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Talking about slavery: Public invited to heritage tourism seminar on May 3


NATCHEZ — Two leaders of popular Louisiana tourist attractions say telling the complete story of the South and slavery has had nothing but a positive impact on the visitor experience at their historic sites.

Part of the proof, they say, is the increase in the number of visitors that come to hear their story.

Oak Alley Plantation Curator Laura Kilcer and Whitney Plantation Executive Director Ashley Rogers will share their story with residents at a tourism seminar from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on May 3 at the Natchez Convention Center.

The seminar is free to all who attend and includes a free lunch for those who sign up before May 1, said Jennifer Combs, executive director of the Natchez Convention Promotion Commission and Visit Natchez director.

To sign up, Combs said people should email Katie Ernst at kernst@visitnatchez.org.

The seminar titled “The Next Steps in Natchez Heritage Tourism — New Narratives in Old Neighborhoods” is sponsored by the Natchez Convention and Promotion Commission and Visit Natchez.

Combs said the Natchez National Historical Park and the Historic Natchez Foundation have also been strong partners in the project.

The seminar will feature Kilcer and Rogers who will discuss the importance of heritage tourism, how they developed their programs and how their new offerings have had a tremendous impact on the tourism experience.

Kilcer said Oak Alley Plantation was already seeing a large number of tourists when they decided in 2012 to launch plans to correct the myths of the plantations and not shy away from telling the terrible side of slavery and what a sugar plantation entailed.

“We were hesitant at first because we were already seeing healthy numbers,” Kilcer said. “We were concerned how making the changes would affect us.”

Seven years after the changes have been instituted, Kilcer said Oak Alley has not only seen an uptick in the number of visitors who come to the site but has also seen a greater range of visitors.

“About 250,000 people visited Oak Alley last year, and we are on pace to beat that number this year,” Kilcer said. “In addition, we are seeing a wider demographic of those who come to visit — in race, age and visitor motivations.”

Kilcer said the feedback that they have received from visitors has been very positive.

“The trees will always be there, but the story that is being shared along with the landscape has depth and complexity, and people recognize that.”

Similarly, Rogers said Whitney Plantation continues to see increased numbers just five years after the historic site opened in December 2014.

Located 10 miles east of Oak Alley, Whitney Plantation is a museum and memorial site dedicated to the interpretation of slavery on the sugar plantation and South Louisiana.

“We are very well known for the narrative we provide,” Rogers said. “People come specifically because they want to learn about slavery.”

Rogers said approximately 90,000 people visited Whitney Plantation in its fourth year.

“This year we are projected to see 110,000 visitors,” Rogers said.

Combs said the free seminar on May 3 resulted from a trip that she and other tourism officials took in February to tour both Oak Alley and Whitney Plantation.

After the trip, Combs said she and others thought it was important to share the story of these two historic sites and begin to have a conversation about the importance of telling a more complete story in Natchez.

Natchez National Historical Park Superintendent Kathleen Bond said today’s visitors clearly want more than what has been offered in the past.

“There is a place for the traditional house tour, but that is not all that Natchez offers anymore,” Bond said.

Now is the time for bold change, Bond said.

“We have to be as innovative as the women who first started the pilgrimage,” Bond said. “We need to recognize the urgency to change and that the change that is coming is beneficial to the community.”

Natchez Convention Promotion Commission chairman Lance Harris said people want real stories and want to have an experiential engagement with the sites they visit.

NCPC member Katie McCabe said many people recognize the importance of telling the complete story but have a fear of not knowing how to move forward or fear that they will do a poor job of telling the story.

Combs said the May 3 seminar will help in that both Kilcer and Rogers will provide people with information about where they started, why they decided to do what they did and what tools they used in the process.

Combs said the afternoon sessions would be of particular value to tour guides, site managers and interpreters.

Kilcer and Roberts say they are excited by the prospect of telling the stories about slavery in the city of the nation’s second largest slave market.

“I have felt honored to share the stories (at Oak Alley) that haven’t been shared before and that have been silent for 150 years or more,” Kilcer said. “To be able to tell similar stories on a city-wide basis is very exciting. You all have such a rich history. The stories are endless.”

Rogers agreed.

“Slavery is a really huge story and Natchez is a part of that,” Rogers said. “Natchez has a significant number of tourist attractions — all connected to slavery.”

Kilcer said Natchez has the potential to do something that is unique and of historical significance.

“It could be really amazing. I don’t know of another city that is doing that,” Kilcer said.


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