How McDonnell's Remarks Could Jeopardize Southern Tourism

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Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts are both Assistant Professors of History at California State University, Fresno. They are the authors of the chapter "'Is It Okay to Talk about Slaves': Segregating the Past in Historic Charleston," in the forthcoming "Dixie Passages: Tourism and Southern History," ed. Karen L. Cox. (Florida, 2011).

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s now infamous Confederate History Month proclamation, which omitted any reference to slavery, has stoked the predictable partisan fires.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans have cheered the move, while liberals contend the governor is pandering to the far Right.  Although McDonnell quickly issued an apology—in which he distanced himself from neo-Confederates by admitting that slavery “led to the Civil War”—some Democrats, including Virginia State Senator Henry Marsh III, doubt the sincerity of his mea culpa.  Whatever McDonnell’s political reasons for glossing over slavery (or for signaling remorse, for that matter), his apology underscores an important reality that people of all political stripes must confront as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches: slavery and tourism, to many Americans, do not mix.

Governor McDonnell never says directly that he finds slavery and tourism incompatible.  But his apology, which emphasizes that his original intention in drafting the proclamation had been to “encourage tourism” in Virginia, suggests as much.  McDonnell is not alone in this belief.  While slavery has been a vital topic for scholars for decades, it remains the third rail of the historical tourism industry.  Many tourists, so the logic goes, prefer to avoid the darker sides of our past because such realities seem antithetical to the very reason they are traveling in the first place.  Historian Ted Ownby’s aptly titled essay, “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen, But Does Anybody Want to Hear about Them When They’re on Vacation?,” makes the point clearly:  relaxation trumps edification for most tourists.  And even as other troubling topics like the Holocaust have begun to garner significant tourist attention in the U.S., the history and legacy of slavery remain behind closed doors. 

We have spent the last several years studying public memory in Charleston, South Carolina, which has proudly billed itself as “America’s Most Historic City” since the 1920s.  Charleston reveals the vexed relationship between slavery and tourism in the United States particularly well.  Often called “the spiritual capital” of the Confederacy, Charleston was where the Ordinances of Secession were drafted.  One hundred and one years ago this week, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, which sits in the center of the city’s harbor.  Home to a black majority population for much of its early history, Charleston was also the place where approximately forty percent of the African slaves transported to what would become the United States first landed on North American soil.  Slavery, in short, mattered more to Charleston than it did to perhaps any other American city.

Yet this is not the sense that one gets when walking around Charleston today.  The monuments and memorials that abound in Historic Charleston—the old section of the city tourists most often frequent—avoid the topic of slavery entirely.  Even the imposing monument to proslavery stalwart John C. Calhoun that stands in the center of the city makes no mention of the institution that Calhoun fought so hard to defend.  It is as if Charleston’s slave past has been whitewashed from the public landscape.

One gets a similar impression from the dozens of historical tours that are offered in Historic Charleston.  Old-fashioned carriages driven by guides decked out in Confederate grey crisscross the city.  These guides craft moonlight-and-magnolia stories of the Old South, peppered with Gone with the Wind references.  Euphemisms such as “carriage houses,” “dependencies,” and “servants’ quarters” enable them to describe the dwellings where the enslaved lived without talking directly about the peculiar institution.  When the issue of slavery is broached, some guides echo Lost Cause apologia, downplaying the significance of slavery to the Confederacy and Old South more generally.  On a typical tour we took, a guide asserted that one of the largest southern slaveowners had been black and that most white southerners had not owned any slaves at all—accurate statements to a degree, but not the kind of evidence that invalidates historical consensus on the realities of slavery or Civil War causation.  And the few guides who address the realities of Charleston’s slave past tend to do so tentatively.  One guide specializing in Civil War tours, for example, opened his tour by asking, “Is it okay to talk about slaves?”

For many Charleston tour guides, the problem seems to be more than just a reluctance to confront slavery; it is an inability to see or acknowledge that blacks were a part of the city’s past at all.  We heard one guide insist that the largest minority group in Charleston in the eighteenth century was the French Huguenots, who comprised about 15% of the city’s population.  The other 85%, she explained, were English.  Left out of this neat statistical summary, however, was the region’s large African American population.  By the 1720s, free and enslaved African Americans represented more than half of Charleston’s population,while the surrounding South Carolina Low Country had an even higher ratio of black to white residents.  Antebellum visitors often commented upon the black hue of the city’s population.  Scandinavian Fredrika Bremer wrote upon arriving in Charleston in the 1850s that “two thirds of the people whom one sees out in the town are negroes or mulattoes.”  Yet tourists today get a very different picture of antebellum Charleston from most guides.

There are a few encouraging signs that Charleston’s public memory is becoming more inclusive.  In 2008 a bench dedicated to the victims of slavery was installed in a corner of National Park Service land on Sullivan’s Island, the tony beach across Charleston harbor from the city proper.  Erected by the Toni Morrison Society, the bench was a response to Morrison’s complaint, made more than two decades ago, that “there is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about [slavery],” in the United States.  “There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby.  There’s no 300-foot tower.  There’s no small bench by the road.”  Now there is—in Charleston, no less.  Moreover, after a decade-long struggle, ground was recently broken north of Historic Charleston for a monument to Denmark Vesey, the free black Charlestonian who plotted to lead a slave insurrection in the city in 1822.  These monuments represent a significant step forward, but their location is revealing.  Situated miles away from the heart of Historic Charleston, the Bench by the Road and the Vesey Memorial reflect the marginal position of slavery in the city’s historical imagination.

Governor McDonnell’s deeply flawed proclamation about Confederate History Month similarly sought to de-center slavery from the history of Virginia and the Confederacy.  The controversy that ensued, however, presents an opportunity to rethink the role that slavery plays in historical tourism in Charleston, Virginia, and elsewhere.  The Civil War sesquicentennial will bring thousands, if not millions, of visitors to historic cities like Richmond and Charleston and battlefields like Vicksburg and Antietam.  As the commemorations get underway, slavery must not be pushed to the margins of our public explorations of the Civil War.  In short, it should not be just “okay” to talk about slavery—it should be essential.

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