When people visit New Orleans, going to a plantation museum generally ends up on the “to-do” list, fitted somewhere between hitting up Bourbon Street, attending a few historical tours and gorging on po’boys or jambalaya. Up until this past year, the local plantations which ended up on a visitor’s short-list probably would have been Oak Alley or Laura, Nottaway or Houmas House. Within good reason, of course–these old-Creole homes are beautiful examples of Antebellum Louisiana architecture. While sipping mint julep and listening to your guide, who is styled in 19th century clothing at Oak Alley Plantation, it is easy to be mentally transported back a century. It is so easy to imagine that you are receiving the full story of the Antebellum South.
The reality is that you are receiving the full story, but solely one side of it: the master of the plantation and his family’s story, which may have been fraught with drama and tragedy but is only one-half of the very complicated puzzle of 19th century Louisiana and the rest of the American South.
The Whitney Plantation, which is located in Wallace, Louisiana, along Louisiana’s scenic River Road, seeks to deliver that full message.
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Having always been a fan of house tours, “the more ornate the better” has always been my motto. In the United States, no set of houses can probably top the Newport Mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. The mansions–because they can’t even be described purely as “houses”–were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the Gilded Age. Owners were powerful families like the Vanderbuilts and Rockefellers, and most of these properties were strictly seasonal homes. During the rest of the year, the properties sat vacant, apart from the servants who were always on the clock.
From properties built entirely of marble to a Victorian-style abode, visitors of the Newport Mansions experience a sense of overwhelming awe as each property is revealed to be even grander and more lavish than the previous. And while wandering through, two questions always percolate: who had the money to build this? and, more importantly, who lived here?
Audio headsets allow guests to meander through the mansions at their own pace. The story unfolded over the audio tour is one about the illustrious paintings decorating the silk-damask walls, the dining room set that can fit, it seems, 100 people, and the various families who have called these properties “home.” Perhaps “awe” is not a strong enough word to replicate the sensation of personally seeing such grandeur. Only at The Elms is there a chance to understand the striations of society in a different light through a guided tour called, “Servant Life Tour.”
The “Servant Life Tour” reflects upon how the other half lived during this era. A visitor is shown how the servant’s entrance was concealed by a huge circular-shaped tree, so that owners glancing outside windows on the upper floors wouldn’t be burdened by the sight of the bustling activity below. The tour visits the servant’s quarters on the mansion’s most upper floor, where there is not a single touch of gilded-fireplaces or intricately detailed ceiling moldings, and also the mansion’s rooftop, which was a designated place for servants in need of catching a fresh breath of air. (The walls of the mansion hid the servants from view of anyone promenading in the gardens below).
Readers might be wondering why I have entered such a long expose about a set of homes that are no where near the Louisiana region.
It is for this reason: I visited the Whitney Plantation on a company field trip. On the fifty-minute scenic drive from New Orleans to Wallace, we passed the eery cypress trees of the swamps, the open expanse of green fields and the sugar cane plants that once vitalized the entire southern half of Louisiana with prosperity. Our tour set for 11:30am, I imagined a slightly similar experience to the “Servant Life Tour” in Rhode Island, at least in terms of the museum’s deliverance of the material. I prepared myself to write an article about the Whitney as the antithesis to the Oak Alleys or Nottaways.
After spending nearly two hours walking the grounds of the Whitney Plantation, I can say this: the Whitney is not comparable to the “Servant Life Tour” of the Newport Mansions, nor is it the antithesis of other Louisiana plantations.
In reality, the message that the Whitney delivers is so much more.
Pulling into the parking lot of the plantation, a white sign with red painted letters reads: Welcome to the Whitney Plantation: the Story of Slavery.
The Whitney Plantation Museum opened its doors to the public in December of 2014. It is owned by John Cummings, who has been a trial lawyer in New Orleans for decades. Look up a picture of him and the first thing one notices is that Cummings is a white man in his late seventies. For most, the first question to leap to the tongue is, “What is a white man doing operating a museum on slavery?” It’s a question that has been directed at Cummings many times in the past year since the museum’s opening. According to Ashley Rogers, the Whitney’s Director of Operations, John Cummings likes a good underdog story.
When Cummings purchased the old plantation in 1999, he did so initially as a real estate investment. Quickly he realized that he knew very little about slavery, save that in schools slavery is defined as “horrific” or by other, similar connotations. But the question nevertheless remains: what was slavery? What was the nature and the reality of it without all of the century-old defenses and walls that have been erected by (white) society since slavery was officially abolished in 1865 under the 13th Amendment?
The Whitney attempts, and succeeds, in giving a voice and name to some of the 12.5 million enslaved people in America who remained voiceless and nameless for centuries. The experience begins by an admissions associate in the museum’s Visitor’s Center handing over a white card strung on a black cord. Each card is emblazoned on one side with a photo of one of the Children of Whitney, sculptures created by Ohio-artist Woodrow Nash intended to represent former enslaved people at the time of emancipation when they had been children; on the other side of the card is a name of an enslaved person, his or her age, and an oral quote they once told the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936 about life on a plantation before slavery was abolished. Every card is of a different person.
For the length of my tour, I am Albert Patterson, 90 years of age, with my own story to tell:
“I remember our plantation was sold twice befo’ de war. It was sheriff’s sale, de white peoples dey stand up on de porch an’ de black men an’ women an’ children stand on de ground, an’ de man he shout, ‘How much am I offered fo’ plantation an’ fine men an’ woman?’ Somebody would say so many thousand . . . an’ after while one man buy it all.”
It did not escape my notice that the black cord of the card hung around my neck in much the same fashion that the iron shackles once wrapped around the necks of those who were enslaved.
Discover Historic America is not only a tour company, but an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing our nation’s history. When our founder, Tim Nealon, informed our office staff and tour guides that we would be taking a trip to the Whitney Plantation Museum, he was met with many an enthusiastic yes! He, and our General Manager, Gretchen, wanted us to not only be able to experience the story of the Whitney for ourselves, but to also share our experiences with guests on tours and our followers across social media. We have Ashley Rogers, the Director of Operations at the Whitney, to thank for the most fulfilling and informational personal tour that she gave us during our time at the plantation.
John Cummings has been reported as saying that unless people educate themselves on the complexities and horror of slavery, then there is little chance of moving forward as a nation. There is no getting over “it,” he has said in interview after interview, because we (those who are not of African-American descent) have not suffered “it.”
“It” refers specifically to the matter of slavery.
With that in mind, Discover Historic America will feature various aspects of the Whitney’s history and its message over the next two months through a series of articles about the history of the plantation, different facets of the museum and its delivery, and the importance of what the Whitney Plantation Museum is doing. Although other museums in the United States have attempted to discuss the subject of slavery, none have had the success of the Whitney. Today, the Whitney Plantation is the only museum in the country (out of 35,000 museums) that is dedicated solely to telling the story of slavery.
The Whitney Plantation is perceived as many as being controversial, but as Ashley Rogers points out, the museum wants to push those boundaries and force visitors to truly think about what slavery meant to the millions of people who suffered in it shackles and the ramifications the slavery system still has today.
Until next time, I will leave you with this pertinent quote that is used in the Whitney’s mini-film at the start of their tour:
“Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is–’tis he who has endured.”
-John Little, a man who had been formerly enslaved; he escaped the bounds of slavery for Canada, and in 1855 reflected back on when he had been a slave.