WALLACE — “Definitely not ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ”
The hot pink Post-it note plucked from the colorful collection of visitor comments adorning a wall in the Welcome Center at Whitney Plantation pretty much says it all. The anonymous writer went on to add: “A great research tour de force; history from the side of the oppressed.”
Those words obviously pleased John Cummings, a New Orleans lawyer and preservationist who has spent 16 years and nearly $8 million of his own money creating Whitney Plantation, which opened in December and is dedicated to telling the story of slavery. And Cummings, who is white, didn’t do it out of nostalgia for old times not forgotten.
“Our mission is simple here,” said Cummings, 78, in a telephone interview. “We’re interested in the history of what white people did or didn’t do when Africans arrived here. When we can agree on that, we can take an honest look at slavery, and the post-slavery period, to understand what we’re looking at today.” This place was designed to educate Americans of all racial backgrounds about a dark chapter in our nation’s history that continues to resonate down the centuries.
Whitney Plantation is on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. John the Baptist Parish, a southern Louisiana county on the historic River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In the mid-18th century, this was known as “the German coast” because so many immigrants from that part of Europe settled here. One of those families, the Haydels, and their slaves, grew indigo, then sugarcane on roughly 250 acres here from 1752 until just before the Civil War. As the Oscar-winning 2013 movie “12 Years a Slave” shows, working on a sugar plantation was one of the worst fates slaves faced. After the war, the property was sold to Bradish Johnson, a millionaire distiller, who named the place for his grandson, Harry Whitney.
On the day we came, the heat and humidity piling up beneath the cloud-cluttered sky only hinted at the harsh conditions of the cane harvest, but we still sought shelter in the air-conditioned comfort of the Welcome Center as we waited for our 1 p.m. guided tour. The center is relatively Spartan, with an informative, low-tech exhibit on the history of the African slave trade, along with gifts and a few snacks. The bookstore section features copies of “Bouki Fait Gombo,” a history of the plantation’s slave community by Ibrahima Seck, Whitney’s academic director. The book’s title is taken from a Creole-African proverb that translates to: “The he-goat makes the gombo [gumbo], but the rabbit eats it.” Seck is from Senegal, a part of West Africa where many of Louisiana’s slaves had their origins.
To tell their story, Cummings and his staff have made Whitney Plantation more a memorial than a museum, deep on data along with displays. The French-Creole style Big House has stood here since the late 18th century, but many of the other structures have been rebuilt or moved here from elsewhere. When Cummings purchased the property in 1998, it had been uninhabited for 25 years, once nearly razed to make way for a rayon factory. But the authenticity of structures isn’t the point. The goal is to transmit to the visitor at least something of the experience of being a slave.
We began the tour seated on pews in Antioch Baptist Church, founded by former slaves in 1868 and moved here from the nearby town of Paulina in 2001 and restored. We watched a video of former slaves offering their life stories and gazed at statues of slave children, created by Akron, Ohio, artist Woodrow Nash, scattered around the sanctuary.
The next tour stops are designed to drive home the sheer numbers and the depths of misery involved in a life of servitude. The Wall of Honor consists of granite slabs engraved with the names and the small bits of information known about the people who were enslaved at Whitney Plantation. Then there’s the Allees Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, named for the prominent historian and New Orleans native who is a seminal figure in the study of slavery in the United States. Reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the hall is dedicated to the 107,000 people enslaved in Louisiana before 1820. Perhaps most moving is the Field of Angels, a beautiful statue of a black angel carrying a baby surrounded by low walls featuring the names of 2,200 slave children known to have died in St. John the Baptist Parish. Many of our tour group of about 30, both black and white, paused at this stop.
Next, we were given a chance to explore a duplex slave cabin, while our guide, Mikhala Iversen, outlined the conditions under which the occupants worked: six days of hard labor from dawn to dusk, families sometimes torn apart, and brutal reprisals for resistance. Many of the slaves arrived here as Muslims and were forced to convert to Catholicism while ignoring the bans on eating pork and poor hygiene that were tenets of their native religion.
“They had just enough to eat, but never enough to run,” Iversen said. “They were always hungry.” We walked past a reconstructed blacksmith shop that was used for a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” in which the slave character portrayed by Jamie Foxx is branded. We also got a close look at a rusted metal “hot box” used to punish recaptured runaways as their fellows looked on. This one came from Philadelphia.
The Big House was the final stop, and it was perhaps the least impressive part of the tour. It’s original, but it’s filled with antique furniture purchased at auction in New Orleans, and it’s not in the same league as other elegantly preserved plantation homes on the River Road or in Natchez, Miss., for example. It’s also not the focus of what Whitney Plantation is about. The Big House was for the masters; the rest of the place is about the people who served them.
After the tour, which ran well over the scheduled 90 minutes, several visitors shared their thoughts about what they had seen. Paula Barry and Jim Smith, of Conway, Mass., found the whole experience arresting. “It’s an incredible monument to the darkest part of America’s history,” Barry said. “It’s timely to be here because of all the strife that’s happening now.” Smith said education is the key. “It’s incredible to come and actually witness what slavery was like. You can’t go away unchanged.”
Back outside the Welcome Center, Brenda Billips Square, former director of archives at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, said she had made a special trip to Whitney Plantation with her husband and cousins. “We found a powerful spiritual presence here,” said Square, who is also a UCC minister. “It’s important to have a place to reflect on the struggles of our ancestors, but also feel a sense of hope to inspire us to carry on the work that needs to be done.”
Cummings is by no means finished with his work at Whitney Plantation. He plans to have a memorial to the Louisiana slave uprising of 1811 installed on a small island in a pond on the property in the next few months: It will consist of 60 ceramic skulls on stainless steel rods depicting the slaves executed and then beheaded for their part in the revolt. Additional artwork is being brought to the site, he says, and he has people working on an international database for tracking slave ancestors across the Americas.
“We want to tell the facts of slavery, no matter how raw,” Cummings said. “People need to know what we really did during that time. It’s a great story, but not a pretty one. I’m all in.”