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Race, Place and Power Students Visit Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

Posted by on Tuesday, March 27, 2018 in News, Race, Place and Power.

On February 3, the students enrolled in the Race, Place and Power University Course visited Andrew Jackson’s mansion and plantation, commonly known as the Hermitage. They were accompanied by archeologist Larry McKee and specialist librarian Deborah Lilton. Larry has conducted excavations at the site that have unearthed valuable information about the slaves who lived and worked on the plantation and the hardships they faced. Deborah, meanwhile, provided important knowledge about slavery at the Hermitage in particular and the lives of enslaved Africans in the United States in general.

Over the next week or two, excerpts of some of the students’ responses will be available via this blog. These entries point out the problematic ways in which slavery and Jackson himself are portrayed at the Hermitage and highlight the need to approach the site through a critical, historically-informed lens. 

Written by Koryn Guile, Vanderbilt Class of 2021 

Visiting the Hermitage was interesting. While we were in the entrance of the mansion, looking at the walls covered in portraits, quotes and facts of Jackson’s life touting his greatness and bravery, I could not help but view things with a sort of double consciousness. I scoffed at it because of the stark contrast between what we learned in class and the idealized picture of Jackson we got at the Hermitage. I find it odd and dishonest, and frankly, a disservice to glorify a man who was instrumental in the perpetuation of violence against enslaved Africans, Native Americans, etc. The history of slavery is glossed over and romanticized at this site. The Hermitage is being presented today as a historical treasure, as being part of an “idyllic South,” and much of the tour is focused on the beauty and grandeur of the mansion. We learned about the wallpaper, bedrooms, Jackson’s office, and got some details about how Jackson handled his affairs; but an obvious part – talk of slavery – was missing. There was not explicit mention or reference to slavery made by the tour guide until Prof. Milazzo asked the guide about it.

Hermitage Visit_2_web

I am glad we had Dr. McKee with us to explain and interpret throughout our visit. I did not know what story we would have come away with had we toured the Hermitage simply with the information provided there. Wandering the site alone, sans guide, you would not have learned about the foundations of the old houses or the labor it took to build it. Perhaps you would not have questioned the apple pie or lemons or stack of warm blankets in Alfred’s cabin (luxuries that just could not have been there at the time). Sometimes a guide is crucial for clarification and for putting things into a framework. I am grateful for the expertise of Dr. McKee and how our tour was focused on slavery because it provided a more complete picture and a counterpart to Jackson’s mansion tour.

What the trip to the Hermitage reinforced for me was that people are still uncomfortable talking about slavery. The mansion tour guides were discreetly but visibly annoyed when anyone mentioned slaves. One guide tried to say that the reason there were no guided tours around the slave quarters was because there weren’t enough guides to go around. That was probably untrue given that there were several guides inside the mansion and that shows where their priorities are. I believe it is necessary to have these conversations and actively care about this issue because, if not, it will continue to lack accuracy in the future. We need to pay attention to what is given attention, who is given a voice and how we depict the past, because this greatly impacts our present moment and the future.

Written by Rachel Su, Vanderbilt Class of of 2019 

Before visiting the Hermitage, we already had a mind-set informed by what we had learned in this course about race, place, and power. This perspective enabled us to critically engage with the displays and how the Hermitage and Andrew Jackson were presented to us. I tried to approach the visit as someone who had not spent class time discussing the atrocities that Jackson committed and his racism. This way, I could try to see how an average visitor would view the Hermitage. I do not think anyone could deny that the Hermitage uplifts Jackson as a hero and largely ignores his “dark side.” I appreciated that the film screened at the Hermitage did acknowledge Jackson’s atrocities against Native Americans as well as the fact that he never questioned the morality of owning slaves. However, calling Jackson a “complex man” very much diminishes the truth that he was a murderer and a slave-owner.

Hermitage Visit_1_webThe attention given to the slave-owning history of the Hermitage was miniscule. The tour guides probably knew more about the mansion’s wallpaper than the slaves on whose backs the mansion was built. The remoteness of the slave cabins and the fact that there was no guided tour means that the average visitor either ignores the cabins or is subject to only the information provided on the plaques, which can be misleading. The frivolous additions of items such as fine china, nice furniture and a surplus of food (including pie and cheese) in Alfred’s cabin adds to the misconception that slaves led a much more comfortable life than they actually did. Larry McKee’s archaeological digs, which suggest that slaves were forced to secretly hunt for extra food, challenge the romanticized depiction of slavery that the Hermitage provides. Such misrepresentations are a dangerous obstacle to understanding slavery and therefore racism. It was also jarring to see the gift shop sell fake cotton stalks. This felt untasteful. Selling cotton as a souvenir minimizes the serious human rights violation that was slavery.

Overall, while I am a big supporter for preserving heritage sites to help the public better understand our country’s history, the way the Hermitage is run feels untasteful and biased. I would feel much more comfortable supporting the site if it invested in a more balanced approach to educating the public on Jackson’s legacy. Instead, the Hermitage works to promote misconceptions about Jackson and slavery, further distancing us from the truths and history of race and power in this country.

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