The Whitney Preserves the Darker Side of Southern U.S. History

We’re in the final days of Black History Month here in the U.S.  I don’t want it to end without writing about a  new destination I visited earlier this month while in New Orleans.

The last day of my annual retreat to New Orleans was spent visiting one of the many plantations open to tourists and school groups on what is known as River Road, the two-lane highway that winds north along the Mississippi on the opposite bank from the Crescent City. As the National Park Service says: “Although other states have their own River Roads, perhaps none is more evocative or famous than Louisiana’s. Here, the very name inspires a vision of white pillared houses standing amid lush gardens and trees dripping with Spanish moss.”

The Antioch Baptist Church is the first stop on the tour of The Whitney Plantation.

While that is true, River Road also represents a much darker, less charming story of our country’s history that is seldom told during the tours of these showy homes and that is the story of those who actually built these splendid structures, who worked the fields that stretched behind and who lived an existence of enslavement fearing that any day they could be sold off to another “master” and forced to leave their family.  Except at one of these historic plantations, the story of slavery is its entire focus.

Opened in 2014, the Whitney Plantation is one of the newer properties for public and educational tours.  During the many years that I have been going to New Orleans for a winter break, I have visited nearly all, if not all, the other plantation properties.  They have been interesting, to be sure, and wonderful places to photograph.  Last year, I went out the Destrehan Plantation, located just 22 miles west of downtown New Orleans.  I took my son, who had never visited a plantation, there this year.

The heads of the slaves executed for participating in the Slave Rebellion of 1811 were placed on stakes along River Road as warning to other slaves. These clay sculpture heads honor those executed in The Whitney’s Field of Angels.

Destrehan makes a point of talking and including some individual stories of the enslaved in its tours, unlike other plantations. To be honest, I had never heard about the Slave Revolt of 1811 until I visited Destrehan. It certainly wasn’t in any of the history books I had read in school.  I wrote a piece for this blog about Destrehan last year.  The plantation is one I’d highly recommend to you.

The Whitney, however, is solely dedicated to preserving the memory and history of the enslaved. The stories you’ll hear on your tour are not storybook sweet nor romanticized.  Life for those who were chained and brought to this country like cattle, or less, in the filthy holds of ships, was never romantic.  The Whitney seeks to basically tell it like it truly was, as accurately as possible, without sparing words for the way these hard-working, brutalized and largely disrespected people were treated by those who considered them as nothing but property found on their list of valuable belongings.

Cheryl, our Whitney docent and tour guide, takes the history of the plantation personally as she talks before the Wall of Honor.

As Cheryl, my guide for the tour who lives and grew up in the area, said:  “For me, this is not history, it’s personal.”  She quite likely had ancestors who were slaves, if not on the Whitney, somewhere else.  Her words and descriptions of what slave life was like were full of emotional fact.  And as she herself said: “Sometimes hard to hear or read.” Like the fact that no slave escaped the punishment of the slave driver’s rawhide whip. Even pregnant slaves who “misbehaved” were forced to lie face down, with he ground below dug out to accommodate their swollen belly, to receive their lashings.

In the Whitney’s museum you learn about Louisiana slave history.

The visit starts in the Whitney’s small museum while waiting for your tour time which start hourly from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There you’ll read a little history about their journey from the Ivory to Gulf Coast, view the timeline of slavery throughout history worldwide and gain a little perspective as to how slavery in the U.S. contributed to this country’s disgraceful history.

Outside, on the plantation grounds, you’re first stop is at the picturesque Antioch Baptist Church, for many years the only African-American church in the area. The church was donated and moved to The Whitney from another location on the east bank.

The life-size clay sculptures of Woodrow Nash pay tribute to the children of Whitney.

Inside you’ll find beautiful, life-size clay sculptures of the children of the Whitney, created by artist Woodrow Nash.   Their individual stories and pictures are found on the laminated lanyards given to you when you begin the tour for you take home as a memento of the visit here.

There’s also a stop at The Wall of Honor and Field of Angels where those lived and died in slavery are remembered.  The original 22 cabins once that once housed the 61 slaves of the Haydel plantation, as it was then known, were torn down in the late 1970s. The ones that stand on the property today were moved there from other plantations.

The slaves lived a sparse hard life in cabins, such as this, on the plantation.

The “Big House”  is one of the earliest and finest examples Creole style plantation homes in Louisiana and is one of the best preserved.   Somewhat more modest than others found on River Road, it is, however, architecturally and historically significant. It provides visitors with a glimpse of how the plantation owner’s family enjoyed the comforts of life while those they depended upon to provide it lived in simple, crowded wooden quarters within view of the back gallery.

A family touring the Whitney poses for a photo outside the Big House.

The centerpiece on the property is the rusty-brown box-car shaped slave jail placed directly in line with the Big House. More like a cage, the ‘jail’ originally stood elsewhere and held slaves waiting to go on the auction block.  Step inside and you feel a chill of those who once were shackled and confined here.

The rusty iron doors of the slave jail locked in many an enslaved person before being moved to The Whitney’s property.

Walking around the Whitney was one of the most moving and educational experiences I’ve had in my years of going to the area.  I highly recommend it for anyone who’s headed there.  And if you’re not, take a few minutes to read more about The Whitney and its efforts to provide an honest historical perspective of slavery in the U.S. South. It’s sure to be  a story that sticks with you.