L in the Southeast

L in the Southeast
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
November 04
Retired PR Director
I am a retired Public Relations professional who now writes purely for fun and catharsis. I covered most of my memoir-type pieces in the first three years here. Lately I have dabbled in politics, current affairs, pop culture and movie reviews. Life is my muse.

L in the Southeast's Links

JUNE 6, 2011 8:47AM

I Worked on a Georgia Plantation

Rate: 31 Flag


It never occurred to me.  When I made reservations to hold a customer barbecue event at the Archibald Smith Plantation in Roswell, Georgia, I was in full public relations mode.  It seemed like the perfect departure from the usual chi-chi cocktail parties and hot hors d’oeuvres  and I was excited to see how the sales force and their guests would respond.

It never occurred to me that a routine work project would result in one of the most unexpected and disturbing spiritual experiences of my life.

Hailing as I do from the Chicago suburbs, my image of a plantation had been gleaned from history books and Mark Twain tomes.  Through recent research on Ancestry.com I knew my paternal grandparents had migrated to Illinois from Georgia and Tennessee.  That they were both descendants of slaves and slave masters was a pretty safe bet.  But I was never allowed to get to know that side of myself, so the only family I knew had no historical connection with the South and slavery at all.  My frame of reference was no different than any other school child's at the time.

In preparation for the customer event I did my homework and read the history of the place we would visit.  The Town of Roswell took its name from Roswell King, a wealthy coastal businessman who  in the 1830s encouraged his fellow Presbyterians to move inland with him to establish a mill town along the Chattahoochee River.  Archibald-Anne-Smith

Archibald Smith and his wife Anne were struggling with two failing plantations along the coast, so in 1838 they answered King's challenge and moved to Roswell with their four children and 30 of their slaves.  The house and outbuildings they built on the 300 acres of cotton-producing land they purchased became the Archibald Smith Plantation.  Every plank and brick of that place was placed by the hand of a slave, but that didn't occur to me until later.                   Archibald and Anne Smith                                                                                           (smithplantation.org)                

Smith Plantation modelA graphic model of the Smith Plantation shows the relative scale of the mansion versus the outdoor kitchen (with chimney) and the tiny slave quarters.

Smith Plantation Home_medium



The "Big House" today




Since way back then, despite a 25-year span during which the place sat totally empty, it never left the possession of the Smith family and its descendants.   Every generation kept every piece of the house's  furnishings for posterity.  When the widow of Archibald Smith Sr.'s grandson Arthur Smith died in 1981, the estate was willed to her niece who four years later sold it to the City of Roswell with two major provisions: The house would become a house museum using all the furniture and artifacts collected by three generations of Smiths; and Ms. Mamie Cotton, a black woman who had worked for the Smith family for 54 years, would be allowed to live in the house until she died.  

The big day arrived.  When I arrived at the venue about an hour before the guests were expected, I drove up the serpentine driveway and soon saw the snow white house rise from the horizon.  Suddenly, I was stunned speechless.  It finally occurred to me that I was entering a haunted place that was built -- every last inch of it -- on the backs of enslaved black people.  

I started hearing faint whispers.  I thought I heard the distant strains of slow, drawling Negro spirituals coming from fields of cotton bolls, dancing like bolts of dotted Swiss fabric used in the white women's dresses.

I shook my head hard to clear the phantom sounds.  Instead of Miss Cotton, the curator of the museum answered the door.  It very well could have been Mamie Cotton had she not died about two years before that, in 1994. 

The special events manager led me through a quick tour of the home.  Everywhere I turned there were antiques of obvious great value.  The Smiths must have been congenital packrats, because the place was loaded to the rafters with the trappings of the rich.  I was starting to feel very strange -- even a little angry.

 We exited through the home's back door and descended into the part of the expansive back lawn that led to the separate cook house.  This was where the slave women prepared every meal in the sweltering Georgia heat in order to spare the Smiths the stifling discomfort in their airy mansion.  

Every footstep I took felt as if I were stepping in a bog, soggy with the sweat, tears and blood of so many before me.  My knees literally buckled with the weight of the scenes playing in my head.  Over there was a large woman carrying a huge caldron into the cook house.  She wore a clean but shabby long-skirted dress, long sleeves and a white bandana on her head.  I saw all that but I could also see through her.  

I glanced to the right and saw a row of crude shanties.  No one had to tell me those were the slaves' quarters.  I excused myself and walked trance-like to the entrance of the first hovel.   

Slave Quarters Smith plantation Sepia tones

Slave Quarters Smith plantation


I could almost see the waves of heat radiating from those thin, uninsulated walls.  Gaps between the floorboards revealed bare, dusty earth.  The ladder led to what appeared to be a sleeping loft, no wider than a standard twin bed.  I saw eight small, transparent children sitting up there with their grimy bare feet swinging off the side. A single tear slid down the side of my nose; I caught it with my tongue.

When I turned to leave I almost tripped over the skirts of my long muslin skirts.  I looked down to see a dress like the one the cook was wearing, only mine was slightly nicer.  I could see through my hand.  I realized that because I am what was called "high-yellow" back then, I would be a house "nigra," someone light-skinned enough to be suitable for work inside with the family, cleaning and serving meals.  I also knew I would be at the beck and call of the men of the house, should they be so inclined.

Again I shook my spinning head.  Guests were wandering from the house tour out the back door.  The tent under which the barbecue would be served by a local restaurant was beginning to fill and I was needed for seating arrangements.   The band, which I had searched for weeks to find, was playing music that now sounded to me as if it was straight out of the movie Deliverance.  Banjo.  Fiddle.  Southern.

It was a long, long evening.


Photos from www.archibaldsmithplantation.org




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The hypocritical thing about American historical mythology is that we laud ourselves for being so moral with Emancipation and Abolition, and yet, we only did it when slave-based agriculture was proving itself to be less profitable than other forms of agriculture, particularly, those based upon industrial mechanization and disposable wage-labor.

Southern Racism prevented the Southern Slave-holding elite from taking advantage of the technological and economic innovations of their age, things northern Capitalist bankers saw and wished to impose upon agriculture, thus ensuring a higher rate of return.

The victory of the north is lauded as a moral victory, and it is, but I think it would have been an even greater moral victory had slavery been abolished when we had alot more to lose.

Abolishing it when it was no longer profitable makes it seem, to me, like Capitalists are trying to paint their withdrawal from a market for financial reasons, as a morality-induced form of selflessness. In my mind, many of the northerners were highly cynical about slavery and for them, it had nothing to do with morality, but only with profits. If slavery remained profitable, I am sure they would have continued to support it, which is something I find to be deeply upsetting.

I have only visited Washington and Jefferson's plantations. They need to spend more time discussing slavery at these places. The contradiction inherent is amazing. A generation of men embracing the principles of liberty, while simultaneously holding slaves, boggles my mind...
Lezlie, you made me feel as though I was walking next to you on that tour. This was powerful writing, perhaps your best. -R-
When I was in Tenn. years ago I went to the Andrew Jackson plantation. I was so upset that a former president of the US had slaves.
What did I know being Canadian and we saved slaves?
When I too went to the back buildings etc I was almost sick to my stomach.
How people could have done this.. well I just dont know.
Great piece Lezlie and rated with hugs
Well, most of us are guilty from time to time of doing things we later regret in order to feed ourselves and our families. Of course, some folks don't seem to be bothered in the least by that fact.

I imagine - I would hope - 'even' white people would feel a lot of that. I have often (well, occasionally) marvelled and thanked Whatever for having been born in this time & place. (A visitor feeling the white ghosts too should feel mighty uncomfortable.)

Note - a couple and their four children and THIRTY SLAVES!!!
Having grown up not far from Roswell and being from a history minded family, I had a child's perspective of understanding of this part of history. I felt a white southerner's guilt for ....I was going to say a long time but......well, I still have it. I was pretty sure my family did not own slaves, we were not plantation people. I was not sure how my ancestors had treated black people during that time. I chose to believe that they were all like my mother who was my guide in life. I was probably delusional about it.

Your words were powerful and made me feel guilty all over again.

I must add that when John Grisham's novel "The Chamber" came out, I contacted my siblings with a dread that family members might have been Klansmen and did I really want to know. It is easier for me to emotionally handle the acts of ancestors that I did not ever meet.
I think anyone who considers themselves a southern liberal needs a refresher course in history like you have provided on a regular basis. Thanks.
Eerily beautiful summoning of the ghosts of our shameful past, Lady L. You stirred up the tear ducts in my eyes, too.
My heart is beating a little faster, I'm a little out of breath. Wow.
A post of such pain and sorrow.
"The past isn't dead. It isn't even the past."-Faulkner
Very poignant and stirring, Lezlie. You've voiced the generations of a sad history vividly.
Thanks for your comments, everyone. You know I appreciate all of you showing up to read my work, and ordinarily I try to respond to each comment individually. This time, though, I think I prefer to let the post do whatever talking I do.

How powerful. It's amazing and strange how history can hit us when we least expect it. It's also important for us to understand that lovely as they appear today, restored plantations have a dark past indeed. I think you did those ghosts honor by writing about this.
Slavery along with the exploitation of hired workers is a national shame. Sometimes I wonder about the human species. Well told.
Holy Cow, Lezlie, what an intense experience for you!!
I've been to that plantation and others. It's hard not to imagine the awful circumstances when one steps inside a slave shanty, especially considering the sweltering summers and the cold winters living in such a shack without insulation, without enough blankets, without the dignity of being regarded as human...
That being said, I'd not understand it the way your every cell seemed to.
I'm sorry for that.
What a great read. Thanks for telling the story and adding pictures.
Fascinating journey into history. Funny thing is, I don't think I'd have the same mixed feelings viewing great Roman architecture even though it too was built by slave labor. I guess as time passes we are supposed to know better.

And certainly most of us are still enslaved to this day, it's just a little more cleverly disguised.
Very sobering account of how history touches us in ways we might prefer to forget.

Reminds me of Palin's comment last week after visiting Washington's home at Mount Vernon, "How hard he must have worked to keep the farm going." To which Stephen Colbert replied mockingly, "He never could have done it without his 'African volunteers.'"
This is so moving and so beautifully written, Lezlie. You pull us there with you, so suddenly, into the oppressive heat and past.
This reminds me of when I took a trip to death camps in Europe. I could feel the ghosts, hanging heavy.
I've been here before, and I know I rated because it wouldn't let me rate again, but no comment...sigh.

Anyway, this is a knock-out piece L! Gave me the creeps in an interesting way. I've never visited such a place, but I did read that some of these tourist attractions are moving to downplay or remove the unpleasant historical aspects of these institutions (the boring slave stuff). They figure people will enjoy it more if they could just brush some of that ugliness under the rug. Let's just enjoy the pretty house and think of suthun' belles like Scarlett O'Hara and sip mint juleps. Wouldn't that be more fun? Unbelievable.
So much of our history is haunted not just by maligned ghosts but by the complicity of those who just let time go by...without question. We could all benefit by a trip to the past like yours.
Yours is a perspective that commands one to hold their breath and read it shaking their head in shame.

Excellent writing that touched everyone who read it.
lezlie, you've done a fine job with this. chilling. i loved seeing it through your eyes.
Salon doesn't want to stay in business or they would put this on their cover.
I am grateful for all of your wonderful support.

I can't believe this didn't get an EP!
I don't know how you made it through the rest of the evening. You probably went into auto-pilot.
A real live ghost story. Must have been a very scary experience.

Actually, you can find out a lot about slavery at the mansions of the Founding Fathers if you get the right tour. My son and I got a great one of the slaves' quarters at Mt. Vernon a few years ago, along with a whole lot of information about how certain aspects of slavery were conducted, like marriages between slaves on different plantations. There's also some of that at Monticello, though less so.

Rw: What's missing from your case is the reason that northern industrialists cared about whether or not southerners made a profit. The argument that northern abolitionists got religion once slavery became less profitable than the alternatives, even if true, doesn't explain why abolitionism became such a virulent movement or why southerners were willing to secede to preserve an ostensibly unprofitable economic system. I'm picturing a secret cabal of wealthy invididuals on the southern tip of Manhattan passing around a sensational book called Uncle Tom's Bank Account.
I have volunteered for many years - almost 2 decades - at living history sites and house museums across the United States as an interpreter, and brought up all four of my children to know historic experiences first hand. Often we portrayed a lower class white family who worked for a wealthier family. In this way we could share day-to-day work experiences that would have been common to many people, black and white such as working in the kitchen (cooking meals, baking bread, preserving food, drying herbs), sewing and mending garments, carding wool or preparing linen or cotton for spinning, .

Often visitors will ask about the enslaved experience, which is not a story I personally feel qualified to tell. It is extremely difficult to convince black men and women to portray enslaved individuals. The few who do are honored and cherished by those sites lucky enough to have them. I would like to share an experience directly related to this, if you would be kind enough to read it.

My daughter had two friends, a brother and sister, who wanted to go with us on one of our weekends at an early 19th century backcountry upper class farm. They wore work garments borrowed from other interpreters and my daughter - authentic, serviceable, clean, but worn and stained from labor in the soil and at the hearth - the same garments we wear. They learned to do the same things my daughter did - churn butter, card wool, clean cotton bolls of sticks and remove the seeds, bring in eggs from the chicken house, knead bread. They also played games, helped in the barn with the animals, and made baskets, all activities that were common to children in the early 19th century. A photographer wandered the grounds taking pictures. When the weekend was over the children enthused over what a good time they had had. No, their experience was not exactly like that of the enslaved workers on this historic farm. But they learned something of the type of work that was commonly done by both the families who had no slaves, and also many slave-holding families. It is a common misconception that people who owned slaves did no work. In fact, most people worked alongside the two to six slaves they owned. Very few people owned more than a dozen or so slaves. Check the records.

One of the children expressed an interest in learning how to weave, and the other wanted to learn how to work with wood. They were excited to have the opportunity to go again, and we would have been very glad to have them. Their presence did add much to the site, for many reasons.

As it happened, some of the pictures taken by the wandering photographer were published in the local newspaper. At church the following Sunday the children's mother was berated by her friends for allowing her children to proliferate an image each of them found horrid and intolerable. Embarrassed, my friend told me she couldn't allow her son and daughter to accompany us again to the site. I understood and agreed with her that it was unfortunate, but the experience wasn't supposed to make things difficult. People draw what conclusions they will based on visceral emotion, without knowing or caring about facts all the time. You live and let live, and move on.

Everyone will have a different opinion of our experience and that of our black friends. What was most unfortunate for the children was, it introduced difficulty and stress into what had been a very pleasant learning experience. We do not know what history can teach unless we can touch it, work with it, walk through it and see beyond our modern experience.

I suspect that living history interpreters in Northern industrial situations will be able to portray the horrors of their situation decades before we will see more than a few cherished black interpreters at Southern historic sites. And perhaps that is as it should be. After all, the life expectancy of the average enslaved person working on many Georgia cotton plantations was decades longer than that of an unmarried young girl working in a Lowell, Massachusetts textile mill and living in a dormitory. Northern industrialists practiced slavery of a different sort, perhaps, but it was deadly and brutal all the same.

Thank you for relating your experience. It was difficult, chilling and real, as living history often is. I hope you find it in your heart to continue your presence from time to time at Smith Plantation. The story will not be told without more like you. Your very act of being in the room, of walking across the grounds, of standing in the doorway is a stark reminder of the lessons we must never forget. Without the presence of black men, women, and children, the ghosts have no way to communicate, and are silenced. The only peoples' story that gets told is that of the white residents and workers.

We can not tell your story.

If we are to learn from the mistakes of the past, we must face our fears, and examine our propensity to allow shadows to blind us to what is real, and true, and of value.

Thank you again for the time you took to face the past, and to share that with us.

Peace and blessings.
Lin, this was an awesome account, and I don't use that word lightly. I followed you through the 'tour,' and felt the heat in your bones, especially when I saw that photo. Many of my black friends have explained to me the 'tussle' between their counterparts and high yellows. I've also heard about the resentment some people of color hold against their neighbors who are "not black enough." You have written about these probllems in the past, with the same graceful dignity. I'm grateful to be your friend. It's a long hard road we walk, "until all the crooked places are made straight."
Stunning and poignant. ~r
Koshersalaami: This seems like the subject of a post I should write this summer!!!! 8)
I read this yesterday and did not know what to comment.
I still don't but it is a great read Leslie.
I feel the haint's presence sometimes too....
Thanks for piece of cake.
I am late to your latest as I was to Joan H.'s latest. Both excellent reads.

Let us not forget those northern slave owners who owned only a couple. The fact is that most northerners would have owned large numbers of slaves had the economic system up there made it feasible for them to make a buck by so doing. There was enormous hypocrisy on this issue in the north. They were not by and large a more virtuous people. Instead they enslaved white immigrant populations in their mills and factories.

I am not arguing with your piece though. It was beautifully done from your own particular perspective.
I had to return. Something about my comment bothered me. If it appeared as if I was equating the slavery of the black people in the south with the situation of the mill workers in the north, I did not intend that. There are substantial differences between simple economic victimization and legal slavery, not the least of which is the huge moral difference.
Steve: Thanks for coming back. Knowing you as I do, I had a hard time believing you were thinking them equivalent, but I was a little confused. What you said reminds me of Tennessee Ernie Ford's song Sixteen Tons. "...St. Peter don't you call me 'cuz I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store."

An eerie first hand account. Very well done. People act like slavery was just about the "times we were living" then and that it was ages about. It really hasn't been that long ago. The Emancipation Proclamation became "effective" on 1/1/1863, which was less than 100 years before President Obama was born.