Antebellum Houses of the American South: What Happens Now?

Published 5:47 pm Tuesday, May 18, 2021



The first time I went with Momma to look at white folks’ houses, it was her idea, and I didn’t want to go. I was 10, and she told my brother and me that we would like seeing all the beautiful Christmas decorations. That was the word she used: “beautiful.” All the lights. Trees. Fake candy canes and reindeer. I didn’t understand. There were people who decorated their houses just for other people to come look at?

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What was so special about their Christmas?

We had our own. My brother and I had hung half-working spools of string lights around our whole house and on the oversize cedar that we’d cut from the woods on our own land with Grandpa. We had even gone up into Grandma’s attic for our favorite decoration: at three-foot plastic Santa Claus with a light bulb in his boots that didn’t work.

Everything they had looked new, and it all looked the same. The houses were the same, few colors and sizes. They all had the same mailboxes, lined up at the edge of a wide sidewalk.

Some houses kept things simple and neat, like my room. They had yellow string lights fixed in straight lines on every edge. Other houses were like Momma’s closet, small and big bulbs in all colors and shapes. Some sat still. Others blinked and moved like a song from the ’70s.

I remember sitting in the backseat with wide eyes.

“How they get it like that?” I think I asked.

The last time I went with Momma to look at white folks’ houses, it was my idea, and she didn’t want to go.

I had spent years as a sociologist trying to understand how places come to tell human stories. To do that, I started paying attention to the matter of things, like an archaeologist but of life on top of the ground. I started to see parts of the world around me as artifacts, their shapes and function clues about the society that made them. You can learn a lot about a neighborhood just from looking at how wide the streets are, or whether there are sidewalks. A zip code can offer a glimpse into a person’s future. The monuments we erect can offer a glimpse into how we want to remember our past. And a house is like an archive, each of its contents and specifications a unique trace of history. Looking at those things in that way had made me ask whether we can pick and choose which stories are worth telling about a place—and which to keep quiet about.

Asking that made me watch.

In 2015, I watched two Black women lead a movement to remove the Mississippi state flag—which at the time included a Confederate battle emblem—from the campus of the University of Mississippi. In 2017, I watched a group of mostly white men mob and march to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee on the campus of the University of Virginia. In 2020, I watched people from all walks of life topple monuments, like dominoes, in places like Maryland and North Carolina. I watched, wondering, but not about what tied these moments together. I wondered what set them apart. How do you decide what should stay up and what should come down?

Wondering that about those flags and monuments—all artifacts that are tied in one way or another to American slavery and the Civil War—made me think about antebellum houses. Monticello in Virginia, Belmont in Nashville, Nottoway in Louisiana, the dozens of houses that sit along the Georgia Antebellum Trail. What should happen to them? Should they stay up or come down?

To answer that, I had to learn.

I knew what antebellum meant, of course. It referred to the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, when well over three million Black humans were forced to plant, die, and harvest a nation from the pillaged lands of Native people.

But antebellum houses? I would come to learn that when most people said those words together like that, they were talking less of human life plundered and more Gone with the Wind. They meant a collection of European architectural styles and design elements that became popular in U.S. architecture, especially in the South, roughly between 1800 and 1865: symmetrical building frames, columns and balustrades, porticos and cupolas, verandas and balconies, tall windows and high ceilings, elaborate doors and entranceways, and opulent interior design.

I would learn that about 6,000 of the houses built during the antebellum period are still standing, and that of those about 400 stand open to the public throughout the year, some for home tours and others as the centers of museums.

Should we look at antebellum houses as living parts of our collective history, like a piece of stained glass recovered from the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, or Emmet Till’s casket, or the iron shackle that once held the ankle of an enslaved person? If so, one argument goes, not only should the houses stay up; they should be preserved and protected.

Or should we look at the houses like we do other buildings with troubled histories, like those on university campuses that bear the names of slaveholders and segregationists? If so, an argument goes, we should leave them where they are and contextualize them: plaques, historical markers, and QR codes.

Or are the houses like other sites of mass human suffering, worthy only of the ruins that most have already become?

Perched on a bluff in a river bend where Mississippi and Louisiana touch, Natchez, Mississippi, has one of the largest concentrations of antebellum houses in the country. Since 1932, the owners have opened these houses to the public as a part of the Natchez Pilgrimage, today one of the largest and oldest home tours in the U.S.

I told Momma about this question—about what to do with these grand antebellum houses—and asked her to come to Natchezwith me.

“I want us to go look at some.”

dr b brian foster antebellum houses


“The plantation houses?” Momma repeated the question as she heard it, her voice sounding like what I already knew. She didn’t understand. There were people who kept their houses decorated like that just for other people to come look at? “What’s so grand about misery?”

Momma was born in Mississippi in 1958 and was raised by a Black woman who saw what white folks in Mississippi did to Black sharecroppers in the 1930s and Emmett Till in 1955 and Curtis Flowers in the 1990s and2000s. As a girl, Momma had been called all kinds of words that, if you wrote them down, you’d have to skip some of the letters. She had run from trucks and hid from white men in rail yards. As a woman, Momma had buried two Black husbands and raised three Black sons.

And she had worked. Her first job was cleaning windows at a white family’s house—one time, all day, for six dollars. Her 10th job was helping wash the backs and backsides of white folks as a homecare nurse—five years, for “money that was never my money…and never enough.” Her next job was cleaning the house of a white family who owned a regional chain of service stations that majored in Southern-style fried chicken. “Nine dollars an hour, six hours a day, three days a week. I worked for them for nine years.” Momma’s memory was as clear as the sky the morning we left.

While she drove and listened to radio static, then Motown, then soul, I paged through a short book about the houses we were going to look at. The book was Natchez of Long Ago and the Pilgrimage, written by Katherine Miller, the woman credited with starting the Pilgrimage home tour during her tenure as president of the Natchez Garden Club in the 1920s and 30s.

“Today, these old estates…interlace the town of Natchez,” she wrote. “There are no two alike architecturally. Distinctive features, wide verandas upheld by classic columns, beautiful entrance doorways set off by exquisite fan lights, spacious halls, spiral stairways, elaborately carved woodwork, and high-ceilinged rooms, bespeak legends of romance and notable events that have transpired within their walls.”

I knew Momma would rather using Barry White than hear me talk about a bad book, especially a bad book that talked like that—“bespeak”—and had words like “pickaninny” and “our negroes” in plain text, so I tried to let her be.

I read to myself. “For long years following the golden days of the Old South, their doors, like their stories, were closed books, but now, opened to the public during the annual Natchez Pilgrimage, they give visitors a vision that thrills and lingers.” I flipped and skimmed until I got to the 25th page, where I stayed for all eight miles that it took the long version of “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” to fade into Al Green.

I read the caption out loud: “Miss Mimi Brown and Black Mammy at Linden.” Then I held the book up so Momma could see the picture: a white adolescent girl sits on the steps of an antebellum mansion in Natchez. A few feet away and one step above, a Black woman stands with her hand pressed against one of two Tuscan columns extending up from the edge of the porch. Looming behind the woman and the girl is an immaculate entranceway, and above them a balcony, and off to the side the pendant leaves of Spanish moss. The girl’s head and hair hold a circlet, the woman’s a head-wrap. The girl wears a white dress for a tea party, the woman a calico dress draped with a white apron for the girl mother’s kitchen, or cookhouse.

“A slave,” Momma said.

Enslaved person, I thought, before correcting my own correction out loud. “Or a servant,” I said. The photo wasn’t dated. If it was antebellum, Momma was right. If it was taken in the 20th century, perhaps I was.

“What’s the difference?” Momma asked earnestly.

A half-song later, I said with a half-laugh, “They got a bed and breakfast there now.”

About 1,500 people visited Natchez in the home tour’s inaugural year, 1932. Today, the town attracts more than one million visitors annually, making it and its encompassing Adams County one of the most popular destinations in the state. In 2013, county tourism topped $110 million and accounted for nearly one-fifth of local employment. That tourism imprint includes the Pilgrimage home tour, which now opens for a spring and fall season.

I began reading descriptions that I had transcribed from the websites of some of the houses: At the house called Monmouth, visitors should “expect gracious hospitality, luxury lodging, excellent cuisine, historic tours of the house, and a lovingly restored garden.” At Brandon Hall, “enjoy walking paths in the forest, visit the private cemetery, or picnic under one of the great live oaks.” At the Concord Quarters, you can “walk out the door and enjoy a song and sermon at one of the oldest, Primitive Baptist churches in the city.”

“Ha ha, shit.” Momma’s ultimate dismissal.

On the “About” page of the Natchez Pilgrimage Tours website, it is noted that the area was “occupied by the mound-building and sun-worshipping Natchez Indians for centuries before the French built a fort and established a settlement here.” Later, the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, “combined with the already established institution of slavery, revolutionized cotton production and brought great wealth to Natchez planters and merchants. Much of that wealth produced grand…estates ranking among the most beautiful in America.”

We talked, sang, and rode under the vibrant blue skies until the road bent into Natchez, and a green sign pointed us downtown. Just after the sign, we passed two Black kids walking under an overpass in a direction opposite ours. The GPS confirmed we were getting close.

“Which one is this one?” Momma asked as I repeated the directions from my phone.

“It’s called Hope Farm.”

We went to Hope Farm first because it had been the home of Katherine Miller when she first dreamed up the Pilgrimage in 1932. Built in the late 18th century, its low-pitched roof shows its Spanish influences and its columned front porch its Greek ones.

“This it? It’s just a bunch of weeds,” Momma said as we circled the driveway. There were no other cars, and no other people, and a few minutes after we pulled in, there was no us. We left relieved.

In the four hours it had taken to drive to Natchez, we had not bothered to talk about whether we would actually go inside any of the houses. I knew from how Momma had said “plantation” that she didn’t want to. She probably knew from how I stopped talking regular once we passed those kids walking under the overpass that I didn’t either. For her, going in the houses would mean bringing something painfully uncomfortable too close. For me, going under the overpass, seeing those Black kids—the first two people we saw in Natchez—walking the other way, felt too close. It meant Hope Farm was a few miles away.

After Hope Farm, we visited Stanton Hall, often referred to as the “most stunning” of all the antebellum houses in Natchez. It’s a registered National Historic Landmark. For $25, you can get a one-hour tour ($15 for children 12 and under), run by the Pilgrimage Garden Club.

Momma and I stood in the middle of High Street looking up at Stanton. We saw what they meant by stunning. It was beautiful. How the emptying oaks stood tall and stretched out, like they were pretending to be bigger than they were. How, from the street where we stood, it looked like the stairs skipped the yard and went straight to the front porch, splitting four Corinthian columns in two, resting in the shadow of a small balcony perched above. How, from the balcony on the white house, my Black momma and me, her Black son, would have looked out of place—Momma was outside, and I was a free man—when Stanton was built.

During the construction of Stanton, from 1851 to 1857, Natchez was the second-busiest slave-trading city in the Lower South, and Adams County had one of the largest populations of enslaved people in the state: more than 14,000. The nucleus of the area’s slave economy was located just one mile south and east of where Momma and I were standing at Stanton, a slave market called Forks of the Road. Historians estimate that at its busiest,500 enslaved people might be present at the market on a given day and 2,000 sold in a given year and, if that number holds, 60,000 sold before the Forks closed when Natchez surrendered to Union troops in 1863.

But what about the houses? The question sat with me as I stood with Momma looking up at Stanton, and as I thought about that “Black Mammy” in front of Linden from the picture, and as I imagined the enslaved people who had to keep up the gardens at Hope Farm.

What about the houses?

I carried the question with me as I scaled the steps toward the front entrance of Stanton Hall and as I followed the sidewalk toward the Carriage House restaurant on the side.

What about the houses?

I repeated it to myself when I looked from the knoll down on all the houses surrounding Stanton, and noticed how so many of them had antebellum design elements too. Pillars and porches. Windows the same distance apart.

What about the houses? I wondered as I noticed that Momma had stayed on the street below.

The houses were a part of Natchez’s slave system too. Many historical accounts of the nation’s slave economy have noted that the vast majority of Southern plantations were small outfits, most with fewer than five enslaved people on the land, many with planters working alongside the enslaved.

Natchez was the exception to that. The bankers, politicians, and planters who, in the 19th century, made the small town one of the wealthiest in the U.S. had massive holdings: tens of thousands of acres, multiple plantations scattered across multiple states, and slave holdings by the hundreds and hundreds. The man who owned Auburn held nearly 1,000 enslaved people. The man who owned Richmond held 800. The man who built Melrose owned 325. They were rulers of empires. And their houses—the same grand estates that populate the Natchez Pilgrimage Tour today—were their palaces, as much a part of the slave system as the Forks of the Road slave market, the ports along the river, and the Natchez Trace Parkway that brought slavers in from across the southeast.

How were the houses a part of the slave system? In every way. They would not stand were it not for the labor and lives of enslaved people. Enslaved people extracted lumber and clay from the land and converted them into building materials. Enslaved people helped import the materials that did not come from the land. Enslaved people cut, laid, erected, and pieced the materials together. Enslaved people built the houses. Enslaved people made and brought in the items that furnished the houses once construction was done. Enslaved people cleaned and maintained the houses once they were furnished. Enslaved people helped expand and renovate the houses when their owners wanted more. And this is to say nothing of the blood, sweat, tears, families, and lives lost as enslaved people worked to produce the crops that made the owners of the houses rich.

The appearance of the houses, too, is inseparable from the apparatus of enslaved labor and human bodies that defined antebellum Natchez. Design elements are not neutral. They are artifacts. Why were tall windows and high ceilings prominent features of antebellum architecture? To counter the stifling heat and humidity of the Southern climate, the same climate that made the land perfect for cotton production, the same agricultural profundity that brought planters to the region, the same planters who bought and traded enslaved people to do the work.

Why columns and porticos? To emulate European nobility, the same idealized sense of self—white supremacy—used to justify the idea of owning other humans for labor. Why opulent interior design and grand staircases? The same reason many houses had plush exotic gardens and tree-lined driveways: Because the houses were status symbols, meant to reinforce the local social hierarchy, wherein white planters and their wives could look out from small balconies on high while their Negroes, mammies, and pickaninnies looked up from down below.

What do you think about these antebellum houses? What should happen to them?

I remembered the question as Momma and I taxied away from Stanton Hall toward Melrose, our last stop of the day.

“The truth,” I said out loud, unprompted. “Tell the truth about them.”

That’s what should happen to the dozens of antebellum mansions and great houses in Natchez and the hundreds more like them that still stand on official display across the country. Monticello in Virginia, Belmont in Nashville, Nottoway in Louisiana, the dozens of houses that sit along the Georgia Antebellum Trail. We should tell the truth about them. Require tour guides to be versant in the whole history of the houses that they show. Yes, the columns at Linden are a site to behold and the entranceway was one of the inspirations for Tara in Gone With the Wind, but what about the life of the Black woman standing in the midst of them in that picture from that bad book? What had she been made to do that day, like all the other days? Did her daughter have a circlet too? What were her dreams?

We should include references and reading materials that acknowledge the relationship between the houses and the slave trade. Yes, Stanton is stunning, but what did its owner, Frederick Stanton, do? What is a planter if not a slaver? What about the Forks of the Road?Do the thousands of visitors who experience the home tours even know where it is? Do they know what happened there?

Why isn’t it on the Pilgrimage website?

Yes, Melrose is a “big house”—that’s the first thing Momma said as we drove along the long rock road to the parking lot—but what about the buildings and structures behind it? If “antebellum” is a time stamp, a way to denote when a set of architectural styles and design elements was popular, then a one-room slave welling, with low ceilings and a clay or stick chimney, is antebellum architecture too. The strategic layout of slave dwellings and other outbuildings, or “dependencies,” around the big house is a design element too.

The cabins and huts where enslaved people lived, often called slave quarters, were farthest from the main house, along with what was needed for the livestock that lived on and about the land—barns, stables, hen coops, kennels, carriage houses, and storage sheds. Between those and the main house there were other buildings: privies, smokehouses, wells or cistern buildings, laundries, and dairies for processing and storing milk and butter. Depending on where in the South a house stood and how wealthy its owner was, there were other dependencies: corn houses, tobacco barns, rice and sugar mills, schoolhouses, and pigeonniers.

These structures are all artifacts too, and the fact that there are so few originals still standing tells a story.

Being good at looking at things means noticing what you don’t see too. What’s missing.

Melrose is one of the few remaining plantation museums in the country with original, or even makeshift, outbuildings on the property. Behind the 16,000-square-foot, perfectly symmetrical main house lies a set of slave cabins, a parterre garden and orchard, a carriage house. There is a courtyard directly behind the main house that includes cistern buildings, a dairy house, and a kitchen house. The kitchen was where I met Momma when she finally decided to get out and come look with me.

“This the real house right here,” she said, or something like it, when she got there. It reminded me of what I had heard on a call with Rhondalyn Peairs, a University of Mississippi graduate student and founder of the Oxford, Mississippi–based tourism and educational services company Historich.

“The big house couldn’t stand alone,” Peairs said, her delivery matter-of-fact, her expertise rooted in more than a decade working in heritage tourism spaces, including the Behind the Big House Project in Holly Springs, Mississippi. “Who built the houses? Who made the furniture? Who laid the carpets and cleaned the windows and swept the yard?”

“Who raised the drapes and opened the windows?” Momma had asked as we looked from the courtyard to the grand mansion.

Where was the food kept? Who kept it? How was it prepared and where? Who set the tables and cleared them? Who fanned the men when they were hot and sewed with the wives when they were bored and suckled the infants when they were crying? Who pumped the wells, and carried the water, and kept the gardens, and ran the chickens, and gathered the eggs, and slaughtered the goats, and milked the cows? Who drove the carriages and stored them away, and made the clothes and washed them? Who canned the vegetables and preserved the fruit? Who lifted and carried and peeled and plowed and picked and died and were killed?

“Put simply, plantations are Black spaces,” says Ashley Rogers, executive director of Whitney Plantation. Whitney was converted into a museum in 2014, a restoration project taken on by John Cummings, a trial attorney from New Orleans who previously owned and operated the property (now an independent 501c3) since 1999. Unlike Melrose and the rest of the houses in Natchez, however, Whitney centers around the lives of the enslaved people who once built and maintained it.

“Why should the story of slavery surprise anyone when they visit a plantation museum?” Rogers asks. “Plantations existed to enslave people. The entire point of them was slavery.” And the entire point of the Whitney Plantation is to educate the public about that history. “I think of education and learning as justice,” said Rogers, who has spoken about the importance of contextualizing antebellum-era houses. “Whitney isn’t the whole story, but I hope through telling people the truth, we are helping open new doors for them.”

The truth. The truth of antebellum houses is that they are as much architectural spectacles as they were engines of violence, death, dispossession, and inequality. That is the truth. The houses would not have existed as they did—and, thus, as they do—were it not for the wealth generated from the labor and bodies of enslaved people. That is the truth. And enslaved people had lives. That is the truth. Beyond the work it took to build and maintain the houses, to care take for the families who lived in the houses, and to generate the wealth that supported the houses, enslaved people were humans. That is the truth. They had desires and relationships.

They loved and were afraid. They yearned to learn and risked (and lost) their lives to learn to read and write. And they did all of these things in and around the houses. “Plantations were sites of oppression and trauma, but they are also sites of resistance, resilience, and cultural continuities,” Rogers says. That is the truth.

That’s a lie,” Momma said as we stood in front of a building called Melrose Playhouse. Located just beyond the courtyard behind the main house, the playhouse was a two-door structure big enough for its intended purpose (to provide are creational space away from the main house) and small enough for its intended occupant, a young boy. “Playhouse? You know that’s a lie.”

At first, I thought she was suggesting that the playhouse was not what the placard and interactive website said it was. I thought she thought the name was a lie. She was suggesting that the architecture was. “You think they would let their kids play out here, this close to us?” She gestured toward the slave cabins.

I checked. Her instincts were right. The playhouse didn’t fit with how the rest of the structures were arranged because it wasn’t built when they were. Melrose was completed in1849. The playhouse was built toward the end of the 19th century, when the original owners had sold the property. The new owners built the playhouse for their 6-year-old son, in view of the kitchen and the watchful eye of two Black servants, Jane Johnson and Alice Sims.

Momma didn’t know the history of the playhouse. She didn’t know much about the particulars of any of what we had seen that day—not the history of the Natchez Trace, or the year Stanton Hall opened, or how many enslaved people were bought and sold at Forks of the Road. But she knew a lie when she felt one and a “slavery mansion,” as she often called the houses, when she saw one. And when we saw the elderly white couple looking at us looking at the playhouse, she knew she was ready to leave.

“Ain’t nothing grand about misery,” she said to herself before pulling the car door closed.

Additional photos from the original publication can be found here.