In the months before the coronavirus came to the United States, a flurry of viral negative reviews for guided tours of Southern homes and plantations sparked a debate on partisanship in the retelling of history. Expecting tours on architecture, some guests bemoaned what they called “lectures on the evils of slavery.” In Savannah, Ga. — where the tourism industry is king — Black historians, tour guides and museum employees say their main goal is finding a way to balance expectations with education.
Telfair Museums took a direct approach. In November 2018, Telfair completed its award-winning “Slavery and Freedom in Savannah” project, transforming the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters’ working cellar, carriage house and enslaved-person quarters with new exhibits and narratives.
Previously, tours at the Owens-Thomas House focused mostly on George Welshman Owens, former mayor of Savannah; his family; and their lifestyle. Now, guests hear details of the vast disparities between those who lived in the main house and the enslaved women, men and children who worked there.
Lacey Wilson, a former historical interpreter at the Owens-Thomas House, joined the site that same year, during what she calls “the rough period.”
“In the weeks directly following the project’s debut, the response wasn’t always positive,” she said. “Maybe (guests) didn’t know what to expect. Maybe they’re in vacation mode and just didn’t want to hear the facts. I’ve been accused of pushing my own agenda or trying to make White people feel bad.”
The Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters has over a thousand reviews on Google, and double that number on TripAdvisor. While the majority of the reviews are positive, a quick scroll through one- and two-star reviews reveals a pattern. Guides are accused of being “too political,” “equating slavery with Black Lives Matter movements” or giving a “guilt trip on ‘Whites.’ ”
Wilson, however, is confident in her presentations.
“I got into this work because I believe it’s fascinating,” she said, “and I want to be a part of amplifying voices and narratives that are often hidden — even if that’s hard for some to stomach.”
Shannon Browning-Mullis, Telfair’s curator of history and decorative arts and the brains behind the “Slavery and Freedom in Savannah project,” said that “the problem is people often identify with someone who lived in the house. Maybe it’s the lady of the house, Sarah Owens. But now you’re being told that Sarah Owens was an enslaver, and it’s uncomfortable.”
Though Wilson recently left the Owens-Thomas House for the role of site manager at Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum State Historic Site in North Carolina, the move was due to personal and pandemic reasons. Wilson said the Owens-Thomas House always had her back when it came to negative comments from guests.
“Every tour guide runs their tour by us first,” Browning-Mullis added. “And we know Lacey was one of our best guides.”
As a whole, Telfair responds quickly to bad reviews regarding any of its three locations. That responsibility sits with Telfair marketing and communications manager Bri Salley.
“I try to always remain positive in our feedback with the visitors,” Salley said. “I offer links to connect them with more information from our site, and I remind myself that it’s not personal. It’s a breakdown of expectations.”
Since COVID-19 came to Savannah, Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters has switched temporarily to offering only audio tours, keeping the content the same. Some reviewers still question the tour’s focus on enslaved people.
“We understand that with historic homes, you usually expect to walk in to hear about pretty homes with decorative arts,” Salley said. “But now is the time to have these conversations.”
Not all tourists are seeking to learn about the Black experience, but for Black tour guides, especially those who founded their own companies, these are the stories of their ancestors.
“This is my history, my story,” local historian Amir Jamal Touré said. “When you hear someone get your history, your culture, wrong, it’ll make you realize you cannot let somebody else tell your stories.”
Touré is the founder of Day Clean Journeys, a touring company that recounts the history of the earliest West Africans brought to coastal Georgia and South Carolina. “Day-clean” is a West African phrase referring to first dawn when the sun begins to shine, a reminder that each day is new.
“My tours are meant to be thought-provoking, making you think outside of the box and see the things that others don’t see,” Touré said. For example, on his tours, he often highlights historic Savannah buildings built by Black hands. “They’ve become invisible to us, but in reality, when you look at anything from River Street through downtown, you’re looking at what Black hands have done in this city.”
Touré is a fast talker with a seemingly endless array of knowledge he uses to combat misinformation, biased thinking and local folk tales.
“Some (guests) might want the stereotype of a happy-go-lucky Negro, or they want mythology,” Touré said. “But that’s simply not what I do. I don’t have to say that Wright Square was the hanging square, and that’s why no Spanish moss grows (there). Our story, the real facts, are already so great.”
Working for himself means that Touré is also the one responding to reviews on TripAdvisor. Out of his 200 reviews, only five can be considered negative; most people appear to enjoy Touré’s eccentric living-history format. Since March, Touré said business has slowed, but Day Clean continues to offer masked walking tours or virtual tours for large groups.
Patt Gunn is the CEO and founder of Underground Tours of Savannah, a cultural heritage experience that showcases African American history through walking tours and reenactments. She is known fondly by locals as Sistah Patt, a Gullah Geechee master storyteller.
Last year, Forbes listed Underground Tours as one of the top 10 things to do in Savannah, and the company has only four- and five-star reviews on both TripAdvisor and Google. Gunn said she has never personally experienced a guest challenging her knowledge or the narratives, but that’s not for lack of discussing difficult truths.
“We tell people from the beginning that the story about slavery in Savannah has been redacted,” Gunn said. “And Underground Tour’s focus is to put the truth back into the picture. We do our homework very well, and we don’t spin anything.”
Instead, Gunn said, she’s found a way to tell the story of slavery in a more personal way. All of Gunn’s guides are Gullah Geechee, descendants of coastal Georgia and South Carolina enslaved people. They dress in period costumes and share history through storytelling, songs and re-enactments.
Now, with the entire country focused on race issues, Underground Tours has seen a boom in the request for tours, even in the time of COVID-19. There is currently a 10-guest limit on in-person tours, and Underground just launched a virtual tour option.
“We always connect our stories back to the present,” Gunn said. “Black lives matter then, and Black lives matter now. This seems to be the decade of atonement, and the nation was due for it.”
Tailored tours, like the ones led by Vaughnette Goode-Walker, founder of Footprints of Savannah Walking Tours, help avoid miscommunication about what guests expect to learn on their tour.
“Before I begin the tour, I ask guests, ‘Why this tour?’ ” Goode-Walker said. “They tell me what kind of tour they want, what topics or information they’re looking for, and we go from there. My basic theory is to make connections for people, give them that ‘aha’ moment while we’re walking and talking.”
Unlike some of the other Black history tours in Savannah, Footprints engages less in the brutality of slavery, and more in the economics and structures of slavery and oppression.
“My tour is called Footprints because I look at the architecture that’s here today, but also I carry a flip book full of pictures that show you what buildings would have been where in the past,” Goode-Walker said. “Those are the footprints that I’m dealing with, as well as the footpaths that African people walked here in the city from slavery to freedom.”
Most recently, Condé Nast Traveler featured a write-up that called the tour an “unhurried stroll … led by an expert historian.” Today, Goode-Walker offers virtual tours and requires masks for all in-person groups.
“The people who are coming on my tours, if they are there to learn, I’m there to help them,” she said. “I’m not there to be antagonistic about enslavement. My tours are about education. Every now and then, there’s a skeptic, but by the end of the tour, I make sure that we’re all on the same page.”
Another Savannah native, Karen Wortham, started her touring business, Indigo Journey, in 2009, named for the dye that enslaved Africans used on clothing, staining their hands and feet purple.
Using firsthand narratives of enslaved people and other resources from Savannah’s Carnegie Library and the Georgia Historical Society, Wortham shares a plethora of intimate stories that make the general history of slavery in Savannah hit home. On each tour, she hands out pamphlets and bookmarks that list her references, encouraging guests to do their own research and tell her what they find. This, she said, is the reason she doesn’t have guests debating facts with her, even though she is not formally educated.
“You don’t have to believe me, but you could believe what is written,” she said. “You could go look at the census reports or the enslaved-person narratives, just like I did, and you’ll get the feel of how damaging slavery was.”
Today, Indigo Journey is scheduling walking tours that require guests to wear masks and abide by social distancing protocols. In the decade since founding Indigo Journey, she has racked up mostly positive online reviews, and she said no one has ever contacted her after a tour to correct her.
“I also market very honestly,” Wortham said. “It’s not a surprise what you’re going to get on my tour. I say, look, if you want to go on a vacation where you feel good, go to Disney World. … If you want truth, come to Savannah.”
Felton is a freelance writer in Savannah. This article appeared in The Washington Post.
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