Vacationers get cozy in slave cabins
By Allen G. Breed

CHARLESTON, S.C., March 18 As we strolled up the tree-lined street to the pink bed and breakfast, a couple from Wisconsin suggested we meet later for a sherry in the drawing room. Which room was mine?

"ACTUALLY," I said, not a little sheepishly, "I'm staying in the old slave
quarters, above the carriage house."

The husband raised his eyebrows dramatically, and his tone dripped with
irony. "Oh," he said. "You're getting to see how the other half lived."

Well, not exactly.

It's doubtful that Alexander Black's slaves had chintz valances over the
windows, fans on the ceilings and English hunting prints on the walls.

When the inventor of rice and cotton processing equipment built the house in 1832, who knows if he gave any thought to the comfort of the human chattel who would occupy the rooms above his horse stalls.

In fact, there was nothing about the quaint, comfortable cottage with its
color television, full kitchen, king and queen beds, and one-and-a-half
baths to suggest that it was once, essentially, a prison. I didn't know how to
feel about it.

Angela da Silva knows how she feels. The idea conjures visions of whippings and midnight visits from "massa."


"As a cultural preservationist, it would scare me to death to stay there,"
says da Silva, owner of the St. Louis-based National Black Tourism Network.
"The ghosts of the place, the true spiritual energy is something I wouldn't
want to deal with."

Da Silva arranges tours of former plantations and slave sites for her mostly
black clientele. But she would never dream of booking them a room in the old quarters.

"I mean, that's TRULY whitewashing slavery," she says.

But to business people across the South and beyond, these are just rooms to contribute to the bottom line.

The Magnolia Hill Plantation in Natchez, Miss., advertises its former slave
quarters as Wealthy's cottage, "which is our poolside suite and can
accommodate 4-6 guests."

Adam Goodheart, an editor for Preservation Magazine, wrote with open disgust last fall about a visit to Natchez's Monmouth Plantation. As he was being led to his cabin out back, an elderly white man waved from the porch of a whitewashed cottage and greeted him, "Hello, fellow slave."

"Until I visited Natchez," he wrote, "I had never heard of slave cabins with
Jacuzzi bathtubs, dedicated modem lines, and four-poster beds."

Jean-Luc Maumus, manager of Monmouth, notes that the 1818 plantation and its outbuildings had fallen into disrepair before it was restored and turned into a hotel.

"These are buildings with some history," says Maumus, a native of France.

"We are not responsible for the history. The history's there ... Either you live with your past or you destroy it."

Only one or two guests have complained about the slave quarters, said
Monmouth's owner, Ron Riches, who added that a new tour will address the plantation's slave history and he's considering posting information about
individual slaves in the cabins.

At Caledonia Farm-1812 near Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, innkeeper Phil Irwin advertises the old summer kitchen and upstairs apartment as the
"honeymoon suite" with "the best-sleeping bed you've ever been in."

He usually refers to it as the servants' quarters.

"Oh, it's mentioned in passing, but we don't dwell on it," he says of the
fact that six house slaves once occupied the space. "It never has been an
issue here. We don't emphasize it. We don't diminish it. We don't embellish
it. We don't market it."

This makes no sense to Da Silva.

"It's ludicrous to me that you would use a historic building, would
whitewash it and put a lot of gingerbread and gingham prints in there and with Jacuzzi tubs and call them slave quarters," she says.


But people like Mary Hill Caperton are unapologetic.  Caperton runs The
Quarters, a B&B near the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.
The four-room house with the central brick chimney had been a private
residence since the turn of the 20th century, and Caperton sees no reason
not to use it to make money.

"One woman thought all slave houses should be torn down ... because it was an insult and exploiting slavery and so forth," she says. "And I replied, very nicely, that I think she would be destroying history."

Irwin has had black guests stay in his inn's old quarters, with no

Alphonso Brown, owner of Gullah Tours in Charleston, passes old slave
quarters all the time as he leads bus tours along the Battery. One wealthy
family on the Battery left the outside of the quarters intact, as local
preservation laws demand, but gutted the building for an indoor swimming

As a black man, that doesn't bother him. What does is when people try to
evade the issue through semantics.

"What I find a problem is when they refer to the slave quarters as servants'
quarters or dependencies or carriage houses," says Brown, a descendant of
slaves and slaveholders. "In other words, they don't use the word `slave,'
and that's what offends me. ... Servants come and go as they please."

John Michael Vlach, a history professor at George Washington University and author of "Back of the Big House," a book about slave architecture, says it's not necessary to preserve and venerate every building where slaves once lived. But he acknowledges the danger in gussying the whole place up.


"If you own property, you can do what you want with it," he says. "The
problem here is that with slavery sites, if every slavery site gets fixed
up, cleaned up, essentially sanitized, then how can we ever hope to narrate and reconnect to that story if nothing is even close to the way it was?"

Critics concede that the problem in making the slave quarters more authentic is that most people probably wouldn't want to stay in them.

But even these sanitized quarters, with their frills and luxuries, offer
their mute testimony.  Those looking for a romantic getaway find these
buildings' history impossible to escape.

Last June, Amanda Schwegler of Overland Park, Kan., and a friend were making a cross-country tour and decided to stop at Tezcuco Plantation, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The name means "resting place," but the pair found little repose.

"We watched the rain from rocking chairs on our tiny front porch, feeling a
mixture of intrigue and guilt at spending a comfortable night in such an
historically unhappy place," recalls Schwegler, a 26-year-old graphic design

But after a while, Schwegler, who is white, found herself questioning her
own uneasiness.

"Perhaps they were, as the slaves' residences, generally happy places where rest and family interactions took place," she says. "Perhaps they were the happiest place on the plantation for the slaves."

Then she found a drawer full of notes left by previous guests. They ranged,
Schwegler says, from "loving to lewd."

And it all hit home.

"The contrast of these recent happy tales to the original circumstances only
made it more obvious that the present use of the cottage was in direct
opposition to its history," she says. "To me, it seemed disrespectful and
rude to not at least acknowledge the history of the cabins."

Posting historical information might be a good compromise, Schwegler says.

"But if it seems incongruous to have such information in the context of a B&
B, why should it be a B&B at all?"