On 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.