A standard image of the Old South is the big plantation house peopled with courtly aristocrats, but a controversial exhibit at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum reminds us that most plantation dwellers lived in far-from-idyllic conditions.

"Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation," has sparked many an editorial since hitting the road about two years ago. Drawing mostly upon surviving images and memories of slavery recorded in the 1930s, the exhibit shows how slaves lived under the plantation system.

While some have found the exhibit objectionable, most viewers value its unblinking look at the overly-romanticized plantation system. The exhibit's 80 post-Civil War photos of African-Americans, many of them former slaves, picture them working at tasks little changed from antebellum days. Commenting on the photos are text panels written by John Michael Vlach, a professor of American studies and anthropology at George Washington University.

Vlach, who created the exhibit based on one of his books, says African-Americans were the majority on plantations, hence plantation culture was centered around African-Americans.

"You take them away and you have no plantation," Vlach summarized. "You take the master away and you still have farm work."

Vlach said slaves found subtle ways to rebel against their owners, such as breaking tools and performing tasks slowly. He said a favorite slave trick was singing songs with double meanings that ridiculed the master - often while the unwitting owner was present and hearing every word.

Patrick Nolan, director of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, says plantations were like small, feudal towns where up to 500 people lived, most of them slaves. Nolan says movies like "Gone with the Wind" tend to focus on elegant lifestyles of white masters while glossing over the backbreaking toil that paid for it all.

"You needed carpenters, cooks, smiths, families and children to support that," Nolan said.

Plantations needed many support buildings, as well, such as kitchens and smithies, which were tucked out of sight behind "the big house." Few of these structures survive today as opposed to elegant plantation mansions that draw many a tourist.

Slave quarters were another type of support building, of which few remain. Luckily, the Historic American Buildings Survey combed the South in the 1930s photographing still-standing slave quarters. These photos figure prominently in the exhibit, which uses 20,000 pages of interviews with former slaves collected by the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression. The Sam Houston Memorial Museum will supplement the exhibit with tools and other artifacts similar to those used by slaves.

Nolan considers "Back of the Big House" quite relevant to the museum, noting that the Houstons were slave owners deriving most of their income from slave-related activities.

"He (Sam Houston) grew cotton and the labor force was African-American," Nolan said. "That's how most prominent people made their money in Texas then ... That's the reality of the time."

Like the exhibit, the Houston family's relationship with its slaves was controversial. Some historians say the Houstons defied laws of the time by educating their slaves or that Sam Houston allowed his slave Joshua to keep extra money he earned. One story has it that Joshua offered his savings to Houston's widow, Margaret, but she declined, suggesting he use the money to educate his children.

Others say Houston freed his slaves long before the South lost the Civil War. However, a listing of Houston's property after his death included supposedly-freed slaves.

The slavery exhibit controversy began at the very institution that funded it and provided most of the source materials - the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. One particular photo in the exhibit, of a white man on horseback overseeing field hands, angered about 20 African-American employees at the library who took it as a deliberate insult. The angry workers were, and still are, embroiled in a 13-year-old anti-discrimination suit against the Library of Congress.

Coincidentally, and prior to the ruckus over the exhibit, the disgruntled workers were calling the Library of Congress "the big house," deliberately using the term slaves employed when referring to the master's residence.

When "Back of the Big House" was shown in a part of the library frequented mostly by employees, the employees who filed the anti-discrimination suit protested. Library of Congress administrators axed the display within hours in a bid to preserve racial harmony.

But the library drew far greater criticism from the exhibit cancellation, especially coming on the heels of the Enola Gay debacle at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. That display, featuring the nuclear bomber that leveled Hiroshima, was seen by many as an attempt to rewrite history with the United States cast as villain. Political pressure forced the Smithsonian to tone down the Enola Gay exhibit, making it less judgmental and more bare-bones factual, which in turn provoked cries of "censorship."

But if Library of Congress administrators thought the public couldn't stomach the harsh realities of slavery, they were mistaken. In fact, "Back of the Big House" was shown elsewhere before its brief stay at the library, including an historically African-American college, and was well received.

"We're primarily having this exhibit in the hope that African-Americans will find it interesting," said David Wight, curator of exhibits at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum. "It's an important part of history that's been neglected. We've concentrated mostly on white men in the past."

Nolan said the museum focused on Sam Houston and family until recent years when a wider context was sought, including details on the Houstons' 10-13 slaves. A step in that direction was the reconstruction of a kitchen outbuilding similar to one used by Eliza, Margaret Houston's cook, on its original spot on the museum grounds.

The museum grounds are on part of 200 acres the Houstons owned in Huntsville. Among the museum's features are the Woodland Home where Sam Houston lived from 1848-1858, and the Steamboat House where he died in 1863. His main plantation, Raven Hill, was a 4,000-acre farm about 15 miles east of Huntsville near Oakhurst.

"Back of the Big House" can be seen free of charge in the exhibit's only scheduled Texas showing, at the Katy and E. Don Walker Sr. Education Center at the museum complex. The exhibit will be shown from Thursday, April 25 to June 2, and possibly into July. Museum hours are 9 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. For more information call the museum at (409) 294-1832.


Written by Paul Sturrock. For more information, contact Dr. Patrick Nolan at 409-294-1831, or e-mail or David Wight at 409-294-1831, or e-mail, or John Michael Vlach at 202-994-6070, or e-mail jmv@gwuvm.gwuedu.

April 24, 1996