A couple of weeks ago, I finally had the opportunity to go to the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, LA. I have written about the Whitney before and some of its history; today, I want to focus on my experiences at the Whitney and how those experiences differed from what I encountered at other plantations and historical museums. Before I delve into this discussion, I want to point you to Dianna Shank’s blog and her post about a trip to the Whitney that she took with some of the participants on the NEH Summer Institute Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience. Dianna provides a detailed description of the tour, and she has some great photographs from the Whitney.
Before discussing my trip to the Whitney, I want to take a moment to write about a couple of plantations we visited during the summer institute. We traveled, after the first week, to Oakland Plantation in North-central Louisiana. There, the guide described the plantation, and specifically the slave quarters and those who lived there, as a village in and of itself, not even mentioning the horrors and atrocities of the “peculiar” institution. Immediately, this reminded me of the bronze plague that greats visitors at Belle Vie before they enter the slave quarters in Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (2012). There, the words state that the six remaining cabins are all that remains of a once “THRIVING VILLAGE OF PLANTATION WORKERS” (11). Like the tour guide at Oakland, the sign negates the fact that the people who worked the land at Belle Vie, and Oakland, were slaves, not there because of their own choice and volition.
Whitney Plantation works to counter this type of ahistorical narrative by focusing on the lives of the enslaved in Louisiana and by educating the public on the horrors that hide behind the idyllic facades of the big houses that dot the River Road and the rest of the Louisiana and Southern landscape. To accomplish this, the Whitney flips the script by having visitors start with the Antioch Church, a building erected by men and women of color following the Civil War, where inside Woodrow Nash’s sculptures of young slaves sit or stand throughout. These sculptures, representing the individuals that told their stories about slavery to workers for the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, make visitors come face to face with the human reality of slavery. They appear as children because the speakers, even though they told their stories in the 1930s, would have been children during bondage.
Accompanying these sculptures, each visitor receives a placard upon entering the plantation. Each placard has a quote from a former slave who is depicted in the church. We received Henry Reed and Henrietta Butler, both of which can be seen below next to their quotes. By providing visitors with this card, the Whitney creates, from the very beginning, a visceral bond with the plantation and forces, albeit subtly, visitors to encounter the face of slavery from the very beginning. What struck me here was that the tour guide did not even mention the sculptures to our group before we entered the church. I knew they were there, and I was curious to know how encountering the seated and standing children affected others in the group who may not have known what to expect once they set foot in the church. When I asked my nine-year-old daughter what she thought, she simply told me she was shocked because she realized, from the outset, the effects that slavery had on individuals.
After the church, the tour proceeded to “The Wall of Honor” (dedicated to the 350+ slaves who lived and worked at Whitney Plantation), the “Alles Gwendolyn Midlo Hall” memorial (dedicated to the 120,000+ known slaves in Louisiana), and “The Field of Angles” (dedicated to the children who died in slavery in St. John the Baptist Parish, not the state). Each of these memorials is heart wrenching because they provide names and information (what little there is at times) about people who were considered nothing more than property. This realization becomes abundantly clear when looking at “The Wall of Honor” which contains a transcript of John Jacques Haydel, Jr.’s sale of 62 slaves to help pay off his debts. (The image is below.)
Following the memorials, the tour takes visitors to the slave quarters and allows you to walk into the small, two room domicile. (Each cabin had two units of two rooms each, one on each side.) These buildings (not original to the property) were where slaves lived. What some may not know, though, is that these were the same buildings where freed people lived after emancipation all the way up till as late as the 1960s and 1970s on some plantations. Rather than slaves living in these cabins till then, sharecroppers or people who could not leave the plantation resided within the walls. This is the period that Ernest J. Gaines writes about, the residual effects of the institution of slavery and the way that past affects our present and contemporary existence.
The tour concludes with a trip to the big house, passing by the blacksmith shop, the mule barn, the overseer’s house, and the kitchen. It concludes by walking through the majestic home that sits less than half a mile from the banks of the Mississippi River. However, even as visitors walk through the big house, they are still reminded that his building exists because of slavery. The bedroom contains another Nash sculpture, this time of Anna, a slave who served her mistress and was possibly raped in the very room where the sculpture stands today. (Dianna writes about this on her blog).
During the tour, I listened to some of the people who were in my group. One man, a travel writer from New Zealand, appeared interested in Southern history. When I told him about Melrose Plantation, a plantation owned and ran by free people of color, he did not seem interested. That kind of shocked me. It felt like he was more interested, as so many people are, with the architecture and space of these places. Another man, an African American from Jackson, MS, exclaimed, at the very beginning of the tour, that he needed to read more. These two visitors, different as they are, brought together what the Whitney succeeds in doing. It shines a light on the dirty, grimy underbelly of the past that still reaches out and affects us today. It makes people, some who may appear disinterested, at least confront, if for the 90 minute tour, the horrors of slavery and its impact on those who endured it.
There is much more that could be said, of course. What are your thoughts? How does having a tour like this differ from other plantation tours? How does it relate to eh Holocaust Museum in D.C.? Let me know in the comments below.
For more information of the Whitney Plantation and the Haydel family (the first owners), check out Bouki Fait Gumbo: A History of the Slave Community at Habitation Haydel (Whitney Plantation) Louisiana, 1750-1860 by Ibrahima Seck the Whitney’s historian and researcher.
Locke, Attica. The Cutting Season. New York: Harper Perrineal, 2012.