Whitney Plantation: The Bitter Side of Sugar

wordswag_1482295218104On December 19, 2016 my husband and I checked something off of my lifetime list. We visited The Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. I first found out about it because I saw a video on a friend’s Facebook wall. It captured my attention because the caption said something like, “White Man Spends $8M to Open First Slavery Museum in America.”

I clicked on the link and was blown away by the story of John Cummings, a retired New Orleans trial lawyer and real estate developer, who transformed Whitney Plantation into a deeply meaningful museum. Unlike other plantation tours that focus on the wealthy, Whitney Plantation focuses on the lives of the enslaved who once worked the property.

Slave Quarters

The tour gripped my heart and mind in a way that no other museum has ever done. Three of the dwellings that stuck out to me were the stable for the horses, donkeys, and pigeons. They were all more accommodating than the structures that housed slaves. I couldn’t help but lay in bed that night and ponder how people could justify treating animals with more compassion than humans.

Donkey Dwelling

The Whitney Plantation has researched and recognized slavery in a way that made me realize, no matter how much I think I understand a portion of history, I don’t. Short from time travel there is no way to really know what took place unless you hear it from the people themselves. One of my favorite aspects of the tour is that you get the opportunity to both hear and read quotes from the enslaved in their own words.

Quotations

I hope to someday return with my children. Being there made me think of them. Not just because of the statues of children in the Antioch Church or the Field of Angels that contained the names of over 2,000 slave babies in St. John Parish who died before the age of 3. But because, if I don’t expose them to America’s true history, who will? If they don’t know their past, how will they be passionate about being preemptive against injustice in the future?

Antioch Baptist Church
Field of Angels by Rod Moorhead

When I was little I remember being told that my grandfather was a share cropper who picked cotton and cut sugarcane. As a kid, the first thing that came to mind was that cotton is soft and sugar is sweet. “What’s so bad about that?” I had no real frame of reference. By the time I was a teen I understood that picking cotton was hard. Whenever we would travel South, I would get an erie feeling as we passed by cotton fields. However, it wasn’t until I listened to our tour guide at The Whitney Plantation describe how dangerous harvesting sugarcane was that I started to get a true glimpse of the bitter side of sugar.

Kettles Used to Stir Sugar Cane for Granulation and Slave Dwellings in the Distance

I wondered how I would have viewed slavery as a child had I been able to tour a place like The Whitney Plantation. Would I have worked even harder in school? Would I have taken advantage of more opportunities to be all I could be? I remember hearing stories from my uncle of how my grandmother would have a baby one day and be picking cotton the next. As a kid, I thought, “Wow, Grandmama was strong!” As a mother, I can’t even fathom what it must have been like… Trying to get a nursing baby to latch on after a long day in a hot field with cotton buds sticking your hands and critters of all kind underfoot.

Angel Carrying a Slave Baby to Heaven

While touring the Whitney Plantation, I read a narrative from a child who described what it was like for their mom to give birth in a sugar cane field. It made me think of my grandparents and the things their parents and grandparents must have experienced. Because we didn’t share lots in common one thing that we did share were moments of awkward silence. Oh how I wish I could go back in time and fill blank spaces with questions like, “Grandaddy, can you tell me about your Granddaddy?”

jimmie-d-burton
My Grandfather Jimmie D. Burton
Shackles

I would resort to acts of service to show my affection, like rubbing lotion on my grandfather’s feet. It seemed like no matter how much lotion I applied, they always seemed cracked and dry. I once joked with my cousin about how Grandaddy’s feet looked like the feet of a slave. We laughed until we had tears in our eyes and today it makes me want to cry. I am reminded of the times that I laughed at slave references or accepted some glamorized version of our nation’s history. I am not angered by what happened. But I am disturbed by how we have handled history, until now. 

Middle Passage Sculpture Donated by Ken Smith

 I have had friends tell me how disheartened they have been in the past while visiting plantations in Tennessee with their children on school field trips. One mom told me there were actors portraying smiling slaves who sang songs and acted as though slavery was a delight. Whitney Plantation is much different. It shows a glimpse of slavery through the eyes of children. I am thankful for their approach. I think it is time our children began learning truth. Perhaps if we told them what really happened, they would have empathy and compassion for one another and take advantage of education. If we share accurate accounts of history, maybe they will hold us accountable when we go astray.

Available for Purchase at Whitney Plantation 
Hallelujah Sculpted by Ken Smith

I woke up with my thoughts consumed by consumerism. If the demand for cotton, indigo, tobacco, sugarcane, and rice, caused people to enslave then, what is the cause of slavery now? Are our trends and propaganda creating pressure that compels people to spend more than they make, thereby making them slaves to debt? Is our lust, greed, and gluttony the cause for modern day slavery? If you find yourself hesitant to answer YES, try explaining forced migrant work, arranged marriages, prison wages or sex trafficking to your children.

Formal Dining Room in the Big House
Bedroom in the Big House
Cup in the Detached Kitchen

If you know of a must see exhibit, please share in the comments below. I would love to add it to my lifetime list. If you have visited the Whitney Plantation, what were your thoughts of the museum and monuments? If you have not visited The Whitney Plantation, I pray that this post and these images pique your interest. It is a must see for all Americans of all ages.

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11 thoughts on “Whitney Plantation: The Bitter Side of Sugar

  1. I love this post! I am always amazed by the resiliency of our ancestors and always saddened that we often choose to try to forget this past…as if it is our shame, a blight. My grandmother picked Cotten growing up in Louisiana but I didn’t know that when I was younger. I wish that we talked about the past more with the people who lived it, while they are present. I feel like I’m rambling, but your post made me feel proud and sad. I would like to visit this plantation with my kids.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You were not rambling at all Sis. Your words spoke pierced my heart. Proud and sad are the perfect way to describe what we should all feel. Proud of their strength and saddened by our weakness. When we lose grandparents we lose a wealth of insight and wisdom. Hearing the actual oral accounts of slaves was one of my favorite aspects of the museum. They have audio recordings in which you can hear slaves share their stories. I could have listened for days.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t wait to go and visit. I think that we need to really memorialize our ancestors and that experience…draw from their strength and knowledge and take it with us to create a better world for ourselves!!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this post, I remember reading about Jumanji and the lock. At Sankofa we were exposed to a lot of truth but to have an entire museum dedicated to our history that is not blurred over is amazing. Thank you for taking your time and sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Akilah for taking the time to read this. Your mom gave us an autograph copy of Jumanji and the Loc for our older kids, I’m glad you mentioned it. I will have to read it with the younger ones. Whitney Plantation would be an awesome family field trip.

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  3. I’m adding this to my bucket list. What a beautiful place that honors history, but most importantly, PEOPLE in an unflinching way. I think too many museums etc. are afraid to make people uncomfortable. If our past mistakes don’t make us uncomfortable, how will we know to appreciate our present, and prevent other people from being mistreated? I wish our difficult periods in history were taught more thoroughly in schools, too. Beautiful photos by the way!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ms.Toya,
    I met you once through Beckah and wanted to share how descriptive and well written with pointant thoughts expressed loud and clear. I currently serve as an Assistant Principal on the eastern shore of Virginia and I have learned a ton in almost a year of being here. To be honest it disturbs me the mentality of some and the narrow mindedness that exist. I know without a doubt that the Lord sent me here to serve. “I” am considered too progressive for most here but the youth that I serve daily thrive and are so respectful to me. I pray for doors to be opened this spring so that I can begin to lead in a manner that is inclusive for all. I had not a clue what a migrant camp was until a few months into my job. I drove by one and thought to myself “what is this?slavery ended in the 1800’s.” When you referenced this in your reflection of Whitney plantation it resonated loud and clear with me. Field workers have babies and are back in the fields within a week. Babies are fastened in a car seat on a school bus and driven to head start often without socks, a blanket or more than the diaper they have on. Yes, in 2017 this exist in parts of America. Be thankful for what you have as its normal for my students at times to come to school without running water in there home. It’s normal for them to say can I get a pair of jeans or a belt, tie,shirt, food etc….. I give though with such joy knowing I don’t pass judgement on them but love them knowing true needs are being met . Feel free to come for a visit. This county is known for the wild pony swim on Chincoteague Va

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow Christina, thank you for sharing. So much of what takes place breaks my heart. Some days my only hope lies in knowing that adversity pushes us towards greatness. My prayer for every child who grows up in poverty is to someday be in a position to pay it forward. Thanks for taking the time to share your heart. I would love to visit your neck of the woods someday.

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