The United States is home to more than 35,000 museums that explore our nation's culture and history. Restored plantations that commemorate the Old South are popular among them, celebrated as "bastions of a genteel culture" and monuments to the rural beauty of a bygone era. Many have been romanticized as tourist attractions and wedding venues. But none were entirely dedicated to telling the story of the people who sustained them -- slaves.
In December, I opened a museum devoted to slavery. It's housed at the Whitney Plantation, near New Orleans, a former indigo and sugar farm that I purchased 15 years earlier. The 250 acres on the Mississippi River had been largely neglected since the 1970s, and they were at first nothing more than an investment to me. But as I researched the property's history, it became clear that this was not going to be one of my usual real estate projects.
More than 350 individuals were enslaved on that land before 1865. That realization began my education on the history of the Atlantic slave trade, from its origins in the 1400s through the lives of the people who worked on the Whitney Plantation.See alsoCartoon: Looting in Black America
While everyone knows that slavery existed in America, for many people, the details are lacking. For instance, many Americans do not realize that religious institutions supported slavery. From a papal order in 1452 permitting the king of Portugal to keep Africans in "perpetual slavery" to the published lectures of an American Protestant doctor of divinity in the 1850s justifying slavery as an appropriate form of government, religious institutions were complicit in this atrocity.
Likewise, many do not fully understand the economic impact of slavery on the developing U.S. economy. Beyond the fortunes made by slave traders, cotton planters and sugar cane farmers, the web of people who profited from the labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants stretched from New Orleans to New England. Every region of the United States and every arena of American prosperity owes a debt to the forced labor of African slaves.
Our textbooks and museums have largely ignored or underplayed how tragically integral slavery was to the nation's development. Students have not been taught that slave labor produced America's wealth, while the enslaved were denied the most basic education, preventing them and their descendants from enjoying access to and participation in America's affluence. Without knowledge about how slavery worked and how crushing the experience was -- for those who endured it and for their descendants -- it's impossible to lift the lingering weight of that institution. Every generation of Americans since 1865 has been burdened by the impact of slavery, through unequal education and limited political and economic opportunities available to black Americans.
The 9/11 museum in New York opened just 10 years after that tragedy. There are museums commemorating the Confederacy and antebellum life in Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana and most other Southern states. The United States has more Holocaust museums than Israel, Germany and Poland combined. The country found the money and the will to build the $168 million Holocaust Memorial Museum just blocks from the U.S. Capitol -- a building constructed largely by slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries.
But 150 years after emancipation, our nation hasn't seen fit to create a national institution dedicated only to teaching the facts and honor the victims of our national tragedy. Elements of our slavery history are documented in African American history museums and will be part of the first national museum of African American culture, set to open in Washington next year. But the assumption that slavery relates only to African American history is an injustice.
America cannot rewrite its history, but that doesn't mean we should ignore it.