Southern comfort level

Plantations: The seeds of change have been sown at and around the glorious antebellum homes, and the role of slaves is at last being acknowledged. The tours are richer for it.

August 15, 1999|By Christopher Reynolds | By Christopher Reynolds,Los Angeles Times

The South holds plenty of untold stories. One of them is that Margaret Mitchell wrote almost all of "Gone With the Wind," and conjured up the world's most famous plantation house, while dwelling in a cramped apartment on the ground floor of an 1899 Tudor-style urban Atlanta home. She called it "the Dump."

Yet Tara, that grand plantation Mitchell built from fantasy in her 1936 novel, stands taller in the American popular imagination than Gatsby's mansion, sturdier than the Little House on the Prairie. Thousands of tourists arrive in the South every year eager to admire the columns and banisters of someplace just like it.

These visitors are seldom disappointed, and my wife and I were curious enough to spend several days last summer touring old homes and plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. We got an eyeful, and an unexpected earful.

The eyeful was simple enough. Thanks to the efforts of architectural preservationists and the pervasiveness of Confederate nostalgia, dozens of elaborately restored antebellum homes and plantation houses fill downtown Natchez and dozens more line the Mississippi River as it wriggles south from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. The number of them remaining seems impressive, until you are reminded that once, 350 plantations shared the river between those two Louisiana cities, 80 miles apart.

The earful was another matter. Most antebellum home and plantation tours, we soon learned, have been honed over time to meet expectations formed by Margaret Mitchell's book, even though her Tara stood in neither Mississippi nor Louisiana but northern Georgia. Guides often wear period attire, and their scripts are rich with details about antique furnishings, damage done by Union troops and the bygone habits of the Southern aristocracy.

But for all these years, there's been something missing from these tours. It's only now, 134 years after the end of the Civil War, that a handful of plantation tours are beginning to give substantial attention to the slaves who built and sustained these households.

At Magnolia Mound, a 16-acre 1791 home museum in Baton Rouge that is run by the East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation Commission, director Gwen Edwards in 1996 obtained a slave cabin from a rural property about 30 miles away. After restoration and research, the museum last fall unveiled a new slavery-based tour called "Beyond the Big House: The Other Story."

At Shadows-on-the-Teche, an 1834 home in New Iberia, La., museum staff and local high school students have worked together since 1995 on a tour stressing the "living foundation" that slave labor provided the home's former owners. Museum director Pat Kahle said that she'd been hearing more questions from guests about slavery in the last few years, and that "we are starting to have black visitors. We didn't 10 years ago."

And in a 1,000-square-foot room on the Tezcuco Plantation in Ascension Parish, La., a crusading, self-appointed museum director named Kathe Hambrick has founded the fledgling River Road African-American Museum. Hambrick nine years ago returned to Louisiana after being downsized from an IBM job in Los Angeles, but said she was startled by the absence of slaves from the stories told to most plantation tourists. So in 1994 she persuaded Tezcuco's owners to give her some space and started assembling exhibits, including a roster of 700 slave names from local plantations. "People say, `An African-American museum at a plantation?' " Hambrick said. "And I say, `Well, where else?' "

Hearing this new spin -- or not hearing it -- can make an antebellum house tour a fascinating event: not only a lesson in architecture, but a study in sociology.

Beginning in Natchez

The logical way to tour the antebellum homes of Louisiana and Mississippi is to fly into New Orleans, rent a car, drive north for 172 miles to Natchez, then slowly make your way south along the river.

Natchez sits on an abrupt bluff overlooking the Mississippi, its streets rich with antebellum houses. Monmouth Plantation House is among the most prominent.

It was a sticky July evening, the sun a low orange wafer over the slow-moving Mississippi, when we rolled up the looping driveway of Monmouth. Built in 1818 and fronted by four white columns, its 26 carefully coiffed acres unfurl flawlessly with fountain, garden, pond, oaks and Spanish moss. In 1978, California developer Ron Riches and his wife, Lani, bought the place and invested heavily in its renovation. They now have a bed-and-breakfast with 25 rooms. When the front desk puts callers on hold, they hear the "Gone With the Wind" theme.

We got the most affordable room in the place for $112.50. Our room, on the ground floor of a companion building, included a fireplace and four-poster bed.

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