Before coming back to the United States, I had it in my mind that I wanted to visit a plantation. I didn’t get the chance last time I was here so wanted to make a point of visiting more than one to make up for it.
I had read a number of reviews and blogs of different plantation tours and how their approach to talking about slavery could differ.
I chose to visit St. Joseph’s plantation and the Whitney plantation.
I was picked up at 8:30am by the tour company’s mini van and joined the small group of 6 other people. Over the next 90 minutes our driver discussed a range of topics from reasons why you should never swim in Lake Pontchartrain (bull sharks being my main reason to not take a dip), to celebrities that have found refuge in New Orleans, a city where there is a lack of intrusion into their personal lives; to the history of the city itself.
When we arrived at St. Joseph we immediately headed for the big house which was bought by a family after the end of slavery. We were informed that very few families who owned slaves are still in possession of the plantations as many could no longer afford to pay the taxes on their homes and land after slavery was abolished. Instead, wealthy families bought the houses, sometimes employing newly freed people as sharecroppers (which from my understanding was not an altogether better situation from slavery as it kept people in debt to the land owner regardless of the success of their crops).
The house contained original pieces of family furniture, portraits, photographs, musical instruments, and toys. There was little talk of the life of the slaves who worked in the fields other than to say that many stayed after the civil war had come to an end. One surprising comment was that the two-room slave quarters, which were certainly not immune to the elements, were people’s homes up until 2001! This begs the question of why did these people decide to suddenly leave at that point and not sooner? I could understand that back when slavery was first abolished that the newly freed people didn’t know where to go and had little means of getting there even if they did know. But to stay until 2001 with little to no improvement on those shacks seemed strange. There was an air of disbelief amongst the group. I hoped it wasn’t true.
After the tour of the big house our guide left us to our own devices and told us that we could explore the slave quarters if we so wished but the quarters were not included in the tour itself.
“Careful when walking across the long grass,” our guide, an elderly woman, said, “there are fire ants in there – for those of you with your feet exposed.”
When we got to Whitney, the focus was on the men, women, and children who lived and died as slaves. Monuments had been erected in remembrance of these people including statues of the children who were known to have lived on that very plantation; the status were based on early photographs.
Some of these monuments listed as many names as had been found through research but a portion of the monument had deliberately been left blank in honour of the many who had undoubtedly passed through unrecorded.
The group had grown sizably and many had taken advantage of the free umbrellas available; permanent shelter from the sun. It was around 34° but with humidity close to 70%, the walking around temperature was close to an oppressive 42°. Many people in the group, young people, were struggling with the heat. The point was made by our guide that slaves were expected to do back breaking work in this heat: harvesting the sugar crops, stripping the cane, cooking the sugar down in giant bowls, maintaining the grounds, cooking for the master, and so on.
One exhibit in particular was set off to the side of the gravel path. It featured sculptures of 60 male heads impaled on spikes. They represented the 60 men who planned a slave revolt in the area, they were caught, and their decapitated heads put on spikes as a warning to others.
Whitney Plantation is a must for anyone travelling through Louisiana. It is brutally honest but also somber and respectful.
The drive back to New Orleans was quiet. Maybe it was because everyone was tired from being out in the sun, or maybe it was because they were reflecting on what they had seen and heard at Whitney Plantation.
As I watched the numerous other plantations go by my window, I wondered how many of them were reluctant to talk about the realities of slavery, and how many, like Whitney, had decided to address slavery in an honest, educational way without attempting to play down the brutality that featured in the day to day lives of the enslaved.