Destrehan Dedicated to Preserving Plantation’s Real History

Two years ago I wrote about the Evergreen Plantation which I had recently visited during a trip to New Orleans and which had been the location for several films, including the Academy Award winning “12 Years A Slave.”  Now with last night’s Oscar ceremony and Black History month winding down, I thought I’d feature another Louisiana plantation that also has been the setting for motion pictures, including “12 Years A Slave.”

But what’s really important about this plantation, is not its film roles but the role it played in history and continues to play today in educating its visitors about the history of the South and, particularly, Black history.

The main house of Destrehan Plantation was built in 1790 in the French Colonial style.
The main house of Destrehan Plantation was built in 1790 in the French Colonial style.

The Destrehan Plantation sits a mere 30 minutes north of New Orleans yet it was one of the few plantations in the New Orleans’ area that I had not visited during the nearly 20 years that I have been going there.  On this trip, however, I decided it would be a good place to take my cousin and his friend from Sweden who were visiting us in New Orleans. It would be a treat for me too.

Now that I’ve been, I can tell you that it’s one of the more worthwhile and informative plantations to visit.  Architecturally, it doesn’t have the “Gone With the Wind” grandeur of Oak Alley, which many tourists associate with plantations, and its slave quarters aren’t as extensive as those found at Evergreen, but it is rich in ways that other area plantations aren’t.  And yet, it barely survived having fallen into disrepair and the hands of vandals who took everything that could not be carried away.

One of the few items found in the decaying Destrehan was a piece of marble from the downstairs mantel. It now sits on the faux marble mantel in the restored downstairs dining room.
One of the few items found in the decaying Destrehan was a piece of marble from the downstairs mantel. It now sits on the faux marble mantel in the restored downstairs dining room.

The plantation was rescued from its demise in 1971 when a local group of preservation-minded citizens who had formed the River Road Society was granted a deed to the house and four acres of its property by the then owners, the American Oil Company. The group set out to restore the house, which has cost more than $2 million. Another $500,000 is being spent for the purchase and development of 14 more acres of plantation land, to include six bed and breakfast cottages expected to be ready in 2018.

Docents at Destrehan dress in period costume to lead visitors through the house sharing with them information about the plantation, the people who lived there, including those who were enslaved, and a history of the pre-Civil era. Our guide, Beverly, clearly enjoyed her role and answered many questions.

Construction on the French colonial style home was started in 1787 by Robin deLogny and completed in 1790. But the plantation takes its name from Jean Noel Destrehan, who married deLogny’s daughter, Celeste, and bought the property after her father’s death in 1792.  Destrehan was also appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to the legislative council responsible for organizing and creating the laws for the new state of Louisiana. The appointment signed by Jefferson and Secretary of Sate James Madison is on display at the plantation although photographs of it are not permitted.

One of two slave cabins that sit near the main hoise. The slave registry can be seen posted on the front of the cabin.
One of two slave cabins that sit near the main house. The slave registry can be seen posted on the front of the cabin.

The plantation remained in the Destrehan family until 1910 when it was sold to the Destrehan Manufacturing Company and then to Amoco which operated an oil refinery and a company town on the property until 1958.

During the tour, visitors learn about the family who lived in the house. They are also told about those who actually built the house–the enslaved which numbered more than 200 before the Civil War. The names of some of those appear on the registry posted on one of two slave cabins that sit near the entrance.  The names of other slaves are placed throughout the house where they would have worked. One of those was Marguerite, a cook and laundress, whose story is told by the historical interpreters.

Beverly, one of Destrehan's historical interpreters, introduces visitors to Marguerite, repesented by the manniequin seen here in the background.
Beverly, one of Destrehan’s historical interpreters, introduces visitors to Marguerite, represented by the mannequin seen here in the background.
destrehan-revealed
Construction details are revealed in one room of the main house with walls that have been left exposed. Window frames from a previous time can be seen next to existing doors and windows.

In the education center, originally an overseer’s cabin, are exhibits about the Slave Revolt of 1811.  The revolt, which nearly succeeded, was one of the largest slave revolts in U.S. history.  Contrary to the letters from the planters, “which are the basis for most accounts of the revolt,” according to historian Daniel Rasmussen, “the slave army posed an existential threat to white control over the city of New Orleans.”  Three trials of those accused as instigators were conducted at Destrehan. Many found guilty were executed, others were sent back to their plantations for a life of hard toil. The story is as dramatic as any movie script but until recently, little was heard about it in American history classes.  To its credit, Destrehan has made every effort to bring this part of its history to the forefront.

Plantation life was often portrayed through that of the owners but little attention was focused on the ones they enslaved.  Destrehan, it seems, is attempting to correct that.

The open gallery on the front of Detrehan looks toward the Mississippi River and provided shade during the hot Louisiana summers.
The open gallery on the front of Detrehan looks toward the Mississippi River and provided shade during the hot Louisiana summers.

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