Monticello Plantation, Charlottesville, VA
Monticello is not singularly defined by Jefferson. It could not have existed without the enslaved people who lived there, who had families there, who built a community there that spanned generations. As a public servant, Jefferson spent more than half his life away from his plantation, while many of the hundreds of people enslaved at Monticello stayed on that land for the entirety of their lives. As much as this land illuminates the contradictions of Jefferson’s legacy, it also serves as a reminder of the hundreds of Black people who made a home there. Their lives are also worthy of remembrance, and commemoration.
The Whitney Plantation, Edgard, LA
The Whitney exists as a laboratory for historical ambition, an experiment in rewriting what long ago was rewritten. It is a hammer attempting to unbend four centuries of crooked nails. It is a place asking the question, ‘How do you tell a story that has been told the wrong way for so long?’ For some, it is a place that doesn’t fully live up to its ambition, a scattered assortment of exhibits that fails to tell a cohesive story and that misrepresents its history. For others, it is a necessary, even if imperfect, corrective against a history that has been misrepresented or ignored for so long, a place that does far more good than harm. From both perspectives, it has served as a catalyst for discussion around how plantations should reveal the truth of slavery in ways that few other places have.
Angola Prison, Angola, LA
I wanted the prison to create a sign at the entrance naming that it had been a plantation. I wanted markers erected in the places where incarcerated people had died, and for the first and the last sentence of every tour to begin with the word ‘slavery.’ I wanted Angola, where 71 percent of people are serving life sentences, and three-quarters of the population is Black, to not pretend as if that was a coincidence. What I wanted more than anything was for this prison to not be here, holding these people, on this land, with this history. It all felt so profoundly irredeemable.
Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, VA
As I think of Blandford, I’m left wondering if we are all just patchworks of the stories we’ve been told. What would it take—what does it take—for you to confront a false history even if it means shattering the stories you have been told throughout your life? Even if it means having to fundamentally reexamine who you are and who your family has been? Just because something is difficult to accept, doesn’t mean you should refuse to accept it. Just because someone tells you a story, doesn’t make that story true.
Galveston Island, TX
I thought about how Juneteenth is a holiday that inspires so much celebration, born from circumstance imbued with so much tragedy. Enslavers in Texas, and across the South, attempted to keep Black people for bondage for months, and theoretically years, after their freedom had been granted. Juneteenth, then, is both a day to solemnly remember what this country has done to Black Americans and a day to celebrate all that Black Americans have overcome. It is a reminder that each day this country must consciously make a decision to move toward freedom for all of its citizen, and that this is something that must be done proactively; it will not happen on its own. The project of freedom, Juneteenth reminds us, is precarious, and we should regularly remind ourselves how many people who came before us never got to experience it, and how many people there are still waiting.
African Burial Ground National Monument, New York, NY
The discovery of the African Burial Ground was central to New York having to more honestly account for its history—not sidestepping its slaveholding past—and, according to a 1993 article in the magazine Archaeology, ‘challenged the popular belief that there was no slavery in colonial New York.’ . . . I thought of all that lay beneath the layers of grass and soil and stone—the history, the stories. If it were not for the federal law mandating assessment prior to construction, this burial ground might have been forgotten beneath the pavement, lost under the shadow of skyscrapers. I couldn’t help but wonder how many more buried, forgotten memorials there were across the country.
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC
There are certainly other museums dedicated to documenting the history and contributions of Black life peppered throughout different cities across the country, animated by the local flavor that makes each of them unique. What makes the NMAAHC different is its ambition. This museum recognizes that Blackness is not peripheral to the American project; it is the foundation upon which the country is built.