LOUISIANA: SLAVERY MUSEUM
THE Deep South of the US has its cruel foundations exposed at the antebellum Whitney Plantation where a slavery museum, opened in its grounds in December, gives an insight into what life was really like for the indentured men, women and children whose toil made the cotton and sugarcane plantation owners in the southern states so wealthy.
It’s the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery and includes thousands of first-person narratives, memorials and restored slavery-era buildings, some transferred from other locations.
The historic plantation is on the Great River Road, which hugs the western bank of the Mississippi, an hour outside New Orleans towards Baton Rouge. It was built in the early 1800s by African slaves for the Haydel family, of German heritage, who farmed indigo and then sugarcane. The slaves were listed on a household “inventory”.
John Cummings, a retired New Orleans trial lawyer, bought the property in the 1990s and has spent $US7 million restoring and renovating it as a way to pay homage to all people who were enslaved.
“I did very well in the practice of law, and whatever Uncle Sam and the bartender let me keep of that money I put in real estate,” says Cummings, as he drives us around the 101ha property in a golf cart. “I bought this because I knew it was a great piece of real estate, and then I started researching. I read more than 400 books in 14 years, and it occurred to me I had some work to do here.”
The 90-minute walking tour takes visitors through the Creole and Greek revival-style mansion, an overseer’s house, a blacksmith’s shop, the oldest kitchen in Louisiana, slave cabins, the only remaining French barn in the US, a latticed 1868 steel prison similar to the type used to restrain slaves, and a white, shingled Antioch Baptist church moved in pieces from the town of Paulina.
Some descendants of the slaves who worked the fields on the Whitney Plantation still live within 3km of the property and Cummings knew he would have some “convincing” to do. “They wanted to know what a white boy was doing here and if I was going to make millions of dollars off of their tragedies,” says Cummings.
“I met with them all. I preached at the churches. I became involved in the community and helped them with their own projects, like setting up a farmers’ market … and although I am still the rich kid, I am fairly well accepted.”
Throughout the tour, we encounter realistic ceramic statues of slave children in ragged clothing, along with a memorial in a former sugarcane field that takes the form of a maze of black granite walls engraved with the names of 107,000 slaves.
“The best expression I have heard about slavery is: ‘Those who viewed cannot explain, only those who endured should be believed.’ And that is why we have the oral history carved into granite,” Cummings says.
Another emotionally stirring memorial is the Field of Angels, a circular courtyard listing the names of about 2200 slave babies in St John Parish, many of whom died before their third birthday.
It seems all the more haunting as my two children, both under four years old, playfully clamber over one another on the infant-sized pink and blue benches beneath the shade of a black angel carrying a baby to heaven.
As Cummings steers the golf cart to behind the scenes, where work is still progressing, he explains that there are many people who have been critical of the Whitney and find what he is doing confronting, while also questioning his motives. “I have the money and … nobody is going to stop me from doing this … it’s going to work and it’s going to be big,” he says.
A slave cabin, above; the Whitney Plantation house, below