Whitney Plantation, a museum on slavery

We headed out onto River Road, which runs along the Mississippi. You can’t even see the river which is blocked by the 25′ tall grassy levee. This ain’t Storrow Drive, and it’s clearly an industrial river.

Hundreds of plantations fronted on the river in the 19th century, and their fields went back for miles. Once they figured out how to granulate sugar, which preserved it for transport, the plantations converted from growing indigo to sugar cane. And River Road soon held the biggest concentration of millionaires in the country at the time. All made possible by the work of enslaved people.

Whitney Plantation, originally owned by the Haydel family, tells the story of slavery, with a guided tour of slave quarters, the sugar-boiling kettles, a metal slave “jail,” the tools for the dangerously hard work of harvesting cane. But mostly, it gives life, and identity, and seeks to restore the humanity to the people who were enslaved there, but not seen as human.

How did we get this story? Thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and its Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). To give work to unemployed writers during the Depression, the FWP writers went across the country to record the histories and experiences of everyday Americans. An active African American unit of the FWP interviewed former slaves from 1936 – 1940. At that time, 75 years had passed since the end of the Civil War. The majority of the interviewees had been children at the time of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. For the most part, their stories recall their time spent in slavery as children and teenagers.

When you enter the reconstructed Antioch (Anti-Yoke) African Baptist Church, you enter the world of these children. The Church is filled with dozens of clay sculptures of enslaved children by artist Woodrow Nash. They are strikingly, painfully beautiful and haunting.

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Antioch Church

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Outside, the Wall of Honor is a memorial dedicated to all the people who were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation. The names and the information related to them (origin, age, skills) were retrieved from original archives and engraved on granite slabs.

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Rows of granite slabs memorializing those who lived and died as slaves here.

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sculpture symbolizing a boat from their homelands

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very few African names like Coacou and Yero. Christian names negated identities.

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Next on the tour is the Field of Angels, the slave memorial dedicated to 2,200 Louisiana slave children who died before their third birth date and documented in church records. Their names are engraved on granite slabs along with quotes describing their everyday life, surrounding a statue of an angel bringing a baby to heaven. Many of these children did not have even a Christian name recorded.

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“October 5, 1832 – a little slave – 1 1/2 months”

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A little bayou runs through the plantation – a lovely spot. And then we come to the slave quarters, where enslaved families of 8 slept in each of 4 rooms. IMG_7498

slave quarters, left. Sugar boiling kettles, right

slave quarters, left. Sugar boiling kettles, right

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rope bed – “sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

This metal jail was probably used as a holding pen when a shipload of kidnapped Africans arrived, until harvest-time approached and they could be sold for a higher price.

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Robin’s blacksmith shop:

The kitchen:

The Big House:

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We had been reading about the Code Noir, the French regulations that allowed some freedoms and protections for slaves, for a time in Louisiana (the Code also banished Jews). But Whitney Plantation is eye opening into the big ways and little ways in which the enslaved people were simply not considered people by the good folks in the Big House. And when the Louisiana Territory became part of America, and Americans moved in and took over from those of French, Spanish or Creole heritage, the treatment of slaves grew even harsher.  As one of the WPA testimonies reported, they worked “from can’t to can’t” – from so dark you can’t see before sunrise to so dark you can’t see after sunset. Whitney Plantation is a must see.

We left Whitney and headed to our accommodations – Cottage on the Farm in Vacherie, a sweet little 2-bedroom house set back on a farm, next to a bayou, with cows in the back yard and a porch swing. Well stocked fridge for making our own breakfast. Woke up to the cacophony of frogs, birds, and maybe some other critters along the bayou.

 

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