As the bustling New Orleans cityscape slowly gave way to a bucolic rural landscape, I continued to question my decision to visit a plantation. I have never understood the romance of antebellum Southern US nor why so many people can’t seem to grasp the fact that this “romance” is a thin veneer polished by the tears and blood of millions of human beings. So, why was I voluntarily putting myself through this experience, paying my hard earned money only to get angry?
As soon as we arrived at the Whitney Plantation, my tour group was directed to an art installation that looked like, from a distance, lollipops or balloons on strings. But as we all gathered around, we quickly realized it wasn’t anything so whimsical. And that was when I fully understood what is meant when people say the Whitney Plantation does not offer the traditional plantation experience. They aren’t here to perpetuate Gone with the Wind nonsense with guides gussied up in period dresses. They are here to put a human face on slavery and its horrors, to honour the memory of the people who lived and died under slavery in the American South.
As the Whitney focuses on the perspective of enslaved people rather than romanticized history, a visit here can be difficult and emotionally taxing. But I believe that the Whitney is worth the emotional investment. I strongly encourage everyone to visit and pay their respects.
Visiting the Whitney Plantation
The Whitney Plantation opened to the public in 2014. It is one of very few slavery-focused museums in the US and the only one in Louisiana. It was originally known as Habitation Haydel, a plantation developed by a German immigrant named Ambroise Heidel in the mid-1700s. The plantation started with producing indigo but by the 1800s, the plantation’s main crop had switched to sugar.
As someone who is not fond of guided tours, I was saddened to learn that one can only visit the Whitney via tour. You’re guided around to most of the buildings: some are only pointed out to you, while others you can actually enter. The guides are great, though. They are full of information, painting a vivid picture of life under slavery. Some of the things discussed include daily life on a plantation, the concept of the domestic slave trade (i.e., a breeding program) vs the transatlantic slave trade, and English vs American slave law.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get Cheryl as your guide. She has worked at the Whitney for almost as long as it has been open. She also grew up in the area so working here is more than just a job – it’s personal. Her passion about the Whitney Plantation Museum is very palpable and she did a fantastic job in bringing things to life during my visit.
Here are some of the things to see and/or learn about at the Whitney Plantation:
The 1811 Uprising
On January 8, 1811, slaves in the area armed themselves with whatever they could find – a few guns, machetes, stout sticks, and work tools. They marched in the direction of New Orleans, killing two white men and causing property damage where they could. Two days later, they clashed with local militia and Federal troops. At that point, unfortunately, the uprising was stopped.
Captured rebels were put on trial from January 13 to 15, 1811. They were found guilty; 45 were sentenced to death. They were transported back to the various plantations from which they came, and in front of their fellow enslaved, they were shot. Then their heads were cut off and planted on poles to act as “deterrent”.
The art installation I mentioned earlier memorialises this – each of the 45 heads were recreated, life-sized and in bronze. It’s sad and it’s very disturbing to see. While some people have actually complained about this installation (too scary, too gruesome, etc), I think it is well done and is very necessary. It is a visual reminder to anyone who feels complacent about slavery and says it “can’t have been all bad”. I dare anyone who thinks that to see this art installation and not come to understand that there was no such thing as a happy slave and there was no such thing as a decent slave owner.
The Whitney is one of few plantations that has preserved some of its outbuildings: a kitchen, the overseer’s house, a smithy, a pigeonnier, and a French Creole barn, to name a few. One of these buildings was used by Hollywood in the filming of Django Unchained, interestingly enough.
Also, while not really an outbuilding per se, the Whitney has an example of a jail. When you step inside the hot rusty metal enclosure, the window facing the Big House, the only thing you want to do is step back outside….quickly.
The Slave Cabins
Today, there are 20 slave cabins on site; while they are original to the time period, they do not originally belong to the Whitney (theirs were razed in the 1970s). We were given the opportunity to explore a cabin – though, “explore” may be a strong word for such a small structure. I think these cabins disturbed me more than the jail cell. The latter (hopefully) was a once in a while thing, something to endure in ‘punishment’. The cabins, however, drove home the point that general life was a daily existence.
There are a couple of antique bells on site. These bells were originally used to conduct roll call twice a day. If an enslaved person did not show up when called, they would have been considered a runaway. Today, everyone is invited to ring it in memoriam.
There is a little swamp area on the grounds of the plantation. It serves as a visual reminder exactly what someone had to contend with when trying to escape: water filled with green muck, buzzing insects and hungry animals, thick air and merciless sun, all ripe with the possibility of death, injury, and disease. Those that did manage to escape generally joined Native American bands. Today, this relationship is honoured by the Mardi Gras Indians.
The Antioch Baptist Church
This Civil War era church is not original to the Whitney Plantation. When it was built, it was the only black church in the immediate area along the east bank of the Mississippi River. The original name of the church was the Anti-Yoke Baptist Church; it underwent a name change in 1890. The church was donated to the Whitney in 1999.
The Children of the Whitney
About 70-75 years after the Civil War, during the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project recorded the stories of Americans, including those who’d been enslaved as children/teenagers. At the Whitney, there is a series of sculptures that represent the people from whom stories were recorded, at the age they would have been when emancipated.
The Field of Angels
A memorial dedicated to the 2,200 (documented) children enslaved in Louisiana that died before their third birthday. It’s a beautifully simple sculpture of a black angel carrying a baby to heaven.
The Wall of Honor
A memorial dedicated to the people enslaved at the Whitney Plantation. More than 350 names were uncovered through research and have been engraved on granite slabs.
Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall
Another memorial, this one dedicated to 107,000 people enslaved in Louisiana and documented in the Louisiana Slave Database.
The Big House
The place where the plantation owners lived is called the Big House. The one at the Whitney is considered to be one of the oldest and best surviving examples of Spanish Creole architecture. It has seven rooms on each of the two floors, a full length gallery in the front, and a terrace in the back. Most of the historic furniture in the house were bought in New Orleans or France.
I really appreciated that the Big House was shown at the very end of the tour, emphasizing that the focus is not on the plantation owners. Also, it was made very clear to us that life as a ‘house slave’, while different in some ways than a ‘field slave’, was equally as horrific.
The tour lasts about an hour and a half, and you should plan to be on site for about two hours.
Bring a hat, wear sun screen or long flowing clothes, and definitely bring water. This is predominately an outdoor tour and it can get wickedly hot out there!
There is no public transportation to the Whitney Plantation and getting an Uber to come pick you up is very less than likely. If you don’t have your own car, I recommend contacting Legendary Tours. It’s essentially a shuttle service, to and from New Orleans, which was exactly what I wanted. Prompt, friendly, and full of information – I definitely recommend contacting them!