Exorcising the Slave Mistress Ghost

The rise of dark tourism at historic sites is a concern for some historians who worry that by replacing historical tours with ghost tours, we are losing opportunities for public dialogue about serious social issues of the past and the present. I share this nagging feeling that haunted experiences are crowding out critical engagement with the most difficult happenings of our collective past. Slavery is a primary example, and the one most salient to me as a Black and Indigenous studies scholar of the 19th century U.S. During ghost touring field trips to historic sites in Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina between 2012 and 2014, I heard and read several stories about enslaved black women ghosts. These phantoms seemed to engage in behaviors that reinforced the hierarchical racial and gender status quo of their antebellum times, such as turning down the sheets for guests at a haunted bed and breakfast. Most alarming were the black women ghosts who, during their lifetimes, had willingly engaged in sexual relations with their masters or were the victims of sensationalized, gruesome violence.

At the Sorrel-Weed House in historic Savannah, a site that arrested my attention, these elements dramatically overlapped. There, the “slave girl” Molly is said to have been the “mistress” of her master, Francis Sorrel, a wealthy cotton merchant of the mid-1800s. The use of the benign term “mistress” to describe a very young woman who was physically involved with the man who owned her implies desire and consent in a broader historical context of sexual coercion. After Molly’s mistress, Matilda, discovered the affair, Molly is said to have been hanged to death from the rafters of the courtyard slave quarters. The chamber where Molly supposedly died is open to tourists and has been referred to as a “money shot” by a local Midnight Zombie Tour guide.

Molly-the-ghost’s screams of pain during an attack in the slave quarters on the Sorrel grounds have been recorded by The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) on the TV show “Ghost Hunters” and posted on YouTube. But those mechanical echoes of a violent past are, like the phantom Molly herself, mere figments and fabrications. They do not capture – nor do they pretend to seek – the complexity and emotion of an enslaved woman’s life. Instead, they foster distance from a recognized common humanity — a distance created by digital cameras, voice recorders and electromagnetic gadgetry, and indeed by the gaiety of thrill-seeking ghost hunters hoping for a rush. Although these tourists are surely not intending to reproduce the troubling assumptions and power dynamics of a previous era, they are participating in a for-profit enterprise that caricatures a slave girl’s trauma.

Molly is now a star character on the Savannah dark tourism scene, but for all the wrong reasons. It is a mark of national dishonor that black women were held in chattel bondage and forced to perform uncompensated domestic, agricultural, and sexual work in conditions that historians Walter Johnson and Ed Baptist have described as literal labor camps. Stories about brutalized black women who are said to have been complicit in their abuse dishonor us all when they are used as fodder for fun. By exorcising the “slave mistress” ghost of the southern haunted house tour and attending to the complex, documented histories of real enslaved women, site owners, staff members and tourists alike could elevate public engagement with historic sites of slavery.


Tales of the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era
Published by The University of North Carolina Press. Learn more at http://uncpress.unc.edu/.
Published: October 2015

Reflections on a Black Feminist Think Tank

I have always wanted to participate in a think tank, a gathering of people with shared purpose and focused minds. But think tanks, it seemed, were only for political strategists and well-funded centers outside of the academy. I have a sharp memory, in fact, of a faculty meeting years ago that brought this point home. A woman colleague who studies black gay writers shared her concern that university work was becoming more and more about management, committee meetings, and office tasks and less about research and writing. The sober response she received from someone in authority at that meeting: “This is no think tank.” He might as well have said “This no country club,” given the way his response shut down the dialogic possibilities opened by her comment. Some people reading this blog might wish to argue right about now that working at a university is indeed like working at a country club, but I won’t wade into those weeds here or try to sketch out the many kinds of extensive and indeed intensive labor that professors engage in. Maybe some other time. Suffice it to say: yes, there are many wonderful privileges endemic to an academic life for the lucky few who can find secure employment as universities move toward cost-saving, part-time labor schemes. But having the space and time to reflect deeply, to think creatively, to produce truly new knowledge – this is a privilege on the wane, even in the academy. Continue reading

Old Mountains


American Spirit Motel sign


One of the truest lines in the play Cherokee by Lisa D’Amour comes early on: “These are old mountains,” a character says. This line brought to mind for me the memory of my visits to the mountainous Cherokee homelands of North Carolina and Georgia. I have spent immeasurable hours in that region, doing research, thinking, and writing. I could not help but be conscious there, of myself as well as my surroundings. Continue reading

An ECO Girls Origin Story

I often say that I am an unlikely person to have founded the ECO Girls project. I am a humanities professor whose research focuses on African American and Native American women’s histories. I have appreciated nature and enjoyed the company of trees since I was a young girl, but I did not realize that environmental issues should be important to me until I attended an academic conference in 2005. The 35th Anniversary Conference of the Department of Afroamerican & African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor became a turning point. Continue reading

A View of Public History: Taking It to the Streets

When I was a little girl, my father used to take me on uncharted neighborhood adventures. “Come on, Baby Girl,” he would say, “Let’s hit the streets.” This meant that we would be heading out of the house and meandering through our neighborhood and beyond. On our way to wherever we would end up, we always stopped at the corner store down the block, where Daddy would buy a Sugar Daddy candy bar for himself and a packet of Sugar Babies – my favorites – for me. On our long walks through the Cincinnati city streets and parks, cutting through back alleys and wooded byways, my father would teach me lessons. He taught me the Greek alphabet on these adventures, for example, challenging me to recite the letters as we tramped along. “Alpha, beta, gamma, delta epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda . . .” I can remember chanting these letters in a child’s sing-song voice to the beat my dad had taught me, my mouth full of chocolate-caramel Sugar Babies. (My father’s affection for his Black College years and Kappa fraternity brothers proved to be the unexpected foundation of my study of the ancient Greek language later on in high school.) Continue reading

The Terrain of History

Excerpted from a lecture I gave at Berea College (what a charming campus) in winter 2013: The Carter G. Woodson Memorial Lecture.

The realm of the past, the terrain of history, is a mysterious place. It is not here, but there – off in the hazy distance of time. History is unrecoverable in its fullness. We cannot ever really know what happened back then. We can only grasp the shape of the past by looking for traces left behind by the people who came before us, our ancestors, our ancestors relations, and our ancestors’ adversaries – written documents that have been preserved, oral stories that have been told, buildings and objects that have been restored, still images and photographs. Carl Becker, a Cornel historian who thought deeply about the purpose of doing history, wrote in 1932: “the greater part of these events we can know nothing about, not even that they occurred; many of them we can only know imperfectly; and even the few events that we think we know for sure we can never be absolutely certain of, since we can never revive them, never observe or test them directly. The event itself once occurred, but as an actual event it has disappeared” (“Everyman,” 221). Continue reading

An Introduction

Hello! Welcome to my very first blog post. I look forward to connecting with you here on the thoughts that tumble through my mind when I’m walking the dog, cleaning the house, or shopping for my kids’ Halloween costumes – going about the daily work and experience of life, that is. I’ve titled the blog “3H: History, Home, Horizons,” because those words evoke the main themes that I think about these days: History in all of its diversity, difficulty, richness, and magic; Home as the place(s) where we dwell and build our identities – from the close and fragrant corners of our grandmothers’ kitchens to the vast and simultaneously finite space of the planet Earth; and finally, Horizons, the quest to imagine a view beyond the rocky hillsides – the serious social and environmental issues that we face today. This blog post is not edited. It is me writing to you, usually in front of the window of my second-floor study at home in Ann Arbor, usually with a child calling “Mama!” in the background and a cat scratching at the door. Thanks for being here with me. Please do not expect perfection.