Melrose Plantation

The idea of plantation tours don’t sit well with me: I’ve heard enough horror stories about tour guides who weave tales of happy slaves in the antebellum south, who focus on narrating the dramatic lives of the white families who owned them. Handing over my money to help fatten the pockets of the white folks who now own these plantations, while they tell lies about the places of unfathomable violence on black bodies isn’t something I’ve ever been interested in. In that vein, I’ve never understood people who want to get married at plantations either. Even if they were never slaveholding plantations, is that the imagery and ideology you want as the backdrop to the start of your lives together?

I was going to make an exception to go to Whitney Plantation, because they don’t do any of that garbage. However, here I was in Natchitoches, surrounded by plantations and tours, and I’m not sure what came over me, but I decided to hold my breath and go to one. I chose to go to Melrose Plantation after reading a bit about the ones in the surrounding area. It said this plantation was created by free Blacks, which definitely caught my attention, and it was also well known for the artwork of Clementine Hunter, a Black woman who lived there most of her life, dying in the late 80s. I was intrigued.

The drive there made me anxious. At one point I was driving on a straight road that was laid down like they had just plowed through the wilderness. It was eerie, nothing but dense forest on either side, the only thing you could see was in front of you, but not very far.

All I could think about is what it must have been like to be in this part of the country, enslaved, and wanting to escape. How difficult that must’ve been. I would be scared to drive around here in the dark, but in the 1800s, I’m sure it was even darker, thicker, less obvious which direction led where. I know the dark was to their advantage, but how terrified they’d have to be, not just from the risk of being caught, but all the hidden creatures in the wilderness and the seeming endlessness of it all.

Another stretch of the route was just expansive farmland, as far as the eye could see, on either side of the road. I got disturbed thinking about all those fields, once maintained by Black people held against their will, now still sitting here, still owned by white folks, still growing crops but being maintained by machines. Along one stretch of those fields were several family houses that were occupied by Black people, the first Black residents I’d seen on this drive. Kids were outside, happily playing in their front yard, surrounded in every direction by rolling fields.  It made me wonder if that family had always lived there, for how many generations?

I eventually got to Cane River and crossed over a tiny bridge. At that point, there’s a fork in the road and all the signs, tourist markers, point to plantations in either direction. So many plantations in such a relatively small area.

The river was beautiful, peaceful even. There were multiple houses built along the riverbank. It was an idyllic setting that invited you in, made you want to build your own house and buy a boat so you could float downstream in retirement.

When I got to the plantation, there was a parking lot full of cars, but it didn’t seem like there were any people around. It was silent. The silence made me more anxious because it wasn’t clear where I was supposed to go to get to the tour. I had to fight down the urge to get back in the car and leave because that silence was so uncomfortable.

Once I walked onto the property I saw a few white folks sitting on a bench under the tree. One of the buildings was the gift shop, so I went inside there and got further instruction on the tour. While I was milling about taking pictures of an old barn-like structure, another, older, white couple walked up from the same parking lot. They walked right up to me and without skipping a beat asked, ‘So what do you think?’

What do I think about what? The plantation? About slavery? What?

They weren’t even looking for an answer, it was just like they needed to say something to the only Black person around. They smiled stupidly and proceeded to educate me about how old the plantation was–over 200 years. Yup. Most of them would be since they operated during SLAVERY.

They started roaming around looking into buildings, so I decided I’d go back to the gift shop porch and wait there; I didn’t want to deal with them. While I was sitting there, another tour that was wrapping up passed by. The guide was a young white guy speaking in a  rehearsed, sing-songy but droning, tour guide voice; a movie stereotype: the jaded guide on a tour bus who’s pointed out the same 50 things thousands of times such that they’re disconnected to what they’re talking about, just lethargically reciting facts.

It felt so damn disrespectful. I could only hope he wouldn’t be doing my tour.

Close to the time it was time to start a gaggle of young white girls showed up, awkwardly offering sympathetic smiles to me as they walked past. The tour of this plantation would be me, this gaggle of white girls, and the guide (thankfully, not the one from earlier). Awesome.

I only knew a bit about Melrose before I got there–I didn’t really feel like reading all the history on the website–so I let the guide tell the story. He began by talking about how this place was different than other plantations, giving us a very dreamy narrative of forbidden love. Frenchman Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer (white) was in love with Marie Thérèse Coincoin (black) who was leased to him as a housekeeper. They had ten children over 19 years and eventually Metoyer bought Coincoin so they could be together, since they weren’t legally allowed to marry. He also bought their children’s freedom and some of the children she had before they were together. Then they acquired land and started the Melrose plantation.

That was his version of the story.

After leaving there I read other sources, including the plantation’s own website, that Claude and Marie had kids together, and Claude gave Marie land, but the plantation was founded by one of the sons, Louis Metoyer. They did keep the happily-ever-after implication, as a “leading family” in Isle Brevelle, populated by free people of color who, “thrived as business people, plantation owners, and slave owners.”

The “big house”

Beyond whether or not their relationship was truly some forbidden love story–we’ll probably never really know–the guide decided to just gloss over the fact that Marie & Claude bought and owned slaves and emphasize the happy ending they had together as thriving business people who helped create a community of thriving free people of color. They were practically liberators; examples of the American dream; started from the bottom now they’re here. The whole tour was on some eliminate the negative, accentuate the positive, bullshit.

We never hear anything about how many enslaved people would’ve lived there, what their conditions would’ve been like. We only half heard mention of the primary crop of the plantation…pecans and cotton, by the way.

Then we got a chronological run down of all the owners of the plantation–their first, middle, and last names; all of their nuclear relatives and their personal business; how they each put their own mark on the business and renovated the architecture of the buildings on the property. After all of these riveting details we landed on the golden age of Melrose, the post-slavery era when it basically becomes an artist retreat, according to the guide.

African House: 2nd Floor houses Clementine Hunter’s gallery

The tour then shifts to the bread and butter of their marketing: Clementine Hunter and her artwork. The pithy, humorous stories abounded, mixed in with an historical fact or two here and there. Everyone on Melrose loved Clementine, and she loved everyone. She amazingly learned to paint through osmotic exposure to all the artists that came to Melrose, courtesy of the very generous final plantation owner and patron of the arts, Cammie Henry. What makes Clementine’s story so amazing is that she’s illiterate and can’t even write her own name, so we should be awed by her “primitive art”–that’s how they characterize it at least.

Leaving my sarcasm aside, Clementine Hunter’s artwork is absolutely something that should be revered and studied, but the way they portrayed her history completely obfuscated the racism and racist policies that she would’ve experienced and existed within. They tell us about how she was born on a neighboring plantation that was part of “Uncle Tom Country,” and the actual plantation that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famed book. But beyond that, once she arrives at Melrose as a young child, in the late 1800s/turn of the century, we hear nothing about what she actually does AT the plantation. She’s vaguely referred to as a farm laborer, but is that code for sharecropper? What does that mean? They just fast forward to her late 50s when she starts painting.

Clementine Hunter’s House

One of their pithy stories was about how she rarely painted white people in her paintings, and when she did, they were smaller than the other people, a method she used to express her disdain for a person by making them actually, physically, smaller than the other figures in the image. There was ZERO racial analysis of why she might do these things. They were telling us repeatedly what a great relationship Clementine had with the other white folks on the property, without ever considering the possibility that she didn’t really like them all that much at all. Without considering that Black folks can (and often do) pleasantly coexist with, and smile in the faces of, white people they don’t particularly like. Again, they were never clear about what Clementine did at Melrose, that she most likely worked there and probably was in service to the white people living and visiting. At least until she became known for her artwork.

Borrowed photo of inside Hunter’s gallery (we couldn’t take photos)

And can we get into why they call her art “primitive?” I mean the guide tried to explain that wasn’t meant to be derogatory but to explain how her art was more like the primitive stylings you’d find on the inside of cave walls or like the Egyptian pictographs. Never mind all the esteemed European and white American artists who paint literally whatever–blobs, scratches, people with two different sized eyes–and yet I’ve never heard any other contemporary artist so liberally labeled a “primitive” artist.

I wouldn’t say all the reasons behind my reluctance to visit a plantation were confirmed, but plenty of them were. The tour wasn’t completely whitewashed, but the history of Melrose was like the Disney version of the Little Mermaid, with some of the evils alluded to, most glaringly omitted, and the rest masked in catchy songs and clever one-liners. Everything was very neat and happy, highlighting the business acumen and benevolence of the white folks and conveniently bookending the narrative with the exceptionalism of Marie Coincoin and Clementine Hunter, the only Black folks that make an appearance.

Louisiana had some of the harshest plantation conditions of anywhere. Being sold down the river (the Mississippi) was the ultimate threat. There were at least five other plantations within a couple mile radius, and “Uncle Tom Country” was featured in the tour narrative. With all of that context in mind, the fact that little to no time was spent on the people who were enslaved there, as if their stories were insignificant in the greater scheme of Melrose, only accentuates how impossible it is for us to confront and reconcile with our violent past as a society.

I still recommend visiting Melrose, if only to see Clementine Hunter’s work. You can’t see her collection anywhere else. Despite their cherry-picking of her background, she’s an important figure in Louisiana history and in the arts world, period. Go there, tune out much of the other noise, and take in her brilliance.