Starting from Scratch

Water view from Dixie Plantation. Julie Casper, Hollywood, South Carolina.

This past Sunday I went to Dixie Plantation in Hollywood, South Carolina to obtain information for an online tour. LCDL is currently using City Slicker software to develop this tour through research produced by Dr. Maureen Hays, Dr. Kimberly Pyzka, and their students. The tour will be a stand alone resource for promoting Dixie as a College of Charleston-owned outdoor education center, but we are also hoping to link the tour, or a similar Dixie-based digital project, as a case study example for APLA. The site particularly offers resources relevant to colonial slavery, and even features the site of a parsonage that Native Americans burned during Yemassee War— a conflict particularly sparked by European settlers encroaching on Native American lands and participating in the Indian Slave Trade. This war, which lasted from 1715 to 1717, almost destroyed the Carolina colony.

For the record, this plantation is College of Charleston property, so going on your own is trespassing. I also would not recommend it, snakes (poisonous ones) are out this time of year and currently some neighbors’ Rottweilers are loose on the property. Fortunately I brought my parents for company, and my mom was able to talk the Rotties down until they were wiggling on the ground like puppies. I had no idea she was such a dog whisperer. But I was there with permission from the College for an official assignment– I had to track down fourteen recently erected nature/history trail signs, take pictures to represent their historic or nature subject, and mark their coordinates to geolocate them for the tour. My parents had to leave by lunchtime so I recruited some friends visiting from Atlanta to join me in the afternoon. Perhaps I should have savored some alone time on the plantation/nature preserve, but along with personal safety concerns, I think I wanted to be able to talk about the place with someone.

In recent years I have spent lots of time on plantation spaces for my PhD research on changing representations of race, class, and the history of slavery in Charleston’s historic tourism industry (with historically interconnected comparison sites in Barbados). These plantations were tourist sites– bustling with visitors, guides, signs, trams, ticket booths, and petting zoo-type animals– and often charging steep prices for a graduate student budget (though many site producers did graciously waive their fees). I went to these sites to assess how site producers wanted me to see plantation history– what tours and attractions did they add over time? What did guides discuss, or not discuss, in big house tours? Do they grapple with addressing African American experiences during and after slavery on these sites? If so, what strategies do they use to convey this complex history? And what items do they place in plantation gift shops as souvenirs of this site experience? (In my observations, I found this could range widely (and wildly for the twenty-first century) from southern belle paper dolls to scholarly works on the history of slavery to Mammy figure salt shakers that could have been sitting on the shelf in the 1950s.) I like to think most of these Charleston plantation tourist sites are in a state of transition, as they waver between holding on to white elite “moonlights and magnolias” plantation nostalgia, and developing interpretations of African American history and culture that reflect an increasingly inclusive understanding of southern history in a multicultural world.

But other than a name that triggers a knee-jerk “old times there are ne’er forgotten” to go off in my head, representation strategies on Dixie are generally not yet in place. The nature trail itself was the only modern interpretation feature on the site, which consists of a smooth gravel path marked by signs addressing topics ranging from rice agriculture to the wildlife of coastal marshes to enslaved African and Native American history. The polished appearance of the trail points to more landscape developments to come, as the College works to develop an outdoor education center on the site. But beyond the trail, most of the Dixie landscape is a fascinating tangle of plantation remnants overtaken by nature preserve growth, with few of the trademark nostalgia features glorified by so many tourist sites. There are no white columned houses at Dixie, and even the ornamental plants of the gardens have been overtaken by wilder species from the woods.

My Atlanta friends finally articulated the question I was struggling with as I tromped around Dixie– so what do you think future interpretation of this plantation should look like? The plantations I examined for my research had often been tourist sites for many decades, even over a century in one case. The central research question on these sites often revolves around what should be undone on this space to correct exclusive bias, as well as what should be highlighted or added. At Dixie the question is different– What would more inclusive plantation interpretation (guide narratives, additional interpretive panels, etc.) look like starting more or less from scratch? Can there ever be a truly effective representation strategies for conveying the complex pasts that occurred in these spaces for present visitors? (To be clear, Dixie will not be a tourist site, but it will be an outdoor education center that presumably will include plantation social history lessons for students as well as ecology.) Ultimately this question does not have an easy answer, but as I walked around Dixie I considered how interpretation from scratch was a totally different challenge from untangling existing plantation interpretation problems.

In this context, the good news about digital curation like online tours is that they are flexible. If we make mistakes as we embark on developing digital projects based on Dixie history, they can be easily unraveled. And we can experiment with different online interpretation approaches at minimal costs and impact on the landscape. In this way, though confronting and effectively representing the complex experiences of race, class, and labor hierarchies in plantation history is a challenge, it is increasingly a dynamic and exciting challenge to take on.