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August 19, 2018
Whitney Plantation: The Story of Slavery


For our last full day in New Orleans, we rented a car to venture outside of the city. Most tourists visit one of the sites on Plantation Parade, a collection of antebellum southern plantations along the Great River Road. But for us, the idea of viewing opulence that was built on the back of slavery was not appealing.

And then, both Gail and Russell heard independently about Whitney Plantation.

We have made it one of our personal travel responsibilities to educate ourselves about humanity’s historical mistakes. We have visited and written about sites such as Oradour-sur-Glane, Mauthausen and Lidice.

Whitney Plantation was built in 1752 by wealthy slave owners. In 1998, a petroleum company was going to raze it. Instead, the property was purchased by John Cummings, a wealthy New Orleans trial attorney. Cummings intended to flip the property for profit. Then he discovered that his purchase included voluminous and meticulous records of the thousands of slaves who had worked there. Cummings made it his personal crusade to educate people about this regrettable period of America’s past. (At the time, other plantation tours included barely any mention of slavery.) Cummings invested more than $8 million of his own fortune into a long-term project to create the first museum devoted to slavery. The site opened its doors in 2014.

    
Our 45-minute drive to Whitney Plantation included crossing the Veterans Memorial Bridge across the Mississippi River


Signs along Plantation Parade

Our tour began with a museum exhibit of the history of slavery. Scattered throughout the display were life-sized ceramic statues of slave children, meticulously recreated from period photographs.

    
Our tour began with a museum exhibit

Why children? In 1935, as part of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, workers began collecting oral histories of ordinary Americans. These included stories from the last living survivors of American slavery, children and teenagers at the time who were now elderly. Cummings collected many of these stories to include in his museum. The statues of the children represent those voices.


    

Our guide was Ali, a knowledgeable and passionate African-American. He showed us slave quarters and jail cells. He explained how Louisiana’s sugar cane trade was the most brutal work for slaves, with a mortality rate of negative 113. (For every 100 slaves born, 113 died. The phrase “I will sell you down the river” was a threat to slaves who worked in the more tolerable tobacco fields further upriver from Louisiana.)

    
Slave quarters, which would house 100 slaves during the sugar cane planting season and 300 during the burning season

    
Jail cells, used to punish disobedient slaves


These vats were used to reduce the sugar cane juices for ultimate use in molasses

Ali described how slave owners took away the most fundamental qualities that would give slaves any value: their heritage, their families, and even their names.


The plantation’s exit included this sign

The plantation grounds included a maze of granite walls reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. In this case, the names were of thousands of Louisiana slaves, accompanied by excerpts from their oral histories.

    

    


Our knowledgeable and passionate guide, Ali

Ali reminded the tour group – which included both blacks and non-blacks – that we are not the ones who were the perpetrators or victims of slavery. But it is up to us not to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.


Even rain did not stop our history lesson


The museum exit included a wall where visitors could post their thoughts and comments

    

 

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