a laundry, and finally up to the, to the owner's house in the far distance.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And this is what was known as the "Big House?"
JOHN VLACH: And this would have been a Big House.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And the Big House got its name how?
JOHN VLACH: Big House is an African-American term coming out of that experience of referring to the house where the master lived as the Big House or sometimes the Great House.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But your exhibit turns all of the orthodoxy about the Big House kind of in that perspective on its ear. Let's look at some of the rest of it.
JOHN VLACH: Sure.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: To see how you've managed to accomplish that.
JOHN VLACH: Okay. So much of the architectural history of plantations is written from the point of view of the main house, the so-called Big House, and my objective was to move beyond the Big House out into the domain where slaves lived and worked and to give credit where credit is long overdue. Who made the plantation? What made the plantation work? Where did the wealth come from? What was life like for those people behind the Big House? The presence of African-Americans, who were the majority occupants of these sites, has almost been fully erased.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We're not just seeing houses here and living quarters; we're seeing--from the slave's point of view, what are we seeing?
JOHN VLACH: Right. We have to imagine these buildings as being populated with living figures and how--and imagine how they might transform quarters, which are places of captivity, transform them into homes, transform work buildings like dairies and blacksmith shops and smokehouses, into places that they think as, as belonging to them.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You also said that these were opportunistic buildings. What does that mean?
JOHN VLACH: Well, I guess, the point that I would focus on is, is that a building like a smokehouse is a place where not only the master holds food or maybe withholds food, but slaves see that as a target that they might attack clandestinely and, and move that food from the master's smokehouse to their own houses.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This is amazing. I mean, it turns the whole idea of a slave mentality on its head in a way.
JOHN VLACH: Right. Well, I think that--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A subservient slave.
JOHN VLACH: That slaves were ever resistant, the very fact that you can create a culture is the highest testimony about the ability to resist oppression.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let's go on to the next panel. Okay, this one is called "By the Sweat of Our Brows," underlined "Our," the plantation--
JOHN VLACH: That's right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --landscape. Here's an interesting point. Exhausted and worn down though they were, many slaves nevertheless kept mental accounts of what their labor was worth.
JOHN VLACH: That's right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So that they were plotting in a way?
JOHN VLACH: Always thinking of when were they going to get their just reward.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Oh, listen to this. This is about cooking. The cooking was done in the kitchen yard. "I have seen my mother make beautiful biscuits and cakes in those old skillets. Mother's batter cakes would just melt in your mouth." Minnie Davis, former slave from Green County, Georgia.
JOHN VLACH: There is a tremendous amount of pride in the ability of slave women as perceived by their families as great cooks. This is where we begin to see how slave initiative can become the basis for self-empowerment, for attaining a sense of worth and a sense of dignity, and a sense of nurture within the quarters to make what is an abysmal situation survivable, if not tolerable.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Here's the controversial picture. What's happening really here?
JOHN VLACH: This is a photograph of cotton being picked under the supervision of an overseer. And I picked this photograph because it graphically displayed, you know, a dimension of, of control and oppression by a white overlord.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But this also takes us into another dimension of the work, right?
JOHN VLACH: Right. Now we're into the fields. We're looking at where the primary work that was done on plantations was carried out.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now here's Hager Brown, who's a former slave at the Oaks Plantation, Georgetown County, South Carolina, my home state. And she says, "Don't done your task. Drive away that whip. Put you over a barrel, beat you so blood run down." That's the degrading, awful part.
JOHN VLACH: It's as brutal as it can be. But at the very same time, we have testimony from other people, such as Bailey Wyatt, who gives a very eloquent speech in defense of, of the slave's right to the land based on the sufferings and oppressions that they endured.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Here's what's interesting about this. He says, "Our wives, our children, our husbands has been sold over and over again to purchase the land we now locates upon. That's the reason we have a divine right to the land."
JOHN VLACH: Absolutely. There's a moral sense of what's owed and now it's payback time.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, over here you also have two different perspectives on the living situation. They're saying here that "the cabins just wasn't fittin' for nobody to live in, we just had to put up with them."
JOHN VLACH: That's right. So that slave quarters were oppressive but some people could respond to that oppression with a kind of energy and a will to make the best of it and to transform a hovel into a home.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is that what Millie Evans is saying here?
JOHN VLACH: I think it's very clear when she says, "We kept our dirt floors swept clean and white."
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This section is called "A Very Valuable Man, Slave Skills and Talents." What are you telling us here?
JOHN VLACH: Well, in this section we're investigating the skills that slaves had other than agricultural skills, and these were skills such as blacksmithing and carpentry, and leatherworking, which were valuable to the plantation. But if they are valuable to the master, they are also valuable to the slaves, and so we look into these testimonies, particularly Richard Tolar, you can hear in his voice the, the sense of indignity, how he was treated when he knew what skills that he commanded.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He says, "The dog was superior to us. They would take him in the house."
JOHN VLACH: That's right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: "We'll soon be free. Slave religion, we'll soon be free, we'll soon be free, when the Lord will call us home." That's pretty depressing, that you won't be free till you die.
JOHN VLACH: Well, there are two levels of interpretation. On the one hand, the master class would hear this song and think, well, these people are here for the duration, but as some slaves testify, what we really meant was, we'll be free in this life and in this world.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Oh, that's the double language of slaves that we've read so much about, like when they used to sing, "Steal away, steal away," to Jesus, they were really talking about stealing away off this plantation.
JOHN VLACH: It was the signal to get up and go.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Uh-huh. All right. Now we're coming to the final panel, "Like a Bird out of the Cage, the End of Slavery." It comes from the--the theme comes from testimony by Houston Hollaway, a former slave from Georgia, recalling his own emancipation.
JOHN VLACH: That's right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What does it say here?
JOHN VLACH: He says, "I felt like a bird out of cage, amen, amen, amen. I could hardly ask to feel any better than I did on that day."
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And yet even with freedom, the point you make in the book is that many of these people wanted to remain on the land. Why was that?
JOHN VLACH: Well, I think what is implicated here is that they were owed these places; these were "their" places, and they weren't going to leave unless dire circumstances would force them off.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And why is it important for this story to be told in this way?
JOHN VLACH: The experience of slavery, the institutionalized racism that still pervades American society had its beginnings here and frequently, people will say it's a shameful history and shame falls on to these people. The shame does not really fall on the slave. The shame falls on the slave owner. And the people that, that came through this, this awful circumstance, dignity intact, with, with a will to survive, and a will to carry on, their celebration needs to be carried forward.