I decided to go on a plantation tour because of this article I read earlier this year.
The Whitney Plantation was bought by a civil rights attorney who turned it into a museum and research center on the practice of slavery in the United States.
The driver made the ride from New Orleans to St. John Parish interesting. We passed by a lot of bayou full of swamp cypress, the state tree of Louisiana. The driver pointed out that the aerial roots allow the trees to literally grow in flooded land. Most of the old buildings in Louisiana are built from cypress because it used to be common and it is resistant to mildew and termites. Alas, it is very flammable. He said that if this bayou had been private land, these cypresses would have been cut down long ago – they live because they are on federal land. He said that all kinds of animals – including lots of alligators – live in the cypress bayou. He also explained that squatters are permitted – if you build your own shelter, you are allowed to live there. Some people do that, and live off the food they can hunt. However, because they could not have title, it led to disputes, so now the state charges a very (low) property tax so there is some kind of official record of who has what shelter to prevent arguments from being settled with, say, guns.
The driver also talked a lot about the levees, canals, and Hurricane Katrina. He lived through both the great storm in 1965 and Hurricane Katrina. He pointed out which areas we passed by had been flooded the worst. He said that the levee which failed was only a minor levee – he says that if a major levee ever fails, the city will be ruined forever. He also mentioned that there was a great spillway which was constructed in 1935 between Lake Ponchatrain and the Mississippi river, which has only been opened 12 times. The last time was just a couple months ago.
Throughout Whitney Plantation, there are statues which each represent a specific person who was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project. Since they were slaves as children, they are represented as children.
There are three memorials at Whitney plantation.
The third memorial is dedicated to all children of slavery who were born in St. John Parish who died before they were two years old. They were able to get the names of these children from tax records – because they were property, their births and deaths were recorded only for tax reasons.
The guide said that for her, this started with a school project she did in 7th grade that she did not really want to do. That put her on a path which eventually led to her visiting Whitney Plantation and applying for a job as a researcher. After working there for two years, she started working as a tour guide.
Most of the people in my tour group were white, but there were also a couple of African-American ladies. As we were going through the plantation, there were two other tour groups, both school groups (they looked like teenagers). Most of the people in the school groups were African-American.
When slaves were held for auction, they were kept in slave pens – sometimes for hours, sometimes for weeks. At one time, nearly every hotel in New Orleans had such a pen, whether to hold slaves for auction, or just to serve as a safe place for guests to store their ‘property’ while they were in town. During this time, slaves were well-fed so that they would look healthy and fetch a higher price. They also were sometimes giving very nice clothes – again, to drive up the price.
The Whitney Plantation is currently preparing a new exhibit about the 1811 slave uprising along the ‘river road’ (the plantations along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge). About 200 slaves went around burning plantations. The militia was called in to put down the uprising, and the 60 or so survivors (among the revolting slaves) were put on trial in New Orleans. They were then beheaded, and their heads were put on stakes along the river road so that the slaves could watch them rot under the sun.
The sugarcane grown on the plantation was also processed on the plantation – all the work done by slaves. The harvest season was so short that sugar was processed 24/7, and often the only light was the fire used to cook the sugarcane. Many slaves got third degree burns, and because they rarely got adequate medical treatment for burns, they often lost limbs.
Even among the slaves, there was a hierarchy. Some slaves got privileges, such as better housing. Generally, field hands were at the bottom of the hierarchy, and skilled slaves (carpenters, for example) were near the top. A slave was considered an adult at the age of 10 – that was when they could be sold separately from their mother, and when they would begin apprenticeship if they were to learn a specific skill. The master chose which children got apprenticeships. For families, having a child learn a skill was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a slave who learned a skill would generally get better treatment, would be permitted to travel to some degree, and might even be allowed to sell their services on the side to earn some money. On the other hand, because skilled slaves were more valuable, they were more likely to be sold and separated from their families.
I do not think ‘enjoy’ is the right word to describe my experience at Whitney Plantation. It was definitely educational. I felt it was important, both as a visitor to the American South and as as U.S. citizen, that I acknowledge the history of slavery.