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University of Tennessee professor uses plantations to examine race in America

As the nation pauses to recognize civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. next Monday, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, professor is reflecting on the country's racial history in a different way -- by examining plantations.

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

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IMAGE: Reconstructed slave cabins at Oak Alley Plantation along Louisiana's River Road represent a recent effort to offer tourists more history about slavery. Oak Alley is one of the study sites... view more

Credit: Arnold Modlin, Jr.

As the nation pauses to recognize civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. next Monday, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, professor is reflecting on the country's racial history in a different way--by examining plantations.

Derek Alderman, head of the geography department, has received $62,000 from the National Science Foundation to study how the representation of Southern slavery at tourism sites is changing. The research will use plantations to understand ongoing debates about race relations, racism and white supremacy within the United States.

"Plantations are one of the widely recognized symbols of the South and play an important role in the modern interpretation of Southern history," said Alderman. "The sites have traditionally remained silent about the lives and struggles of the enslaved community. But, recent evidence indicates they are increasingly bringing the struggles front and center."

According to Alderman, this transformation has been underanalyzed.

"This research provides a lens to explore the manner and extent to which Southern plantations are incorporating the history of slavery, the challenges they face in doing justice to that history, and how visitors interpret the information and respond," he said.

Alderman and his team will visit plantation sites in Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia to interview plantation owner/operators and docents; observe, survey and interview tourists; and do content analysis of guided tours of the plantation landscape. It is the first study to look at multiple stakeholders, as well as plantation sites and management types.

"Achieving civil rights and racial reconciliation in America requires discussing the central but controversial place that slavery has in the nation's history. Antebellum plantation tourism sites should play a key role in advancing those discussions rather than glossing over or whitewashing the past," said Alderman.

The project will disseminate findings through a website that includes an interactive map.

The project is part of Race, Ethnicity, and Social Equity in Tourism (RESET), a multi-university initiative that seeks greater social responsibility in the representation of African American heritage in tourism. Alderman is working with colleagues from the University of Southern Mississippi, Texas Tech University, the University of Mary Washington and Louisiana State University on the project.

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