The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - Mar­garet Quilter

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

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