These plantation homes share the deep and complex history of the homes and the people who lived there.
James Madison’s Montpelier
Ever since the founding of this nation, it has often been difficult to reconcile the ideology of the founding fathers with their complicity in the slave trade. Yet that is our history, and it can prove very illuminating when viewed through various perspectives.
One such window into this dichotomy is James Madison’s Montpelier. It was here that this draftsman of the U.S. Constitution and fourth president of the United States was raised in the early 1760s.
The name of the property is believed to have been in homage to the famous French city. The first structure was a brick Georgian-style home built by slave labor. Over time it expanded greatly, encompassing some 2,650 acres with over eight miles of walking trails, spectacular gardens, a visitor center museum, a museum shop, a cafe and several classroom buildings for groups.
Guided tours include a behind-the-scenes main home tour, a highlights of Montpelier tour, and the Montpelier outdoor walking tour.
Two of the most significant structures on the property are the 1910 Train Depot and the Gilmore Cabin.
The horrors of the Jim Crow era and the tumultuous civil rights movement are illustrated in the train depot exhibits. The cabin is named after George Gilmore, who was born here in 1910. After the Civil War and slave emancipation, he was able to purchase the structure, and it is widely recognized today as the first freedman’s site in the country.
Charleston, South Carolina
To say that Henry Middleton was one of South Carolina’s wealthiest landowners is an understatement. In the mid-1700s, he took over the 1,600-acre property his father had amassed, eventually expanding it to encompass over 50,000 acres. That property today is call Middleton Place.
Along the Ashley River in Charleston and designated as a National Historic Landmark, 110-acre Middleton Place still holds great significance for the story of the family and estimated 800 slaves, many of them born here, who worked in the home and toiled the land.
A great many were so valued and trusted for their skills and talents that the Middletons bequeathed land and/or structures to them and several succeeding generations for years to follow. One of the last slaves, who lived here for 68 years, died in 1994.
Together, the Middletons and their slaves weathered the loss of most of the property by fire just before the end of the Civil War, the Great Earthquake of 1886 and years of neglect. However, after being purchased in the early 1920s by a Middleton descendent, the property was slowly restored.
Visitors today will find America’s oldest landscaped gardens — spanning 65 acres — a house museum that features family furniture, memorabilia, artifacts, special exhibits, art, personal journals, a museum shop, a restaurant, a garden market and nursery, working stable yards, an organic farm and the award-winning 55-room Inn at Middleton Place.
Tours include the house, formal gardens and stable yards, with optional add-ons and packages for groups.
Located along the west bank of the Mississippi River about an hour from New Orleans, Whitney Plantation is the only museum in Louisiana dedicated solely to the plight of enslaved people.
Exploration here begins inside the visitor center, which features permanent exhibits that highlight the deep and complex history and unfathomable numbers involved in the global slave trade.
Although the plantation labor force in Louisiana in early 1700 was Native American and European indentured servants, it quickly and dramatically shifted to large numbers of Africans captured in their homeland. A century later, those numbers soon reflected some 100,000-plus primarily Creole slaves born in this country.
Next, guests embark upon a detailed, self-guided audio tour via headset or mobile app to wander around the sprawling al fresco property. Comprising a church, original slave cabins, a jail, an overseer’s house, a blacksmith shop and a variety of other structures, the tour weaves the grim picture of slave life on this indigo, sugar and rice plantation.
Among the most poignant features are the spectacular yet somber sculptures, art installations and marble and stone memorials etched with the thousands of names of those held captive here.
Although every plantation offers its own unique exhibits and historical insights and perspectives, Whitney Plantation stretches beyond the imagination and is an absolute must-visit.
The land on which Destrehan Plantation sits was originally procured in the early to mid-1700s by Frenchman Jean Baptiste Honore Destrehan, who came to the Americas to help expand French territory in the region. The first official owner of any buildings here was a man by the name of Robin deLogny, who married into the Destrehan family, and subsequently hired Charles Paquet, a slave known for his superior master craftsman abilities.
Today, while touring the French Colonial style home and spacious property, historical interpreters help visitors learn about and experience Paquet’s outstanding design and building skills and the lives and work of the over 200 slaves estimated to have lived here. More than just a set of buildings, Destrehan Plantation is a historical repository with numerous original deLogny and Destrehan family artifacts, documents and memorabilia, as well as folk life demonstrations and interactive media and gallery exhibits.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Destrehan Plantation is reportedly the oldest intact plantation house remaining in the Lower Mississippi Valley, which runs through seven states. Several different themed tours are available.
Recognized by many as the Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road, Houmas House is one of the South’s oldest and most beautiful plantation estates.
Named in honor of the Houmas Indians, who were the property’s first inhabitants around the mid-1700s, it was slowly transformed into a prominent sugar plantation on the backs of Black slave laborers. The first formal structure was a beautiful French Provincial-style house, and in the early 1800s a cottage was added that was later expanded into today’s grand Classical Revival mansion.
Over more than 240 years, Houmas House has been painstakingly restored and lovingly transformed, its most recent extensive renovation taking place in early 2000. The property incorporates the original 21-room French Provincial mansion, the Inn at Houmas House, five different food and beverage entities, and almost 40 acres of lush, exotic formal gardens brimming with 200-plus-year-old oak trees, ponds, lagoons, fountains and numerous plant and flora varieties.
One of the mansion’s real claims to fame is in the movie “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” starring Bette Davis. It has also been the filming location for numerous other movies and television shows, including “The Green Book,” “All My Children,” “The Bachelor,” “Mandingo” and “Top Chef.”