Syllabub and Sweet TeaPosted May 29th, 2011 by Thomas Norman DeWolf
We imbibed a long drink of history as we visited multiple relics of plantation life yesterday.
My eyes opened in a frilly high rise canopied bed at Linden, the Conner family “town house” in Natchez, Mississippi. Fortunately, none of the ghosts who are said to inhabit the house made appearances during the night, which I fully expected they would.
Tom and I enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast of fruit compote, crispy fried bacon, scrambled eggs, grits and hand turned biscuits. We were served in the formal dining room on fine porcelain with coin silver utensils and linen napkins.
After the meal, our hostess led us to a tour of her home, the patrimony of six generations of her marital family. It is decorated with stunning antiques, including Federalist and Chippendale furniture, James Audubon bird paintings (originals) and a contraption in the dining room known as a punkah (a hand pulled ceiling fan). The front portico was used to represent Tara in the film Gone With the Wind. Her knowledgeable commentary was rendered with endearing southern charm; her stories the aural version of sweet tea.
After the tour, we rushed off to Frogmore, an 1800 acre plantation that has produced cotton non-stop since the 1800s. Miniscule in comparison to other plantations of the slavery era, the fields of Frogmore were tended first by slaves and later by sharecroppers. The present owners have taken great care in preserving the slave quarters, church, overseer quarters and general store.
Linden is an fine example of the type of home planters occupied in town. Frogmore is redolent of the vast plantations in agricultural areas from which they drew their wealth. To fully appreciate the economics and lifestyles of the slave era, one needs to see both.
Tom was apprehensive about these stops when we prepared our travel itinerary. He wasn’t quite sure how he would feel sleeping in the master’s bed or surveying the cotton fields that produced his wealth. I, on the other hand, very much wanted to experience sleeping in the big house like the lady of the manor and witnessing the work my ancestors did in the fields.
To say that the wealth and luxury of the planter juxtaposed against the poverty and deprivation of the slave was obscene would be an understatement. Yet, it is a fact of history that we all — black and white — have to come to terms with. I won’t be able to do that in this post. There is just too much to consume and dissect. I feel like I have been drinking syllabub, which is a southern “party punch” that renders one so mentally confused after two drinks they are unable to pronounce the syllables of their words.
I will say that I was greatly relieved by the efforts of the hostesses at both Linden and Frogmore to do justice of a sort to their respective histories. In each case, both sides of the story were told — maybe not with total revelation, but certainly with some sensitivity. The unfairness of the system that reduced some people (black) to unconscionable bondage and poverty in service to the elevation of others (white) to incredible liberty and wealth was presented with only a smidgen of obfuscation.
In one riff, our Frogmore tour guide quoted a statement by a former slave that basically said “freedom is not what it’s cracked up to be.” I read that as “people were turned out from slavery ill equipped with the information or tools they needed to succeed.” I hope I am wrong in thinking that she might have meant it differently — evidence of how “black people were not dissatisfied with their plight and therefore not welcoming of emancipation.”
Mixed messages were littered all over the place, especially in other sites we visited. It is easy to intellectualize the past because we will never experience it firsthand. I thumbed through a book that proclaimed in its title The South Was Right and purchased a newly republished copy of Little Black Sambo, who is described in this edition as a hero.
I am humbled by the experience of walking fields plowed and plucked by ancestors I shall never know and sleeping in the devil’s bed.
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