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The Word Is ‘Slaves’: A Trip Into Black History

June 2024
17min read

Deep South states are taking the lead in promoting landmarks of a three-hundred-year heritage of oppression and triumph—and they’re drawing visitors from around the world

Kate is waiting for us by the kitchen garden. Her owner, Benjamin Powell, has warned us that she “often has a case of the grumps,” so we approach her cautiously. I am with a class of fourth graders from Nashville, Tennessee, and together we are taking a trip back to 1770, the year at which time has stopped in Colonial Williamsburg. Despite the difference in our ages, the children and I have things in common: we are white, and we have never met a slave before.

In her long gingham dress and wide-brimmed straw hat, Kate is a handsome sight, her eyes alert and friendly, but there is a dignity and reserve about her that are enough to cow the children into silence.

“What can I do for you all?” she finally asks in a soft but impatient voice. “I am not in the habit of speaking unless spoken to, but I am direct.”

The questions come slowly, and Kate’s story emerges between long pauses: she was born on Nathaniel Burwell’s plantation and has two children. When a child asks if she would like to go North, she asks in reply, “Why? It is cold in the North.”

In Selma, Alabama, walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge has become a must for tourists.

“To be free,” the child persists.

“There is no freedom in the North,” Kate says.

The child looks puzzled; obviously he doesn’t understand that slavery existed in all the colonies in pre-Revolutionary America, and the format of the first-person presentation doesn’t permit a fuller explanation.

I begin to wonder what the children are thinking. Kate’s performance is so good that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is role playing, not reality. Kate is asked again where she was born, and there is a flash of the grumpiness we heard about. “Let us not repeat ourselves.” But only once does she show irritation—when a male teacher hesitatingly tries to pose a question about “the people, you know, who work here with you.”

Kate stares at the man for several hard, uncomfortable seconds before she answers. “The word,” she says, “is slaves.”

Interpreting slavery is difficult,” said Robert Watson when I asked him about Kate’s answer, “difficult for interpreters and difficult for some visitors, because it makes them uncomfortable. But it is a story that must be told—in its entirety.”

Watson is director of Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of African-American Interpretation and Presentations. Slavery came late to Colonial Williamsburg, which has been interpreting American pre-Revolutionary history in a mostly nostalgic way ever since John D. Rockefeller began restoring the town in 1926. Until 1987, when Rex Ellis, then assistant director of the program, and two other black actors took to the streets, playing such roles as Nioto, a recently arrived African, and Gowan Pamphlet, a black minister, there was virtually no black presence in the Williamsburg program. When slaves were referred to at all, the white guides called them “servants.”

Today there are fifteen black interpreters in the department, hardly enough to bring their numbers up to historic proportions, for as any one of them will tell you, Williamsburg in 1770 was half-black. “Look up and down this street,” Art Johnson, a black interpreter, told an all-white tour group I had joined, “and tell me what is wrong with this picture.” When nobody replied, Johnson answered for us: “You don’t see any black folk.”

Watson estimates that blacks make up less than 5 percent of the visitors to Colonial Williamsburg. Still, he says, the African-American interpretation program has attracted black visitors and school groups that never would have come before. The attitude among most blacks used to be, “Why should I go to Williamsburg? There’s nothing there for me.”

Until very recently American history for most blacks started with the Emancipation Proclamation; slavery as a subject was best forgotten or ignored. Even black employees on the Williamsburg staff were once against introducing it into the interpretive program; an early attempt to place a tape recording about slavery in a building was continually sabotaged—by the black maintenance staff.

Then, in 1976, came Roots, the author Alex Haley’s account of his search for his ancestral past in Africa and American slavery. The book changed the prevailing attitude of blacks toward slavery. Now they are more likely to view the period positively—as a triumph over adversity, or as evidence of “our determination to survive through hard times,” to quote from a mural on the ground floor of the Harriet Tubman Museum and Cultural Center, in Macon, Georgia.


Despite its slow start, Colonial Williamsburg today is in the forefront of a movement that is turning black history into an important tourist attraction. Williamsburg is the only restoration to have excavated and rebuilt actual slave quarters—the crude wood huts at Carter’s Grove Plantation—although Larry McKee, an archeologist who says, “I owe my job to Alex Haley,” is presently excavating the slave quarters at the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home in Tennessee. He has turned up evidence that the quarters were brick, and he has found enough animal bones and coins to indicate that slaves regularly ate meat and “had some participation in the cash economy.”

Not all black historic sites, by any means, concern slavery. In Jackson, Mississippi, the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center has been operating since 1984 in the first public school built for blacks in the state. Its exhibits cover local architecture—“structures built by blacks for blacks”—folk art, education, civil rights, black politicians, and the history of Parish Street, Jackson’s main black thoroughfare. Two photographs of water fountains, one marked “White,” the other “Colored,” are startling reminders of segregation not long past. “Those were two words we learned to recognize at an early age,” Barbara Barber, the black woman guiding me, said.

In Annapolis, Maryland, the Banneker-Douglass Museum of Afro-American Life and History honors both Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century abolitionist and civil rights leader, and Benjamin Banneker, a free black engineer who helped design Washington, D.C., and who, in 1791, wrote Thomas Jefferson protesting the “State of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity” that blacks endured. The restored homes of prominent blacks include the elegant Maggie L. Walker House in Richmond, Virginia, the residence of a slave’s daughter who became the first American woman bank president. The contributions of blacks to American popular music and sport have been documented in numerous museums, such as the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

At the Tuskegee National Historic Site, in Alabama, the tour includes the Oaks, the 1899 home of the Tuskegee Institute’s founder, Booker T. Washington, and the George Washington Carver Museum, named for the institute’s most famous scientist and teacher. There the number of visitors has tripled in the last five years—to 399,684 in 1990. (These figures include large groups of schoolchildren on end-of-the-year trips and, increasingly, Northern blacks on their way to and from family reunions in the South.) At the Martin Luther King, Jr., Birth House, in Atlanta, Park Service rangers conduct tours with the same plodding attention to detail that they give to the homes of famous white Americans. (Did King, as a boy, sleep in the front bedroom or in the hallway?) The King house is part of a complex that includes the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where he is entombed, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father and grandfather were pastors. It is one of the most visited sites in the South, and located just off the interstate highway through Atlanta, it attracts large numbers of white as well as black visitors.

Deep South states that opposed racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s are taking a lead in promoting sites associated with the civil rights movement. In 1983 Alabama’s tourism office published 18,500 copies of a booklet listing 58 black historic sites. “It was gone in less than a month,” recalls Frances Smiley, the tourism board’s Black Heritage Coordinator. Now in its third edition, Alabama’s Black Heritage details 163 places, many of them scenes of civil rights activity. On its cover is a photograph of the 1989 Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, a record in granite of important events of the movement and a tribute to forty representative people who died in the struggle between 1955 and 1968. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who also created the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Reunions draw more than two thousand progeny of a plantation’s slave families.

In Selma, Alabama, walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police beat and tear-gassed civil rights marchers in 1965, has become a must for tourists. (Among Selma’s many foreign visitors, the Japanese in particular “are more familiar with events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge than they are with Gone with the Wind,” says Edie Morthland Jones, the city’s director of tourism.) In Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church vies with the Confederate White House as an attraction. A civil rights museum and research facility will soon be built next to Birmingham’s Kelly-Ingram Park, which in 1963 was the scene of riots and a church bombing; a similar museum opened in the summer of 1991 in Memphis, Tennessee, in the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated in 1968.


The traveling public today “expects a black experience,” says Dorothy Spruill Redford, director of Somerset Place, a restored antebellum plantation far off the beaten track in Creswell, North Carolina. Redford, whose own ancestors were slaves at Somerset Place, instructs her guides to “mention slavery within the first twenty sentences” and to keep talk about furniture to a minimum. “It’s no longer enough to have a docent standing there welcoming visitors with ‘Hi! This is the home of Josiah Collins.’”

Redford’s book Somerset Homecoming, an account of her research into the plantation’s slave genealogy, was well reviewed when it was published in 1988. In 1986 Somerset Place held its first homecoming for the descendants of of the plantation’s twenty-one original slave families. Last year’s Labor Day gathering was attended by twenty-five hundred celebrants.

Of all the aspects of black history, slavery is especially riddled with misconceptions. To set the record straight, Williamsburg’s Robert Watson speaks of the need to “demythify” such falsehoods as: all blacks were slaves (“A lot were free”), and all whites were Simon Legree (only one white man in four owned slaves in 1770). Even the notion that slaves alone occupied the lowest rung on the economic ladder is challenged by the African-American interpretive program. At the reconstructed slave quarters at Carter’s Grove, a genial black interpreter named Carla points to the bare walls and dirt floor and asks, “How is everybody else living in 1770? They’re almost all living just like this, black or white.”

Not every visitor likes that view, and racial incidents, although rare, do happen. One time a white visitor to Williamsburg demanded that Watson, after he had delivered a lecture on African-American history, express gratitude that his descendants had been brought from Africa to this country. “My ancestors might have been kings and queens in Africa,” Watson told him.

At Somerset Place, Dorothy Redford believes that most incidents stem from mutual misunderstanding. “We have been segregated for so long, we no longer know what is offensive to one another,” she said. At a recent training session for teachers, a woman asked Redford’s slave persona, “There are more of you [slaves] than them. Why don’t you just take your things and go?”

“I could explain it to a fourth grader,” Redford said. “There are more of you [pupils] than teachers; why do you do what they say?’ But how do you explain the nature of power to a teacher?

“I could only answer: ‘What things? Property doesn’t own property. And go where?’”


I stood on the corner of Seventeenth Street and Fifth Avenue North, in Birmingham, Alabama, midway through a trip that was taking me through much of the South on a visit to black-history sites. This stop was special, an opportunity to take myself back to May 1963, when I, as a young reporter for Life magazine, was present at the confrontations involving Bull Connor’s police, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s school-age demonstrators, and angry blacks of Birmingham.

It was five days I have never forgotten, five days of fire hoses, police dogs, wild chases through Kelly-Ingram Park, the arrests of hundreds of black demonstrators and two white journalists (myself and a Life photographer, Charles Moore), a time of violence, moving scenes in black churches, and the excitement of seeing history being made.

On my way across the park, I paused at a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. “His dream liberated Birmingham from itself,” the inscription read. This was a recurring theme of the civil rights movement: that it was the oppressors who were in bondage and needed to be free.

Other than the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, nothing around the park looked the same. The seedy buildings were gone, as well as the store where we had purchased soft drinks—what one local reporter called “nigger orange”—during lulls in the violence. In their place was urban architecture at its most nondescript: the windowless facade of a telephone company high rise, a parking garage, a nursing home.

A young woman in the rectory unlocked a side door of the church and led me through the basement up into the sanctuary. The high pulpit and the graceful curve of the balcony were familiar to me, but there was no way to recapture the emotion of the night when, against police orders, the photographer and I climbed through a back window of the church to attend a rally of demonstrators. There we were immediately overwhelmed by the stirring words, singing, clapping, and the conviction that this was a movement that couldn’t be stopped. Charles Moore, a white native of Alabama, remembers photographing the scene with tears in his eyes.

Four months later, on Sunday, September 15, a bomb exploded at Sixteenth Street Baptist, killing four young black girls. A stained-glass window depicting a black Christ was new to me. It was a gift from the people of Wales to replace a window lost in the bomb blast. When I told my guide that I had been there, her polite smile told me that I was not the first person to pass through with such memories.

Since the early 1960s Kelly-Ingram Park and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church have become historic landmarks, as much a part of Birmingham’s heritage as the restored steel mill on the outskirts of town. Soon construction will start on a building on the northwest corner of the park, a museum and research facility to be called the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Odessa Woolfolk, chairman of the institute’s task force, told me that the debate over the institute had been oddly “anatomical” in its imagery, those for it citing “a healing process,” those opposed arguing that it will “open old wounds.”


I had heard the arguments before—old wounds versus healing—in the debate over other black historic sites. In her office in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, Lisa Walsh Shivers, director of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel, was matter-of-fact. “It’s what happened here,” she said. “You can’t shove it under the rug.” Moreover, a rich black heritage gives Alabama a competitive edge in attracting travelers, black or white, to the state. “It’s a truth of the travel business,” she explained, “that you don’t have to be better; you just have to be different.”

Montgomery, a pleasant, slow-moving Southern city, is known as both the cradle of the Confederacy and the birth-place of the civil rights movement. Here, in 1861, the Confederate States of America was formed and Jefferson Davis sworn in as president. Almost a century later, in 1955, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man, and in protest the civil rights movement essentially began.

Historic sites from the two eras are found side by side in Montgomery. The Confederate White House, where Davis lived until the capital was moved to Richmond; the Civil Rights Memorial (and the headquarters of its sponsor, the crusading Southern Poverty Law Center); and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the scene of so much civil rights history, are within a few blocks of one another. Looming over all, at the head of Dexter Avenue, is the magnificent 1851 State Capitol with the Confederate Stars and Bars still flying above it and a bronze star marking the approximate spot where Davis took the Confederate oath of office.

The rich stretch of farmland known as the Mississippi Delta attracts visitors to sites associated with legendary figures of the blues.

Six blocks west of the Capitol—just at the point where Dexter Avenue turns into Commerce—a marker in front of the 1841 Winter Building tells me that on April 11, 1861, “Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker sent a telegram to Charleston authorizing the Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard to fire on Ft. Sumter.” Thus began the War Between the States, as it is called in Alabama.


The block has more recent historic associations, not as yet distinguished by any plaque or maker. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks left work at a downtown department store, one door away from the Winter Building, crossed the street, and, in front of No. 1 Dexter Avenue, boarded a city bus.

Upon her arrest the black leadership of the city gathered in the basement of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to organize a boycott of the city’s buses. Two days later Martin Luther King, Jr., was elected president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization that would oversee the boycott until the buses were desegregated a year later.

From that point on the church was the scene of constant civil rights activity. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his first sermon there as resident pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist on September 5, 1954. During his six years in the pulpit, he grew into a national civil rights leader, and the Montgomery Improvement Association evolved into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The triumphs of King’s Montgomery years were tempered by bombings and threats on his life. At a low moment King cried from the pulpit: “Lord, I hope that nobody has to die as a result of our struggle for freedom in Montgomery. But if anyone has to die, let it be me.”

After he was assassinated, the church was renamed the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. On June 3, 1974, the National Park Service designated it a national historic landmark.

I had visited the major black-heritage sites of Alabama: Tuskegee Institute and Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma. Now I was scheduled to drive straight across Mississippi—from Meridian to Jackson—but at the last moment I decided to swing north to the small farming town of Philadelphia, a town that, despite its own best efforts to forget, is still haunted by its past.

I was last in Philadelphia in June 1964, soon after three civil rights workers—assigned to investigate the burning of a black country church, Mt. Zion Methodist—had been reported missing near there. I remembered the town’s high sidewalks and segregated drinking fountains, the hostility of its lawmen, and the confusion of its citizens when their hometown became the center of world attention. One of the missing was a young Mississippi black, James Chaney. The others, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were white outsiders, there to take part in the massive voter-registration drive known as the Mississippi Summer Project. The young men had been arrested, jailed briefly, and then disappeared. Although their bodies had not yet been found, there was never much doubt that they were dead. Such were the times.

I wanted to find the site where the Mt. Zion Methodist Church had stood, but the directions I had were vague: on a back road five miles northeast of town. It was still early when I passed through Philadelphia on a Saturday morning and turned onto a dirt road. Immediately I was back in a South that is no longer visible from the main highways, a dismal landscape of poor farms, run-down shacks and trailers, dogs chained in the front yards, virtually no one in view. For the first time on this return to the South I felt apprehensive. Much of the civil rights activity of the 1960s took place in churches and community centers far out in the country, and roads like this were often traveled by carloads of whites looking for “outside agitators” and trouble.

I never found where the church had been, but there were other discoveries—a remembering, for one, of the courage of those civil rights workers whose dangerous jobs often took them down such roads in the 1960s.

Of all the states, Mississippi has the most negative image regarding black history.” The words are John Horhn’s; he is Mississippi’s associate director of tourism. Few would dispute his point.

From 1881 to 1968 more than five hundred blacks were lynched in Mississippi, far more than in any other state. Of the forty names engraved on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, seventeen died violently in Mississippi. Horhn, a black, headed the Mississippi film board when Mississippi Burning, based on the Philadelphia murders, was shot in the state. “We were determined it be shot here,” he said. “What better way to show that the state has changed?” Today Mississippi trails Alabama in documenting and promoting its black heritage, Horhn admits. The exception, he says, is in sites relating to music—“the universal language, an excellent joining point.” In the rich stretch of farmland known as the Mississippi Delta, tourists can visit the home of the blues musician Muddy Waters, the Delta Blues Museum, and the Blues Archives at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which includes B. B. King’s personal collection of ten thousand recordings.

By Horhn’s estimate, 15 percent of the state’s historic markers concern black heritage. In the future he expects there will be more—at the Ruleville home of Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–77), the founder, in 1964, of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party; the gravesite (in an integrated cemetery) of Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841–98), an escaped slave, Mississippi legislator, and successful planter; the Jackson home of Medgar Evers (1925–63), the NAACP field secretary and voting-rights advocate. Evers was shot on his own doorstep the same night that President Kennedy delivered a televised pleas for “change, peaceful and constructive for all” in the realm of civil rights. The slaying of Medgar Evers was a turning point. Civil rights leaders put aside their differences and came together to walk in the funeral procession. “It looked like we had enough folks to march on God that day,” Dick Gregory later recalled.

Unlike Vicksburg farther up the Mississippi, Natchez and its remarkable collection of antebellum mansions escaped relatively unscathed from the Civil War. But not from the civil rights era. Two particularly brutal murders occurred in the city; in one of them Klansmen picked a black man at random and killed him, hoping to lure Martin Luther King, Jr., to Natchez and to kill him too.

One of the most visited places in the South, the Martin Luther King complex draws throngs of white as well as black visitors.

Against this background of violence, Natchez’s black-heritage sites seem placid, almost insignificant. On Homochitto Street, Dunleith Plantation is known for its twenty-six gracefully aligned columns and Greek Revival detailing. These days Dunleith is also being promoted as the boyhood home of the slave John Roy Lynch (1847-1939), who became, at age twenty-five, a U.S. congressman, then president of the first black bank and paymaster of the U.S. Army.

In the middle of town the two-and-a-half-story brick home of William Johnson now stands boarded up and under restoration; still it exudes middle-class respectability. Johnson was eleven years old when he was freed by his white father; he went on to become a successful barber, businessman, property owner, and slaveholder. When he was killed in a property dispute in 1851, his murderer went free because the witnesses to the crime were black and prohibited by law from testifying against whites.

With his home now part of the National Park system, Johnson is gaining in historical celebrity. By contrast, only an isolated marker in the city’s Bluff Park, high over the Mississippi River, acknowledges that Richard Wright, the “noted African-American author of Native Son and Black Boy,” was born “near Natchez” (exactly where is unknown) in 1908. A second marker nearby commemorates the 209 lives lost in a fire at the Rhythm Club, a black nightclub, on April 23, 1946. The marker was given by the Natchez Social Club of Chicago, a product of the tendency of Southern blacks to stick together after migrating to cities in the North.

Near the actual site of the Rhythm Club, on what is now Martin Luther King, Jr., Street, an 1858 Greek Revival temple was purchased from the Presbyterians in 1866, during the pastorate of Hiram Revels, and renamed the Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Revels later was appointed to fill the unexpired U.S. Senate term of Jefferson Davis. A block away is the 1894 Holy Family Catholic Church, the oldest black Catholic church in the state. It and its school for black children were founded in 1890, four years before the present building was dedicated.

Today priests from the Society of St. Joseph still operate the elementary school. “Being black and Catholic in the South makes you a double minority,” explained Father Wagner, an aging white priest who has spent his entire priesthood working in black communities. When he arrived in Natchez, he said, the whites he met immediately assumed he had had no choice in his assignment to a black church. “When they learn that this is where our hearts are,” he explained, “they tend to draw away.”


Father Wagner asked me about the article I was writing. When I told him I was researching black heritage, he brightened. “That’s the beautiful thing about this church,” he said. “It’s not just was. It is. It’s a heritage that is alive.”

History that is. Could there be a better way of describing this country’s black heritage? Even the history of slavery, overlooked for so many years, is living proof, John Horhn says, “that blacks, in spirit, rose above their bondage. There is a story to be told there.”

The history of the civil rights movement is particularly alive with purpose. The places where that struggle took place are reminders of the progress of the past and the goals of justice and equality still far in the distance.

In Montgomery, Alabama, the Civil Rights Memorial and the Southern Poverty Law Center, located one below the other on a small hillside plot, are especially good examples of history on the move—from past to present to future. The memorial, a granite circle in an open plaza, chronicles the past: the victories and, in the names of the forty who died, the losses of the civil rights movement. A curtain of water flows over its surface.

At the law center, the principles of the movement live on. There the staff conducts business as usual, taking on injustice in the courts and keeping an eye on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups dedicated to hate and white supremacy. The doors of the modern glass building must always be kept locked and guarded.

A granite wall separates the center and the memorial. It is engraved with a biblical passage favored by Dr. King: “...until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is the future King dreamed of.

If that isn’t history that lives, what is?


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