BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Antebellum Southern plantations were built on the backs of enslaved people, and many of those plantations hold places of honor on the National Register of Historic Places — but don't look for many mentions of slavery in the government's official record of places with historic significance.
The register's written entries on the plantations tend to say almost nothing about the enslaved people who picked the cotton and tobacco or cut the sugar cane that paid for ornate homes that today serve as wedding venues, bed-and-breakfast inns, tourist attractions and private homes — some of which tout their inclusion on the National Register.
The National Register of Historic Places lists more than 95,000 sites that are important to the story of the United States. From some of the most famous places —such as George Washington's Mount Vernon estate — to scores of lesser-known plantation homes in the rural South, register entries often ignore the topic of slavery or mention it only in passing, an Associated Press review found.
Experts blame a generational lack of concern for the stories of black people and, in many cases, shortage of records. While some narratives have been updated to include information about enslavement, such changes are not mandatory and many have not.
The National Register's entry for Mount Vernon, approved in 1977, doesn't use the word "slave," although more than 300 enslaved black people worked the first president's fields, cooked his food and cleaned the house where tourists now roam.
The entry for Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop home, Monticello, notes that the third president owned as many as 200 slaves. Yet it generally avoids discussing them or the details of their ownership by the author of the Declaration of Independence.
The same is true for plantation after plantation across the former Confederate states.
Those omissions likely contributed to the loss of slave housing and other structures linked to the economy of enslavement because no one deemed them important, preservationist Ashley Rogers said.
"The problem is, the damage has been done," said Rogers, executive director of the Whitney Plantation Museum near New Orleans.
The Whitney, which documents slavery at a pre-Civil War plantation near New Orleans, draws tens of thousands of visitors annually and is known for discussing topics that other tourist plantations ignore. Yet even its entry in the National Register, completed in 1992 before the current owner purchased it, doesn't mention the slaves who toiled there.
Similarly, visitors to Mount Vernon or Monticello in Virginia can now hear stories and see exhibits about slave life — but those features were added long after the landmarks became some of the first sites listed in the National Register.
The National Register's incomplete stories reflect the way the public ignores the topic of enslaved people, said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor at Ohio State University who specializes in African American history.
"It's telling us what we have been valuing as a society and how we understand slavery," Jeffries said.
Congress established the National Register of Historic Places under a 1966 historic preservation act aimed at coordinating preservation work and highlighting the nation's most historic sites.
Along with bragging rights, a listing on the National Register can help property owners financially. More than $160 billion has been invested in preserving 44,000 historic places nationwide under a tax credit program approved in 1976, according to the National Park Service, which oversees the program.