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Historical Tours in the South

January 15, 2009

Over past two holiday breaks, we have visited historic cities in the South:  Savannah, GA, Beaufort, SC, Charleston, SC, Augusta, GA, and several others.  Each of these cities uses its past to develop a tourist economy.  They offer walking tours, ghost tours, bus tours, gift shops, quaint bed and breakfasts, and even wistful conversations that store clerks and docents  rehearse time and again to conjure the aura of the old South.

It did not surprise me, for example, to find one store in Charleston peddling Civil War memorabilia and kitsch.  Amidst the small library of historical books that one often finds in such gift shops, I found a tome professing the truth of what it referred to as “the northern war of aggression.”  According to this book, slavery was not as bad as its detractors have depicted it to be, and certainly it was not a lifestyle worthy of starting a war.  In another gift shop in Savannah, I found clusters of unpicked cotton for sale, presumably meant to be a memento of the late 1700s, when the city was the cotton trade capital of the world.

It’s bad enough that some people in historic southern towns still view ties to slavery and segregation uncritically, as if these practices were just one part of a a bygone era, but it’s far worse that the tourism industries sustaining these cities’ economies sanction this image with little or no reflection on the fundamental injustices associated with slavery.  Many of the bus tours and carriage companies, like Oglethorpe Tours in Savannah, have guides perform a scripted narrative as they take visitors back in time.  Why do these scripts look past so many problematic elements?

This past year we were on a carriage ride in old town Beaufort.  Our guide, a nice man with a wavering Low Country accent, pointed out locales that appeared in the film Forest Gump as we rode through the historic district.  Along the way, he accented his narrative with a tapestry of local history and culture, replete with the etymologies of various customs and locutions.  Many houses have two staircases, he explained, because it was inappropriate for men to walk behind women and catch a glimpse of their ankles as they climbed the stairs.

Sounds logical, right?  So does the story of how hush puppies were invented.  Hush puppiesAs we passed one impressive estate, our guide pointed out the corridor leading to the slave quarters.  Back then, when slaves prepared food for their masters, they were required to “whistle while they worked” (perhaps a precursor to the Walt Disney ballad) as a way of proving that they weren’t picking any food off of their masters’ plates.  The problem is, the guide told us, when the slaves whistled, all of the dogs in the alley would hear the sound, run up to the slave quarters, and start to howl.  So to fix this, the clever slaves deep fried some small cornbread balls so that when they could take them out, toss them to the dogs, and say, “hush, puppies!”  Isn’t that interesting.

On another afternoon my parents took us to see Bluffton’s Church of the Cross, a stately edifice adjacent to the May River.  As the caretaker explained, Church of the Cross is the oldest surviving building in the entire town (everything else was burned to the ground by “Federal troops” in 1863).

“But,” the caretaker insisted, “I’m getting ahead of myself.”  He went on to explain Bluffton’s economy:  “Church of the Cross is located amidst what used to be a thriving rice industry.  Now rice is a very expensive crop to harvest, mainly because it took multiple slaves per acre to gather a productive yield.  And it was hard to keep slaves from dying, what with malaria and yellow fever always infecting them.  They would only last three or four years, and then they had to be replaced.  So after the federal government imposed the end of slavery, rice became a much less lucrative crop, even with the black market slave trade that carried on in Bluffton for years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclaimation. ”

I wish I were making this narrative up, but I’m not.  The church caretaker spoke as if there were nothing wrong with an industry that relies on dehumanizing, exploitative labor.  Oh, those were the days (if in fact, they are even over at all).

Perhaps one day, if my academic flame burns out, I might establish a post-colonial historical tour of some major Southern city (like Savannah).  I’m sure there’s a demand for an interactive historical journey that brings its patrons face to face with vestiges of gentility and wealth, and then immediately reminds them how this wealth accumulated and with whose labor the houses were built.

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