Slave for a Day? I’m Not Sure This is a Good Idea

Footsteps of the Enslaved, a new program at Hampton

Hampton, a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service, recently announced a “Slave for a Day” program which will allow visitors, to, “Experience agricultural labor that enslaved people may have performed at Hampton. Work in the fields with actual hoes and scythes. Carry buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulders.” After a chorus of howls went up on the Internet, the title was changed to the much more tame, “Walk a Mile, a Minute in the Footsteps of the Enslaved on the Hampton Plantation” but the program content remained the same. I certainly want to encourage the ranger who developed the program to continue to pursue her passion for African American history, but I’m not sure these activities, as described, get visitors to fully understand what life was like for enslaved people.  Antebellum farming is about hard work; slavery isn’t.  Slavery is about forced labor and human bondage–the lack of freedom, liberty, choice, dignity, and sometimes even life itself. Indeed, this program may unintentionally distract from or belittle the lifelong suffering and inhumanity that occurred under slavery, experiences that are crucial to discuss but are nearly impossible to recreate.  If you’re going to be a “slave for a day,” those experiences have to be included as well.  For now, just call it “farm work on a pre-Civil War plantation” and discuss how much of that work was done by enslaved men, women, and children.  Then convene a team of scholars and interpretive specialists to see how this important story can be told in a more effective, accurate, and complete manner–I suspect it has weaknesses in all three areas.   Can anyone recommend a good program at an historic site that interprets slavery effectively?

11 thoughts on “Slave for a Day? I’m Not Sure This is a Good Idea

  1. Amanda Gustin

    I have not myself seen any programs that interpret slavery effectively, but the Tracing Center ( has been working on best practices for interpreting slavery for some time. I’ve heard some scholars from the center speak and been very impressed with how thoughtfully and honestly they address crucial questions.


    1. Kristin Gallas

      Amanda – This is Kristin Gallas from the Tracing Center. Thanks for mentioning us in your post. We do work hard to help sites better understand their relationship with the history of slavery, and how to develop a comprehensive and conscientious interpretation. I noticed you’re in the Boston area (but can’t locate an email for you) – is it possible for us to be in touch. You can reach me at kgallas (at) Thanks -k


  2. Robert Connolly

    I don’t have an answer or specific recommendation on this. Students, particularly the African-American students, in my Museum Practices seminar last year responded in a similar way to the Conner Prairie Follow the North Start program ( arguing that it trivialized the whole underground railroad experience.

    As a white person, I have been most impacted by some of the unexpected and brief encounters. Standing in the slave pen with other African-Americans at the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati Ohio; tangentially related the “get to back-of-the-bus” experiences at some Civil Rights Museums; I am completely awestruck and humbled whenever I visit the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis, ending up at the room where Rev. MLK Jr. stayed at the Lorraine Motel: and so forth. What strikes me most about these latter examples is more of the raw experience and the opportunity to be reflective. As the testimonials on the slave for a day and North Star experiences note, it is not the “real” thing because everyone knows that they will be okay at the end of the day. It’s kind of like going into a Holoween haunted house only with a social message – you know you are going to come out okay. Slaves didn’t have that luxury.

    And as you note, it is not about hard work but the institution.

    I suspect I am being too much of a curmudgeon on these things, but that’s my .02 – It may in fact be that the Conner Prairie and Hampton are responding to the challenges to more accurately portray slavery – but the essence of your comments rang true with me.


  3. Michael A. Lord

    I had the good fortune to work on creating and implementing the interpretation of Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, NY ( This small living history provisioning plantation and gristmill is the only historic site that I know of that focuses its story on enslavement in the colonial north and its effects on the cultural and economic development of NY. We debated long and hard on how to craft and implement this complex and sensitive story. During the planning stage of the new interpretation, the thought of immersing our visitors into the life and labor of the enslaved community was never taken seriously because we knew that the experience could never be realistic enough to make a true impact on the visitor. A few minutes of working in the gristmill, or in the ryefield, or churning butter, or cooking a meal couldn’t begin to simulate a sun up to sun down work day—or the notion of laboring year after year. Moreover, we also knew that it would be a disservice to our visitors and to history if we only linked labor to bondage. How could we get visitors to understand what it meant to be considered property rather than person—to be separated from your family, to be sexually exploited, to be chattel? As mentioned in an earlier post, an “immersive” museum experience would be seen by visitors as a game—something that could be quit at any time.

    Philipsburg Manor chose to keep the discussion wholly third-person. Interpreters engage in a conversation with visitors about issues, events, and individuals pertaining to those who lived at Philipsburg Manor. The subject matter is complicated and serious, and it’s not sugar-coated. Visitors receive a sobering dose of the American paradox—liberty and freedom built on the backs of enslaved labor. They also leave with a better understanding of the African contributions to our American culture—from language and stories to music and foodways. Philipsburg Manor tries to get visitors to move from merely observing the labor of the past to discovering that the past is truly relevant. You can read more about Philipsburg Manor’s interpretive planning in my blog at

    Michael A. Lord


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks for mentioning Philipsburg Manor, Michael. I had seen the revised interpretation just at the beginning several years ago, so wasn’t sure how it had evolved (and glad you’re covering the process in a blog so it’s available for others).


  4. Gretchen Jennings

    I think that institutions that are perceived as part of mainstream white culture (like NPS or Connor Prarie) need to be very careful when they create programs that try to replicate experiences from another community. Unless people from that community are heavily involved in forumlating the theory as well as the implementation of the program, I think the mainstream institutions will get it wrong. There are too many nuances of history and emotion that outsiders can’t possibly be aware of. This speaks to the need for empathy (not just sympathizing with, but actually knowing what something feels like from the inside) in museums. Not trying to be promotional but have written about this at website listed below. I think it is an issue of huge concern in museums today.


  5. kawbrown

    I strongly recommend the experience at Great Hopes Plantation, a site at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg VA. Great Hopes represents how middling planters and farmers lived in Virginia in the 18th century. The tools and methods used for planting food and cash crops, carpentry, working animals, playing games, cooking, gardening, building, and providing for the needs of those that lived on the farms or plantation is done the same way as it was done during the time period. The interpretation done at the farm is about tobacco and slavery which was the way of life in Virginia in the 18th century. Living historians provide hands-on experiences to the guests that include working the soil, worming tobacco, splitting wood, cultivating crops of African origin in the slave garden, and feeding and caring for animals – oxens, chickens, pigs, and horses. Slavery has always been, and will always be a topic of immense controvery and sensitivity; particularly as it relates to the 18th century. Those described as founding fathers who were so passionate about securing their own freedom and liberty from what they viewed as tyranny and oppression, were even more passionate about enslaving and dehumanizing thousands upon thousands of those people of African descent. Pointing this out enrages many, but it certainly cannot be ignored or diminished. At Great Hopes the history is provided in a way that is impactful, informative, engaging, and enlightening. You may come to Great Hopes with a particular understanding of slavery and the experience of those of African descent, but you will not leave Great Hopes the same way you came – and you will be amazed by the difference.


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