I had the opportunity to visit the Whitney Planation on Sunday with a group of NOSHA folks. The plantation is about 45 minutes from New Orleans along the Mississippi River but it takes you back in time to a dark period of our history – when our country was being built on the backs of slaves.
This is the only plantation in Louisiana that tells the story of slavery with the exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people. You begin by reading about the Western slave trade from the beginning (the papal decree of 1452) followed by information about slavery in the United States in general, in Louisiana specifically and at the Whitney Planation in detail (initially established in 1752 to farm indigo and still an active sugar cane plantation decades after the Civil War).
The plantation is a mix of original structures and replicas. The hour long guided tour begins with a video in the Antioch (originally named Anti-Yoke) church established by free people of color in a nearby parish. Throughout the interior are a number of clay statues to the children of the plantation. They are a stark reminder of how many childhoods were lost during that shameful period of American history.
Outside is the Wall of Honor listing the slaves of the plantation. As their team of researchers discovers more, that info is placed on plaques in the area. A lot of the oral history used is based on narratives collected during the Great Depression in the 1930’s by the Federal Writers Project (part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration). Many of those who were still alive to tell their stories had been children at the time of emancipation.
Next stop was a memorial garden of the 107,000 enslaved people of Louisiana that lists all the names that have so far been found – some with dates of birth and place of origin, some with nothing but a name. Inset in large type among the names are quotes on daily life, punishments and forced breedings taken from the oral histories. At the end of the memorial is an artist’s rendition of a longboat – the small boats that brought slaves from the slave ship to the shore.
We next visited the Field of Angels which memorializes 2,200 enslaved children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish. The number comes from the records of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, as the Catholic Church required all children to be baptized during that time.
We then walked to the slave quarters – basic 2 room structures that, during harvest, could have more than 10 people per room. Not a very restful place after working a 16 hour day – hardly heated in winter and no way to cool in the summer. From there we moved past many of the other structures (some still in the restoration process and not yet open to the public) to the Big House. We passed a steel jail where slaves were kept prior to auction, the overseers house, the blacksmiths shop, the carriage house, smokehouses and the kitchen (separate from the house because of the danger of fire).
Even the Big House is centered on the enslaved folks who worked it – we entered through the back door, as slaves were required to do and saw the small child who was the companion slave of the mistress. Before the tour starts, each visitor is given a name of a child on a card and Hannah’s story was the one I wore around my neck.
Not all of the buildings or objects within them are intrinsic to the plantation but, rather, have been brought to it from other locations to tell the whole story of slavery. Doing so may not be authentic to the plantation’s history but it definitely increases their impact. Seeing everything in one place is powerfully moving.
The final exhibit contains sculpted heads, which are replicas of those beheaded for their role in the 1811 German Coast slave revolt. About 500 enslaved people rose up in several parishes, planning to travel along the Mississippi to New Orleans where they would take the city and free the black people. Federal troops ended the uprising on the third day, once the escaped slaves ran out of ammunition. Those captured were executed and their heads were displayed on poles along 60 miles of the river as a warning to the other slaves.
This is not a museum to the genteel Antebellum period that you’ll get from other plantations. This is not a nostalgic look back at life before the Civil War. Instead, it is the monument to the Confederacy that we all should see.
The Whitney Plantation makes real the truth of how America was made and covers history from a perspective many of us have never considered when we think of our nation’s past.
It is a very personal reckoning of the human toll of slavery. And it is a reckoning more of us need to make.
Guided tours are offered everyday but Tuesday from 10am to 3 pm
Whitney Plantation – 5099 Highway 18, Wallace, LA 70049
Advance ticket purchase is recommended