US 'honor roll' of historic places often ignores slavery

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In this Jan. 30, 2020 photo, the Magnolia Grove, an antebellum plantation house in Greensboro, Ala., is seen. The home's entry in the National Register of Historic Places doesn't mention its ties to slavery even though visitors can see a display on enslaved people in an old slave dwelling. An Associated Press review found that many register entries for pre-Civil War plantations virtually ignore slavery. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Antebellum Southern plantations were built on the backs of enslaved people, and many of those plantations hold places of honor on the National Register of Historic Places - but don’t look for many mentions of slavery in the government’s official record of places with historic significance.

The register’s written entries on the plantations tend to say almost nothing about the enslaved people who picked the cotton and tobacco or cut the sugar cane that paid for ornate homes that today serve as wedding venues, bed-and-breakfast inns, tourist attractions and private homes — some of which tout their inclusion on the National Register like a gold star.

The National Register of Historic Places lists more than 95,000 sites that are important to the story of the United States. From some of the most famous places — such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate — to scores of lesser-known plantation homes in the rural South, register entries often ignore the topic of slavery or mention it only in passing, an Associated Press review found.

Experts blame a generational lack of concern for the stories of black people and, in many cases, a shortage of records. While some narratives have been updated to include information about enslavement, such changes aren't mandatory and many have not.

The National Register’s entry for Mount Vernon, approved in 1977, doesn’t use the word “slave,” although more than 300 enslaved black people worked the first president's fields, cooked his food and cleaned the house where tourists now roam.

The entry for Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home, Monticello, notes that the third president owned as many as 200 slaves. Yet it generally avoids discussing them or the details of their ownership by the author of the Declaration of Independence.

The same is true for plantation after plantation across the former Confederate states.

Those omissions likely contributed to the loss of slave housing and other structures linked to the economy of enslavement because no one deemed them important, preservationist Ashley Rogers said.