"We want to highlight the diversity of the enslaved people, and the valuable skills they brought to the plantation."
Charles Chamberlain, historian and president of Historia Consulting
Until recently, tourists who visited the Marathon Petroleum Corporation (MPC)-owned San Francisco Plantation in Garyville, Louisiana, could take part in a guided tour that provided scant information about the enslaved people whose forced labor made the plantation possible. The Garyville refinery, on whose property the plantation sits, last year began a research process aimed at bringing greater prominence to the lives of those who helped build the nation’s economy of that era.
“The economic viability of plantations in the mid-1800s was based on an inhumane system of enslaved people, and when we present the history of the San Francisco Plantation, we need to acknowledge that,” said Tracy Case, general manager of the Garyville refinery. “We can’t focus only on the charming attributes of the plantation house and grounds; we should tell the whole story.”
The whole story includes dozens of human beings who were bought and sold as property, and forced to work on the plantation. The inventory for the plantation in 1843, for example, showed 82 enslaved people, including 18 children.
The move to provide more information on this facet of the plantation’s history is a response to employees and others who felt that the plantation was celebrating the period of slavery. Case recognizes that this viewpoint won’t resonate with all employees, “but for some, the San Francisco Plantation is the representation of a harsh historical reality that was being glossed over.”
Tiffany Jones, Human Resources consultant at the refinery when the project began, was part of the Plantation Project Committee. Her first assignment as part of the project was to tour the plantation, which convinced her that other employees’ misgivings about its one-sided representation of history were well-founded. “By the end of the tour, I agreed that it was a beautiful property, but I left feeling empty,” she said. “There was a story trapped in those walls that wasn’t being told.”
Refining Engineer Clyde Smith, also on the Project Committee, said the refinery has a responsibility to be more holistic in its approach.
“If we’re going to play this role in the community, then we need to be fully there,” he said. “For me, the driver is education first and foremost. Lots of people in South Louisiana have been here for generations, and so we need to provide a balanced view of how plantations, the sugar industry, and slavery played a role in the history of this region and the state.”
Changes at the plantation are two-fold, says historian and museum consultant Charles Chamberlain, president of Historia Consulting.
“First, we are revising the tour of the home to give it a well-rounded, inclusive focus,” he said.
Chamberlain noted that the tours have tended to focus on the historical objects of the rooms and how they were used by the rich owners of the plantation. Now, however, tours will include information about the social history of the home, including the role of enslaved people in everyday life.
The second change will be adding information about the experience of enslaved people in conducting the complex work of the plantation, including the planting, tending, harvesting and manufacture of sugar. These aspects of plantation life will be the focus of two plantation buildings – the school and the slaves’ quarters.
“We want to highlight the diversity of the enslaved people, and the valuable skills they brought to the plantation,” said Chamberlain. For example, the inventory lists not just the names and ages of the slaves, but also their occupations and ethnic origins.
Occupations included supervisor, engineer, sugar-maker, blacksmith, ploughman, mason, painter, glazier, groom, and more. Ethnic origins were also varied, including Creole (French-speaking Catholics), American (English-speaking Protestants), mulattos (people of white and black ancestry), and others.
Case said the objective of the changes is to broaden the plantation tour experience to make it appealing to the families in the community, as well as the visitors who come from around the world.
“We want to ensure the story of the San Francisco Plantation is fully represented, paying homage to all individuals who shaped its history,” he said.
“We achieved more than we expected,” said Smith. “The placards and the statues enhance the realism of the experience. It’s a great contribution to the community, and will leave a lasting impression.”
“I’m so grateful to work for a company that supports a project of this capacity,” said Jones. “I learned so much working on this project, and I’m excited to see our visions come to life in a way that will leave a mark on the visitor experience forever.”
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