The past is alive at Whitney Plantation

The past is alive at Whitney Plantation

You can’t rewrite history, but you can help right many of the wrongs through education.

Elaine McArdle
At Whitney Plantation, “The Children of Whitney” sculptures by artist Woodrow Nash represent former slaves who were emancipated as children and later shared their recollections of slavery with the Federal Writers’ Project.

At Whitney Plantation, “The Children of Whitney” sculptures by artist Woodrow Nash represent former slaves who were emancipated as children and later shared their recollections of slavery with the Federal Writers’ Project. (Courtesy Whitney Plantation)

Courtesy Whitney Plantation


Twenty years ago, while on a reporting assignment in the tiny town of St. Francisville, Louisiana, I took a break to visit Rosedown Plantation, a former cotton plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River. An homage to antebellum splendor, Rosedown is a popular site for weddings and parties, and it draws thousands of visitors a year to marvel at its enormous Federal-Greek revival mansion, magnificent oak tree allée, and lavish gardens.

Yet what struck me that day, and what I’ve carried all these years, is the answer the tour guide gave as we stood on the sprawling porch overlooking the site where thousands of acres of cotton once grew.

“How many people lived here?” I asked.

“Eight,” he said. (He may have said seven, or ten, but you get the picture.)

I was puzzled.

“People,” I said. “All the people.”

“Oh,” he responded, surprised. “There were also hundreds of slaves.”

Until that point, we’d heard nothing about the experience of the slaves at Rosedown except to underscore the opulence of plantation life. In the formal dining room, for example, there was a “shoo-fly” fan that a small, enslaved child tugged throughout meals to keep insects off his owners’ food.

“Hundreds of slaves?” I blurted. “So eight could live this rich?”

Some of the tourists shifted nervously. The guide looked annoyed. I was buzz-killing their Gone With the Wind experience. But what truly was gone were the voices of the slaves. It was as if they’d never mattered, and still didn’t.

I carry another sharp memory of that day.

On the ferry across the Mississippi that morning was a van filled with prisoners headed for the notorious Angola penitentiary north of St. Francisville. The largest maximum-security prison in the United States, it holds 6,300 inmates, nearly 80 percent of them African American. Since the vast majority have life sentences without parole—and some have capital sentences—most will die at Angola. The men on that ferry were never going home.

Originally a cotton plantation named for the country from which its slaves came, today Angola’s fields are filled with prisoners picking cotton under the broiling sun overseen by guards on horseback.

“The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”

I was 12 year old when freedom come. Us daddy he work de ground he own on Sunday and sold the things to buy us shoes to put on us feet and clothes. The white folks didn’t give us clothes but they let him have all the money he made in his own plot to get them. One day us Papa fall sick in the bed, just ’fore freedom, and he kept callin’ for the priest. Old massa call the priest and just ’fore us papa die the priest marry him and my mama. ’Fore that they just married by the massa’s word.

These are the words of Pauline Johnson, a former slave whose story graces my visitor pass as I tour the remarkable Whitney Plantation, the first plantation museum in Louisiana to focus exclusively on the lives of the slaves, and one of very few in the country.

A 45-minute drive from New Orleans, Whitney opened just two years ago, in December 2014, and was immediately popular, drawing 34,000 visitors its first year. It’s a provocative destination for understanding the reality of slavery, and may be especially relevant for Unitarian Universalists attending General Assembly 2017 in New Orleans, the theme of which is racial justice.

Each Whitney visitor receives a lanyard with the name and story of a former slave, whose narratives—in their original dialects and vernacular—are among the 2,200 collected by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. These narratives are chilling in their details:

Mammy an’ me was sold to a man by de name of Carter, who was de sheriff of de county. No’m dey warn’t no good times at his house. He was a widower an’ his daughter kept house for him. I nursed for her, an’ one day I was playin’ wid de baby. It hurt its li’l han’ an’ commenced to cry, an’ she whirl on me, pick up a hot iron an’ tun it all down my arm an’ han’. It took off de flesh when she done it. –Delia Garlic 

Delia ran away when her drunken master threatened to beat her. She was later sold, and I never seed my mammy any more, she told her interviewer.

Whitney Plantation is the passion of a white New Orleans lawyer, John Cummings, who spent sixteen years and $10 million of his own money to bring it to life. “I thought it was important that we recognize the human beings who built our nation and praise them,” he tells me. Is it shocking that it took nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War before a plantation museum focused on slaves instead of mansions? Cummings shakes his head. He notes that Germany has more than 200 museums dedicated to the Holocaust. “They’re not proud of their history, but they own it, and we never have,” he says. “You can’t rewrite history but you can right many of the wrongs—primarily with education.”

Founded as an indigo plantation in 1752, Whitney transitioned to sugar in the 1800s. It was too hot here to grow cotton, and most of the tour takes place outside to emphasize that slaves spent their days toiling under the pitiless sun. Every aspect of the museum has been carefully designed to recognize the harsh world of the slaves at Whitney, and, by extension, the millions of others who suffered under 245 years of American slavery. Visitors are encouraged to ring a large iron bell to give voice to the slaves here, who themselves had none.

Seven original slave cabins are onsite, and a Field of Angels honors 2,200 slave infants born in the parish who died before their second birthday, mostly of malnutrition and disease. A Wall of Honor is engraved with the names of Whitney’s slaves, their identities painstakingly uncovered by Dr. Ibrahima Seck, a Senegalese scholar and expert on the Atlantic slave trade who is Whitney’s chief researcher. The wall also includes first-person narratives: horrible stories of hunger, cruelty, family separation, and rape, stories we must know and remember. The brutality and injustice that enslaved people endured were horrific, and these personal accounts refute any attempts at historical revisionism. That’s the reason Whitney Plantation is so powerful and so important.

Jenny Proctor described being whipped nearly to death as a child for eating a biscuit: He cut my back all to pieces, den dey rub salt in de cuts for mo’ punishment, I’s only 10 years old.

The viciousness of one story has particular resonance at this point in our political history. It highlights how undeserved privilege—and its demise—can bring out the very worst in people:

My damn old missis was mean as hell. You see dis finger here? Dere is where she bit it de day us was set free. Never will forget how she said, ‘Come here, you little black bitch, you!’ And grabbed my finger and almost bit it off. –Henriette Butler

Our guide, Cheryl Gaudet, who is African American, grew up across the river. She tells me that some in her family don’t want to visit the museum. “Some just don’t want to know because they don’t know how they’ll feel,” she says, though visitors to the museum have generally skewed heavily African American. She shows us a rusty jail, built by a Philadelphia company, designed to hold four chained slaves in each cell. “The North benefitted from slavery too,” she says, noting that Brooks Brothers manufactured slaves’ clothes. The cells are eerily similar to solitary confinement cells in today’s prisons, which disproportionately hold black men.

With its long-overdue attention to the lives of slaves, Whitney Plantation is drawing significant acclaim—it’s been featured in the New York Times and the New Yorker—and Cummings is working with people who want to create similar tributes elsewhere. “We hope to have something like this in every state,” he says. The first national museum to include a major focus on slavery, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., just opened in September 2016—100 years after the idea was first proposed.

Recently I went to the Rosedown website and found this: “On-going archaeological investigations are being conducted to learn more about the lives of the African Americans who lived on the plantation.”

Maybe this new interest in the enslaved people at Rosedown was prompted by the popularity of Whitney. Maybe, as the voices of Whitney are finally being heard, they also are beginning to echo.

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