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October 7, 2022
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From rentals to bathrooms: AirBnb listings aren’t the first offensive effort to commercialize slave cabins

From rentals to bathrooms: AirBnb listings aren’t the first offensive effort to commercialize slave cabins

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

The now-removed listings had one major thing in common, though: They were once home to those enslaved.

Recent outrage over the listed slave cabins started with the Panther Burn Cottage, a Greenville, Mississippi, slave cabin built on a plantation in the 1800s. Wynton Yates, a Black lawyer from New Orleans, posted a now-viral TikTok about the Airbnb listing late last month. He said he was shocked when he saw the listing. “My first reaction was ‘This is wild! How does anybody think this is OK?’” Yates told NBC News. “I was appalled by what I was looking at. It’s just disrespectful to all of the people who lived and died in those 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 renewed concerns from preservationists about the state of former slave dwellings in the country. Preservationists like Joseph McGill Jr., founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, say the commercialization of plantation sites has been happening for decades. 

“I’ve come across slave dwellings with many uses like rental spaces, she sheds, man caves, garages. I’ve even come across one being used as a public restroom of all things!” McGill said. “I’ve been at this for 12 years and what happened is nothing new. What is new is that now TikTok exists, and this thing called cancel culture exists.” McGill added of those who own such rentals: “In their minds and in their eyes, they’re doing nothing wrong.” 

Slave quarters at Neill-Cochran House Museum.Tara Dudley

History vs. aesthetic 

The Historic American Buildings Survey, a federal preservation program created in 1933, lists more than 400 slave houses in the United States. But, over the decades, several slave dwellings have vanished, been torn down, or turned into bed and breakfasts, offices, garages, etc., according to preservationist Jobie Hill, founder of the Saving Slave Houses Project. In some cases, residents aren’t aware that the small structures on private property were once slave dwellings until Hill informs them, she told Atlas Obscura. And long before Airbnb began listing the slave cabins, the homes served as rustic cottages for travelers. To preservationists, this is yet another example of people profiting from the ills of slavery, but for some travelers, the history of the site is exactly what draws them to stay.

One individual who stayed at the Panther Burn Cottage last October, according to the Airbnb site, left a positive review about the former slave cabin on the listing, writing that the location made them feel like they were “stepping back into history.” 

“This place was so beautiful and peaceful. We stayed in the cabin and it was a (sic) historic but elegant,” the user wrote, adding that the “cabin was stocked with everything we needed plus more.” The reviewer said they’d recommend the cottage and are looking forward to visiting again and staying in the main house on the plantation.

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

“We stayed in Uncle Guy’s loft for the night where apparently slaves used to stay during the cold winter months. Initially, given how old the plantation is, I thought the place might be kind of scary and I would be up all night and not able to sleep,” the guest wrote. “However, the loft is actually pretty cozy and I wasn’t really freaked out after I got to the room — doesn’t give off a scary vibe but actually more of a cozy vibe — kind of hard to pull off in such a (sic) old place. 

The reviewers 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 to The Washington Post about renovating the main home and the former slave quarters installing everything from air conditioning to bathrooms but retaining  “the original character, including fireplaces and verandas.”

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

Meanwhile, other plantations allow people to spend the night in some of its buildings, but draw the line at slave dwellings. At Wilton House Museum in Hartfield, Virginia, up to six people are allowed to rent the master home and are invited to use the plantation’s slave quarters  “to ponder what it must have been like to live and work in this space nearly 200 years ago.” A spokesperson said the cabin is not “set up for overnight accommodation.” 

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

Slave cabin at the Green Hill Plantation in Campbell County, Virginia, photographed in 1933.Library of Congress / Historic American Buildings Survey

Preservation Efforts

Hill, who is building  a database of slave homes in the U.S., 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 it to be the only “intact and publicly accessible slave dwelling located within in the boundaries of Austin’s original townsite.” 

Rowena Dasch, Neill-Cochran House Museum executive director, said she initially thought the small stone building was a generic addition to the Neill-Cochran House, built in the 1850s, but soon realized it must have been slave quarters due to its size and lack of amenities. She then partnered 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 quarters 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 the slave quarters and make a more historically accurate exhibit, with tours and other programming to share the building’s connection to slavery in Austin. 

Dasch said she wasn’t aware that travel sites like Airbnb featured slave dwellings, but questioned whether transforming these spaces into rentable properties could be done while maintaining the historic integrity of the home.

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

“So if you’re trying to rent that out today, you would have to change that building in order to make it habitable by people with contemporary expectations. You’re losing the original context. I believe in adaptive reuse. I would rather see structures turned into something functional than torn down. But to market the space as ‘come stay in a slave dwelling’ just sounds so tone-deaf to me. What exactly are you trying to accomplish with that listing?” 

For Black Americans looking to track their genealogy, slave quarters could be an important piece in family trees largely stamped out by the slave trade and systemic racism through everything from lack of record keeping to urban renewal. David Green, a University of Virginia professor and amateur genealogist, was able, in 2020, to visit the home 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 run down and what he would expect of an abandoned slave building. He said he couldn’t imagine seeing such a meaningful place turned into an Airbnb listing.

“I would have an issue with it. Especially if they go with the ‘antebellum, good South theme,’” Green said. “To say somebody’s renting out that slave home today without necessarily thinking about what it meant for that slave to be there … I’d say that’s disrespectful. I think it’s about respect, respect for my ancestors.”

In a statement to NBC News, Airbnb spokesperson Ben Breit said, “We apologize for any trauma or grief created by the presence of this listing, and others like it, and that we did not act sooner to address 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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