In the midst of conversation and debate about how to best interpret slavery at historic sites, I recently visited Frogmore Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. When my family signed up to take a tour of this working cotton plantation as part of our Mississippi River cruise, I was admittedly excited but with some trepidation. Viewing the experience through the historian’s lens (instead of just being a curious visitor), it could have been enlightening or terrible. In review, the experience sat somewhere between the two, although nowhere near as bad as I feared.
The excursion promotion stated that we would be visiting a working cotton plantation where we would learn about the lives of slaves and see a musical performance about slave life. I hoped to see a balanced and historical representation of slavery; I feared I would see caricatures of slaves and a covering up of the horrors of slavery. Fortunately, I saw more of the first than of the second. Unfortunately, I do not think they went far enough in their interpretation or delivered what was advertised.
Frogmore advertises their tours as such:
“Contrast a working cotton plantation of the early 1800’s with a modern cotton plantation and gin of today. Follow the early Natchez planters and their slaves through an evolution from the wilderness to a thriving 1850’s cotton plantation, and then beyond the War Between the States to a struggling new way of life. Listen to the slave customs, secret music, and their surprising relationships with the master, mistress, and overseer. Walk through authentically furnished slave quarters, rare steam gin, and other plantation dependencies.” (http://www.frogmoreplantation.com/)
Our tour started with the bus pulling into the modern cotton processing barns of Frogmore, which still harvests and processes the cotton growing in the surrounding fields. Our Frogmore guide joined us as we pulled through one of the barns and she explained the modern gin and how they currently process cotton. After that we drove down the road to where they had the historic buildings set up. The historic section of Frogmore consists of a small church, six to eight slave cabins from different plantations, steam gin, store, and the plantation house. Our guide quickly changed into period clothes and we began our experience in the church. This part of the presentation consisted of a single gentleman singing a few recognizable hymns that have strong connections to slave life and our guide talking about the history of slavery. While the music presentation was nothing spectacular, I was very pleased that our guide presented very factual and balanced information about slavery and its hardships.
We next moved out of the church and started touring the slave cabins. We were each provided with individual transmitters and earbud headphones so that we could hear our guide no matter where we were standing or looking (although mine did not work and they did not provide me with a second unit after I notified them of this). We only toured a few of the slave cabins; there were several that we just passed without comment. The first cabin was split into two parts, one side representing living quarters during slavery and the other represented living quarters during Reconstruction and after. In this space our guide briefly pointed out a few of the interest pieces in each room and how the living conditions changed from one period to the other. The second cabin was set up as the kitchen and the guide talked about a few of the anecdotes and artifacts connected with plantation cooking (such as how “hoecakes” earned their name). The final cabin was a dogtrot cabin set up again to show living quarters and some information about plantation life. Here the guide showed us the long bags slaves would carry to collect the cotton that they picked.
After touring the cabins, we moved to a large barn where we saw the original steam cotton gin and learned how it worked compared to the modern gin we viewed at the beginning of the tour. We were not able to pick cotton from the fields because it was the wrong season, but they provided us with cotton bolls to look at (which delighted my mom who works a lot with textiles). After our tour of the steam gin we headed to the gift shop for some cold lemonade and souvenirs before heading on the bus.
Overall, it was a generic tour of some buildings related to cotton and slavery. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. The overwhelming emphasis was on how the technology had changed from the early steam gin to the modern processing of cotton, and while the interpretation about slavery was not bad, it was not great either. They really did not present the full slave experience to the audience and, while they gave factual evidence about slavery in the south, they really did not paint the reality of slavery. We did not learn about how cotton and slavery developed in the region, how Frogmore plantation ran before, during, and after the Civil War, or anything about the slaves’ “surprising relationships with the master, mistress, and overseer.” The plantation house was closed to us because it was currently the home of Frogmore’s owners; however, they never even mentioned the slave’s relationship to the “Big House.”
On the one hand, the tour was much better than I feared. It was not the “southern belle and magnolia” tour that it could have been, romanticizing southern plantation life and minimizing the reality and impact of slavery. The historical presentation in the church at the beginning was refreshingly accurate and unbiased. The songs chosen for the musical presentation were all well-known hymns connected to slave or African-American culture; they did not choose songs from the period that demeaned slaves or emphasized the “happy slave” story. It would have been nice to have had more than one single African-American gentleman singing, however, since it gave off a little bit of the “token black on the plantation tour” feel.
But while it was not a negative experience, Frogmore missed so many opportunities to really engage their visitors with the complicated history of slavery. With a focus on the technology of the cotton industry, there could have been a discussion about why slavery was so instrumental in producing cotton and how advances in technology, such as the cotton gin, worked to ensure the need for slaves. The various cabins located at Frogmore in close vicinity to the original plantation house offer an opportunity to explore the complex relationship between white owners and oversees and black slaves. Not only that, but there were several cabins and buildings that we did not go into. If they are empty, they are perfect spaces for interpretive displays on the topics that currently are not addressed on the tour, or opportunities to expand the current displays to better show slave life and change over time. Lastly, there really was no discussion of Frogmore itself and how the plantation experienced the Civil War and the transition from slavery to Reconstruction. The tour remained very general in terms of slavery and cotton, while they could have used the plantation itself and the people who lived there as the interpretive story. Connecting to actual historical actors often helps a general audience connect to complex historical issues, and that is an opportunity to be explored at Frogmore.
The site does not show the change over time well, from wilderness to thriving plantation to post-Civil War Reconstruction as their promotional material states. They have the one cabin split to show living conditions between slavery and Reconstruction, but the guides did not even explain the two periods of time. My guess is that many people on our tour, and most tourists that visit there, do not have much of an understanding of Reconstruction and how that period changed the South and the relationships between former slaves and owners. Another thing that stuck out to me like a sore thumb in their Reconstruction display was a framed photo on the mantel that showed a white farming family with a caption that indicated that there were white sharecroppers too. There was no interpretation of this photo other than the caption and no explanation even of what sharecropping was. This photo was a negative point for me on the tour. While there were poor, white farming families in the south, their status and experience in Reconstruction was still radically different compared to that of newly freed slaves. Placing that photo in the Reconstruction display which was supposed to portray the living conditions of freed slaves and basically making the statement that these situations were directly equivalent is not accurate and gives a misleading idea about Reconstruction to the visitors that go through the tour.
Overall, I give the interpretation at Frogmore a mediocre grade: not necessarily negative, not wildly positive, and with lots of room to grow and improve. Granted, as a historian and a historian of this period, I was looking at the site and the tour with a pretty critical eye. However, I know the historical information to provide background and context to the plantation and the information presented, and the general audience might not. That is where Frogmore can improve. The history of slavery can be an uncomfortable one to discuss, but the plantation has an opportunity to engage their audiences with a better understanding of slavery and how it affected the South and the rest of the nation.
My mom left happy though. Our guide allowed my mom (or rather my husband on behalf of my mom) to run back to the barn and take a whole bag full of cotton bolls home.
Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.