Airbnb ads aren’t the first offensive effort to market slave cabins

The Airbnb listing was simple: a charming Mississippi cottage with old-fashioned decor and access to Wi-Fi and streaming platforms. Advertisement in Louisiana and Georgia had similar descriptions, describing them as charming, rustic homes perfect for a cozy weekend getaway.

The now-suppressed lists, however, had one major thing in common: they once housed slaves.

The recent outrage against listed slave cabins began with Panther Burn Cottage, a Greenville, Mississippi slave cabin built on a plantation in the 1800s. Wynton Yates, a black lawyer from New Orléans, posted a now viral message ICT Tac about the Airbnb listing at the end of last month. He said he was shocked when he saw the list. “My first reaction was, ‘This is crazy! How does anyone think this is OK?'” Yates told NBC News. “I was horrified by what I saw. It’s just disrespectful to all the people who lived and died in these spaces.

Airbnb has since apologized and removed the Mississippi listing and any others “known to include former slave quarters in the United States.” But the incident has reignited concerns among conservationists about the state of former slave settlements in the country. Conservatives like Joseph McGill Jr., founder of the Slave housing projectclaim that the commercialization of planting sites has been happening for decades.

“I’ve come across slave dwellings with many uses like rental spaces, sheds, man caves, garages. I’ve even come across one used as a public restroom of all things!” said McGill. “I’ve been there for 12 years and what happened is not new. What’s new is that now TikTok exists, and this thing called cancel culture exists. McGill added about those who own such rentals: “In their head and in their eyes, they do nothing wrong.

Slave quarters at the Neill-Cochran House Museum.Tara Dudley

History vs aesthetics

The Survey of American Historic Buildings, a federal preservation program established in 1933, lists more than 400 slave houses in the United States. But, over the decades, several slave dwellings disappeared, were demolished or turned into guest rooms, offices, garages, etc., according to curator Jobie Hill, founder of the Project to save slave houses. In some cases, residents are unaware that small structures on private property were once slave dwellings until Hill informs them, she says Atlas Obscura. And long before Airbnb started listing slave cabins, the houses served as rustic cottages for travelers. For conservatives, it’s yet another example of people profiting from the evils of slavery, but for some travelers, the site’s history is exactly what drives them to stay.

One person who stayed at Panther Burn Cottage last October, according to the Airbnb site, left a positive review for the former slave cabin on the listing, writing that the location made them feel like they were “coming back to the ‘story”.

“This place was so beautiful and peaceful. We stayed in the cabin and it was (sic) historic yet elegant,” the user wrote, adding, “the cabin was filled with everything we needed and more “. The reviewer said he would recommend the cottage and was looking forward to returning and staying at the main plantation house.

In Virginia, the Prospect Hill Plantation Inn offers stays in slave quarters with names such as “Boy’s Log Cabin” and “Uncle Guy’s Loft”, which is described as a small carpeted room that served as a “dormitory for up to fifteen field workers”. .” A reviewer who stayed in the Prospect Hill slave quarters in 2014 praised the hostel on Tripadvisor for its “incredible history” and said the age of the site contributed to the “charm of the plantation”.

“We stayed in Uncle Guy’s loft for the night where apparently the slaves used to stay during the cold winter months. Initially, given the age of the plantation, I thought that the place might be a bit scary and I’d be up all night and unable to sleep,” the guest wrote. “However, the loft is actually quite comfortable and I didn’t really panic after arriving in the room – doesn’t give off a creepy vibe but actually more of a cozy vibe – a bit hard to pull off in such a (sic) old place.

Critics did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

In 1985, the original owners of the Prospect Hill Inn, Bill Sheehan and his wife Mireille, boasted of having The Washington Post about renovating the main house and former slave quarters by installing everything from air conditioning to bathrooms, but retaining “the original character, including fireplaces and verandas”.

“So we found this dilapidated old plantation and poured every penny of our savings and all the borrowed money we could find into it,” Sheehan said at the time.

Meanwhile, other plantations allow people to stay overnight in some of its buildings but draw the line at slave dwellings. At the Wilton House Museum in Hartfield, Va., up to six people are permitted to rent the main house and are welcome to use plantation slave quarters “to reflect on what it must have been like to live and work in this space nearly 200 years ago.” A spokesperson said the cabin was not “configured for overnight accommodation”.

In Louisiana, Destrehan Plantation serves as a museum, with guided tours, exhibits, and educational programs. The plantation owners offer overnight stays at the “Marguerite,” a plantation of slave-era meeting halls named after a slave cook. Tracy Smith, executive director of the Destrehan Plantation denied claims that guests could rent slave quarters on the property. “We have slave huts here, but they are part of our tour. And we take that very seriously,” Smith told NBC News. “We have never rented slave cabins on Airbnb or overnight accommodations.”

Image: Green Hill Plantation
A slave shack at Green Hill Plantation in Campbell County, Virginia, photographed in 1933.Library of Congress/American Historic Buildings Survey

Preservation efforts

Hill, who is building a database of slave houses in the United States, and McGill have dedicated themselves to documenting slave dwellings across the country. McGill recently visited slave quarters at the Neill-Cochran House Museum in Austin, which museum officials discovered in 2016 and determined was the only “intact, publicly accessible slave dwelling located within the boundaries of the hometown of Austin”.

Rowena Dasch, executive director of the Neill-Cochran House Museum, said she initially thought the small stone building was a generic addition to the Neill-Cochran House, built in the 1850s, but soon realized that it must have been slave quarters due to its size and lack of space. of approvals. She then teamed up with Tara Dudley, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, to learn all she could about the property. They unearthed the stories of those who lived in the neighborhoods or worked near the property. The museum has since partnered with the university to launch “Reckoning with the Past: The Untold Story of Race in Austin,” a project to restore slave quarters and create a more historically accurate exhibit. with tours and other programs to share the building connection. to slavery in Austin.

Dasch said she was unaware that travel sites like Airbnb featured slave dwellings, but wondered if turning these spaces into rental properties could be done while preserving historic integrity. of the House.

“If it was a slave dwelling, it was completed before 1865 and that means no plumbing, no electricity, they were generally one-room structures,” Dasch said.

“So if you try to rent it today, you will have to change this building to make it habitable by people with contemporary expectations. You lose the original context. I believe in adaptive reuse. I prefer to see structures transformed into something functional rather than demolished. But marketing the space as ‘come and stay in a slave house’ seems so tone deaf to me. What exactly are you trying to accomplish with this listing?”

For black Americans seeking to trace their genealogy, slave quarters could be an important piece in widely stamped family trees by the slave trade and systemic racism across everything from lack of record keeping to urban renewal. David Green, professor at the University of Virginia and amateur genealogist, was able, in 2020, visit the house of his great-great-great-great-grandmother, Ann Redd, who worked on the property near Brownsburg.

Green said the old cabin, now on private property, was dilapidated and what he would expect from an abandoned slave building. He said he couldn’t imagine seeing such a meaningful place turned into an Airbnb listing.

“I would have a problem with that. Especially if they go with the ‘pre-war, good South’ theme,” Green said. what it meant to that slave to be there… I would say it’s disrespectful, I think it’s a matter of respect, respect for my ancestors.

In a statement, Airbnb spokesperson Ben Breit said: “We apologize for any trauma or grief created by the presence of this announcement, and others like it, and that we have not acted further. soon to resolve this issue.” Breit added that the company is working with experts to develop new policies that address listings associated with slavery.

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About Michael B. Billingsley

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