Slavery, the plantation-tour elephant in the room, may get meager mention or a thorough telling. Here at the first museum of its kind in the U.S., history comes from the perspective of the enslaved. Visitors receive a name tag with a slave’s biography, immediately personalizing the experience, and begin the 90-minute, guided walking tour with a short film shown in a church. They share the pews with life-size sculptures of slave children, which are beautiful, spiritual, and heartrending. The tour moves to expansive gardens of somber monuments etched with personal testimonials and 107,000 names; a separate “Field of Angels” remembers child slaves (40 perished on this very land). These contemplative spaces lay the emotional foundation as the tour moves to sparse cabin homes; the historic kitchen; endless fields; murky creeks that gave cover during escape attempts; the blacksmith cabin where men toiled over the instruments of their own confinement.
Among the most affecting is the three-cell jail, a crude, iron cage positioned with cruel irony such that, now twice confined, the prisoner’s barred view is of the gleaming “big house” (where appropriately scant tour time is spent). Elsewhere, 60 ceramic heads on spikes pay noble, resonant tribute to slaves decapitated during an 1811 uprising. Not everything is original (much was razed), but it’s all harshly authentic, haunting, and vital.