At the plantations in the Louisville area and at many across the country, the story of these old homes are increasingly being reframed to preserve the real history that surrounds these places including the story of enslaved people on the lands.
American history is still struggling to find a way to present itself in a more authentic version of our story as a nation. These tours are a way for the historic plantation homes of some of the area’s richest families to help present the real story of the homes that includes the lives of the enslaved people. At Locust Grove, the 90 minute “Unfolding the Story” tour begins with an explanation of the events that will take place. The audience is given items that will be requested along the tour: sugar, salt, saltpeter, a carafe, candles and paper. Each of these items serves a purpose during the show and helps the guide tell the story of the family and the work of the home.
Once the group enters the plantation, the tour guide turns the group over to Louisa who was the laundress of the Croghan family that owned Locust Grove. Played by Brandi Lashay Threatt, the story of Louisa is told from “her” perspective. One of the things that Locust Grove has done during the tours is to eliminate the “voice of the master.” No white reenactors are present during the “Unfolding the Story” tours. As well, there are no depictions of Black trauma during the tour.
Threatt leads the group through the mansion and her laundry room as Louisa, asking for items given to tour guests at the beginning and talking about the work she and others do in the house. One of the most poignant moments for me was the bedroom of Gen. George Rogers Clark, where he lived in his later years as an amputee. On the floor of his bedroom was a mat, where his adult male servant slept. This was especially haunting for me because of the continued treatment of Black people as unable to make their own decisions or to be treated as adults by white America. This man had to jump up at any call of Clark’s who by many accounts was a pretty unhappy and mean guy. Despite his hard work, he was asked to sleep like a dog on the floor next to Clark.
Louisa also tells the story of York, the enslaved man who accompanied the “Lewis and Clark expedition” and who likely visited the estate with this expedition. She spoke of the real value of York’s work and that the expedition should be better named, “The Lewis, Clark and York expedition” since his contributions were many including hunting, trapping and navigation but also making key votes on parts of the expedition. Despite his importance during the expedition, when York returned to his home, he was once again living fully as an enslaved man, not gaining his freedom until many years following.
Louisa introduces the group to Alfred, who works in the distillery and helps to process meat. We learn Alfred’s story and find that he also is known for his work at Mammoth Cave where his name is written on the walls of the cave in several places. Alfred’s story talks about the labor of the men on the plantation and introduces the tour group to the innovations used on the plantation to preserve meats, ice and to create the whiskey that was distilled on the land. We see him interact with Louisa in an important exchange that speaks to the way that white America still finds colloquial speech between Black people as uncomfortable but that shows how enslaved people passed information in full visibility of their white owners.
What the tour does well is to give Louisa and Alfred full lives and personalities. It allows them to speak away from the gaze of the white plantation owners, and so they speak freely to the group without being overly sentimental, or graphic but honest and without caricature.
I was excited to see the tour when I was invited but wasn’t sure how a white organization was going to approach the telling of these stories.
The staff at Locust Grove admits that they are still developing the stories and will continue to ask for the input not only of the actors but historians and other Black voices that can continue to create full and well-rounded people to portray those enslaved on the land of the farm.
At the end of the tour, there was a chance for the group to ask questions of the actors and staff. The answers and explanations further illuminated the work the organization is truly attempting to make these stories fully part of the experience of visiting a historic home. The history is important and should not be thought of as an uncomfortable experience but one that needs to inform how we see the beginnings of the nation in a more honest way.
Only private tours are available currently. Pricing is available upon request. During the tour, no use of mobile devices or photography is allowed.
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