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Race, Place and Power Students Visit Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage (Third Installment)

Posted by on Monday, April 9, 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 Emmie Kline, Vanderbilt Class of 2019

As I reflect on our visit of the Hermitage, I believe that our experiences and discussions exposed profound truths about contemporary U.S. society and culture. Because of our educational backgrounds, personal experiences, and class discussions, our class approached this visit with a critical and informed perspective, but I continue to think about visitors who do not know the intimate details about the life and leadership of Andrew Jackson. For these people, a visit to the Hermitage results in learning about Jackson’s humble beginnings, his bravery in battle, his decisive military leadership, his business savvy and his political prowess. They learn very little about his endorsement of slavery; when they do, they learn about Alfred and his seemingly unwavering dedication to his master even after the end of slavery. Emphasizing this example creates a false narrative of appreciation and amiability between master and slave and contributes to the rewriting of history.

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I physically cringed when I saw the large cut-out of the twenty-dollar bill where visitors could replace Andrew Jackson’s face with their own. This Hermitage attraction served as a stark reminder of the article we read in class about the problematic prospect of putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill with Jackson, an absolute injustice. As we walked the grounds, my peers and I talked about the families we saw touring the Hermitage; I highly doubt parents discussed the atrocities of slavery and Indian removal with their children. This means that these kids are learning the Hermitage’s version of history, one that reflects a limited, problematic perspective and glorifies the actions of Jackson as a man and as a leader. This is a disgrace. How do we ensure that children learn about this country’s history so that it is never repeated and so that they fully understand the implications and consequences of slavery? I continue to think about this question following our visit to the Hermitage; I do not have a satisfying answer yet, but I know that I will teach my children about the terrible history of Andrew Jackson.

Written by Jaylen Martinez, Vanderbilt Class of 2021

Walking up to Andrew Jackson’s mansion in the Hermitage, I was immediately taken aback by how beautiful the mansion was, but I was ultimately left with a sour taste in my mouth. As soon as we entered the mansion, a flurry of interpreters, teachers and students began to tell us about Andrew Jackson’s home, but one important subject went unmentioned throughout the tour: slavery and its role on the plantation. Slavery was repeatedly brought up through questions, yet any response was often short and provided no real answer. The interpreters only drove the narrative that Jackson was a moral hero of the people instead of a slave owner. When asked if there were interpreters in the slave quarters, the interpreters said that only the audio tour described that part of the property. The audio tour costs extra, so learning about slavery on the plantation is not encouraged by the people who run the property now. The myth of Jackson as a hero was pushed, while the truth of a slave-owning, immoral man who led the greatest genocide on U.S. soil was silenced.

The Hermitage was interesting after the mansion tour. Being at the plantation and seeing all the artefacts and buildings just made the events a lot more real. People are taught about slavery and how inhumane it was, but the distance I had from plantations like this made it hard to empathize or comprehend how terrifying slavery actually was. Being there was a harsh reality check that made me better understand the extent of the horror and difficulties that slaves went through. By the time we passed that small cotton field, I was already physically sick because I was so disgusted and angry. Then, when we walked along the trail to where most slaves lived, I saw the size of the fields where cotton was picked. The fields were massive, and I am sure that those were not the only fields on the property.

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Slavery was misrepresented on the plaques provided and in the cabins themselves. In the very first cabin (Alfred’s) there were plastic replicas of a fresh baked pie, bacon, cheese and other luxury foods that slaves would not have had. Also, there was no mention of how many people would lived in that small cabin, which could lead to an overestimation of the space slaves actually had to live in. Then, the signs made slavery appear to be something almost neutral rather than completely immoral, and they also depicted Andrew Jackson as kind, giving and caring towards the slaves which, in reality, is not true at all. Slavery, the living conditions of slaves and the ongoing effects of slavery on the African American community are downplayed and misrepresented in a grotesque way at the Heritage to keep the idea of Jackson as a hero alive.


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