I’ve visited many plantations and historic homes in the south. They usually center their tours around the history of the home and the white families who lived in the “Big House”. There’s usually a cursory mention of the enslaved blacks, specifically how many were held in bondage to drive home the wealth and prestige of the families who kept them as forced labor on the property. If there’s an interesting story about one enslaved worker, then the tour guide may take a couple of minutes to talk about them. However, most of the time, the cumbersome and controversial nature of slavery can make visitors uncomfortable, so it’s omitted from the tours. This, however, does a disservice to not only the public who come to visit, but to the memory of the enslaved who lived and died there.
One place has worked to fight against this trend of omission and it’s located in the deep South, just an hour outside of New Orleans along the Mississippi River. Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana focuses exclusively on the story of the enslaved through the persepective of the enslaved themselves, stretching from the operations of the Atlantic Slave Trade when Africans were involuntarily transported to the plantations in America, to just after the Civil War when newly freed blacks struggled to define what freedom would be for them. They’re the only plantation in Louisiana (and there are a lot of them) that provides this full, unabridged, and uncensored look into the “peculiar institution.” Understanding the history of slavery and how it shaped the nation helps to set important context for the causality of the Civil War and why some Southern men were so willing to fight to maintain it.
Whitney Plantation was first established in 1752 by the Haydels (spelling in primary source documents vary), a German immigrant family that settled along what became known as the German Coast just outside New Orleans. They were not the only Germans to settle here, hence the name, but they did become one of the wealthiest plantation dynasties, lasting for 110 years. Their family is connected with many others in the New Orleans area, and their legacy can be traced to some Creole families that still reside in southeastern Louisiana. Today, at Whitney Plantation, one can read the recorded names of the Africans who were owned by the Haydels on the “Wall of Honor”, the first stop for any visitor to the plantation. Some African names are lost to history, as the Code Noir (Black Codes in France and extended French colonies) required that slaves be baptized and given new, Anglo-European names.
The “Big House” at Whitney Plantation was built around 1790 by the enslaved population on the property. Everything from the bricks, which were hand-cast, to the cypress framework that was cut down from the cypress swamp, to the unique insulation material known as bousillage (a mixture of mud and Spanish moss), were supplied by enslaved labor. It remains a fine example of Spanish and French Creole architecture in southern Louisiana. However, tours are not provided inside the home, as the opulence of the white enslavers is not the focus of Whitney Plantation. Instead, it’s used to explain the unique challenges of the the enslaved domestics on the plantations. The enslaved domestics would have been in charge of the cooking, cleaning, and raising the children for their enslavers. While this might seem like a less arduous condition of servitude compared to those working in the fields, the domestics were still subject to the whims and demands of their enslavers, day or night. This made them susceptible to all-too-common cases of sexual violence, but it also put them in a situation where they could commit acts of resistance by gathering news from the Big House and spreading it to the rest of the enslaved community.
Other structures that can be toured at Whitney Plantation include authentic cabins where the enslaved spent their non-working hours, the overseer’s house, a replica of a “slave pen” that would have held Africans captive before sale, and memorials to either honor or bring awareness to visitors of the struggles, tragedies, and successes of enslaved blacks in Louisiana. Scattered throughout Whitney Plantation are statues carved by Woodrow Nash made to represent enslaved children who would have been just old enough to begin labor in the field. Their presence alone gives a haunting reminder that toll that slavery had on Africans Americans of all ages, not just adults.
Whitney Plantation’s most stunning memorial is the 18 stone walls that contain the engraved names of 104,000 enslaved persons who lived and died in Louisiana between 1719 and 1820. Sprinkled amongst the names are quotes from the enslaved themselves. Hundreds of thousands more names have been lost to history due to incomplete primary sources. This research task was carried out by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (recently deceased), who rejected the false interpretation that blacks were an inferior race to whites. She was born in 1929 and raised in an era fraught with racial prejudice in New Orleans. For 15 years, she dove through archives and sales records, collecting the names of the enslaved, their countries of origin, their family relationships, occupations, owners, and what they were sold for. Her work is available to the public through the Louisiana Slave Database. Through her efforts, many families today have been able to trace their ancestry. Her exhaustive endeavors have given a voice and a story to those who had been denied freedom and a legacy in American history.
Whitney Plantation was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 and eventually was sold to the Cummings family of New Orleans in 1999. That’s when it was decided to be revamped into the Whitney Plantation that can be visited today. In recent years, the Cummings family relinquished its authority over Whitney Plantation and the site is currently run by a board of directors, many of whom are descendants from the enslaved that were held at Whitney Plantation. Ibrahima Seck, Director of Research with Whitney Plantation, leaves poignant parting words to the visitor through the audio tour, “If [you] leave the plantation feeling guilty or angry, that means I have failed in my mission. Because this museum is about educating people about the past. It may be a very painful past, but we cannot hide history. Hidden history hurts.” At Whitney Plantation, the visitor can expect to feel a rollercoaster of emotion. As Dr. Seck says, the past can be painful. But it’s history that should not be pushed aside, sugar-coated, or ignored.
For more about how to take a tour at Whitney Plantation, or learn more about making a donation so they can continue their great work, visit their website: https://www.whitneyplantation.org/
Tilling The Soil Podcast
This past summer, Whitney Plantation has launched its new podcast, Tilling the Soil, hosted Director of Education, Amber Mitchell, and Direct of Communications, Dr. Joy Banner. Every week, they feature a new episode where they interview museum professionals, historians, preservationists, living history interpretors, and a host of other professionals in the history field about a variety of topics that center around the struggles and successes of interpreting the history of the enslaved and African American history in general. Their podcasts have been enlightening and leave the listener with a lot to chew on regarding the field of public and academic historians for contemporary Africans Americans. Their free podcast can be found on pretty much any podcast platform, including Amazon, Spotify, and iTunes.
[Note: This post has been adapted from my blog on Belle on the Battlefield]