The Big House

16 October 2015

Antebellum Mansion

As I wander the country in search of my roots, I can’t help but be awed by the sight of massive antebellum mansions in almost every town I visit (North and South). The houses are incredibly beautiful. The history is not.

Perhaps you have noticed them too? It is hard to miss massive white edifices with wrap-around verandas and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, often adorned with neoclassical Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian columns. Obviously, the original owners, flush with wealth, took great pride in showcasing the prosperity my ancestors produced. Many of their properties have been meticulously restored to previous glory. Tour guides often make a point of telling me everything about the architecture but little (or nothing) about the outbuildings that REALLY interest me. These are the cook houses and slave quarters, which have mostly been demolished.

When I encounter these edifices, my mind’s eye reverts to the distant past. It is a past during which my ancestors, dressed in finery that belied their status as slaves, served mint juleps to “Massa” as he reclined in a plantation chair on the veranda, enjoying the breeze. Little “pickneys” (children under six years old) waved fans to keep him cool in the summer heat as they wiped sweat from their eyes wondering when they might sit down. Their mothers and fathers (except maybe the reprobate father sitting in the plantation chair) were in the fields picking cotton, praying for dusk. In the darkness, there might have been a grand dinner party. Massa’s wife would have presided, dressed in a fine silk hoopskirt, as “servants” dished out culinary delicacies that started with an appetizer of corn soup and ended with hand churned vanilla ice cream and cake. Once again, pickneys would be standing alert, pulling the cord of a punkhah fan as dinner guests enjoyed their meal.

Seeing these pictures in my brain, one would think I would NEVER enter a house such as this. Why would I want to revisit an icon of such horrific import? Yet, the lesson embodied in my mental image is one I dare not ignore.

In gathering material to write my book (Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade), one of my goals was to sleep in “Miss Ann’s bed.” I wanted to channel how it could be possible to sleep peacefully in a big, cushy, feather bed while black slaves toiled outside my window, or in distant fields, creating the wealth that made my lifestyle possible. As I later wrote, I wanted to know “what the hell was going on in the heads of the white people who lived in the mansions – how they could look out over their fields with those black people…. Pulling cotton sacks and feel okay with themselves.”

My mission was best accomplished in Natchez, Mississippi in 2011. It was there that I spent a night at Linden House, the ancestral home of the Connor family. (There are Connors in my family tree, although I have no idea if they may be related to the Connors whose descendants continue to own this house.) The doorway of my overnight adventure was featured in the film “Gone With the Wind.” After sleeping there, I wrote: “My relief has much to do with confronting an icon of history – going to the scene of the crime and emerging unscathed.”

That comment is not entirely true. My psyche was scathed by a visceral realization that things were even worse than I ever imagined. I understood “cognitive dissonance” in a whole new way. It was a vice that engendered traumatic wounds that ensuing history has amplified rather than healed.

This year, when I made my annual genealogical pilgrimage to Noxubee County, Mississippi, I met a man who recently bought a “white elephant” (pun intended) – a huge 17 room mansion built in 1852 and successively owned by more than one major slaveholder. The new owner, an idealistic young man from California, plans to restore the house to its former glory (physically) but also has ambitions of imbuing his possession with a new legacy that has profound spiritual implications. As he told me: “Your research leaves me with a heavy heart. The fact that the previous owners of my house owned slaves is both disgusting and saddening.” He hopes to find a way to honor the black people who both built the house and made the finances of its construction possible. I am wishing him well because even I, the lady with lots of answers, has no idea how this might be accomplished.

The end point is that we… contemporary American people… black and white… MUST confront our history… in ALL of its ugliness. If we don’t do that, we are doomed to live in a netherworld where matters of race and its attendant realities will NEVER be addressed, much less solved.

Let’s all dig up those family trees and plant new seeds!

4 Responses to “The Big House”

  1. I too have visited a historic plantation site where I was told, with a smile, about the little child ‘servants’ who stood in the corner of the great dining room fanning the guests while they drank wine from crystal glasses and ate delicacies from porcelain plates. My own family–Georgia slaveholders–partook of that same sort of existence, and I, too, struggle to understand how they slept at night. It is so important that we all, black and white, ask these questions. We see where centuries of pretense about our history have brought us. It’s time to wrestle with the truth.

  2. “…My psyche was scathed by a visceral realization that things were even worse than I ever imagined. I understood “cognitive dissonance” in a whole new way. It was a vice that engendered traumatic wounds that ensuing history has amplified rather than healed.”
    Profound, Ms Morgan, very profound…You continue to amaze me with how deeply you’re able to reach inside and reveal your soul. In doing this, you bring light to the darkness of our history. Thank you.

  3. Great post. White European tourists ask the same questions.We were the only black folks on a Creole Plantation tour in Louisiana last summer. A French couple and Israeli couple were angry and yelled at the staff who were dressed in ball gowns and focused more on the beautiful rooms than slavery. ‘What about the enslaved people. We want to see more about them!’ It was great to witness your question ‘How can you sleep?’ posed by whites to white people. Poor things, (they looked like college interns) they didn’t know what to say in English or Creole!

  4. Good Post. As For The Question How They Can Sleep With Human Beings Toiling Painfully Away In Their Sight Is That They Didn’t View Them As Human Beings. It’s Comparable To How A Farmer Sleeps While His Cows Still Graze The Land.

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