“I’m going to tell you things you may not want to hear. I don’t want to upset you, or make you feel bad. But I have to tell you because these are the facts.”
That was the opening salvo from the tour guide at Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, not far from New Orleans. And it wasn’t the first time someone associated with Whitney made me go hmmm. There were a lot of articles about the plantation when it opened to the public last December and most called Whitney “the first slavery museum in America.”
John Cummings, the owner of Whitney Plantation, had an article in the Washington Post, in August, entitled, “The US has 35,000 museums. Why is only one about slavery?” But what about the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston? Or the Sandy Spring Slave Museum in Sandy Spring, Maryland? Hmmm? They’re small collections without a hyperbolic millionaire lawyer and real estate developer behind them, but they’re still legitimate museums.
Whitney Plantation was formed circa 1752 by Ambrose Heidel, a German immigrant. The Heidel family grew indigo and sugar cane there until after the Civil War, when it was bought by a New Yorker who renamed the plantation after his grandson, Henry Whitney. In about 2000, the property was bought by said lawyer and real estate mogul John Cummings and turned into a museum.
The tours are at the top of every hour (there are exhibits in the Visitor Center to wander through while you wait) and last about an hour and a half. This is not a “push ’em through quickly” tour. This is a “we have a lot to tell you and we’re going to take as much time as we need to tell you” tour. So while the $22 price (for September 2015) may seem steep, you do get your money’s worth. And children under 12 are admitted free of charge.
There were about 30 people on our tour – the largest group I’ve ever been part of on a house museum tour that wasn’t of Mount Vernon or Monticello. Our tour guide was a jazz singer from Scandinavia – Sweden, I think it was. Her Caribbeanian-themed white dress and straw hat, and her dramatic presentation style, made the tour something of a performance. “I heard about the museum, even before it opened,” she said. “I called John Cummings and told him, ‘I have to be a part of this.'” It seemed to me to be an odd desire, coming from a person from Sweden but: okay.
Our first stop was the former Antioch Baptist Church of Paulina, Louisiana, donated and moved to the plantation in 2001 when a new church was built. Many internet references to the church call it “pre Civil War” but the plantation’s website says that it was “completed just after the war.” It was there that we got the plantation’s intro information.
It was also there that we first met the “children of Whitney,” clay statues created by Woodrow Nash of Akron, Ohio. The children who were held in slavery are a recurring theme at Whitney and there are 40 of these statues scattered throughout the property. Haunting is a good word to describe them.
After the church, we were taken to the part of the plantation that, for me, is what makes Whitney an absolute must-visit: the slave memorials. A Wall of Honor contains the names of the people held as slaves on Haydel-owned properties, along with whatever information the museum could cull about them from documents (where they were from, what they did). That’s the “it’s done nowhere else in the world” part of Whitney: an acknowledgement of all (currently at 350) of these individual lives. It must have been a staggering effort, to get this information. There was also a memorial (also consisting of granite slabs with names engraved) to all the slaves — 107,000 — who lived in Louisiana.
As I’ve already mentioned, children are a large part of the Whitney narrative and there’s a separate Field of Angels: a wall inscribed with the names of the enslaved children who died on Haydel plantations (average age: 3) and throughout the local area. They got the information from the records of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
The bulk of our time was spent in the memorial gardens and it still wasn’t enough time to go through the inscriptions to the degree that many of the visitors wanted. We were welcome to go back after the tour and take as much time as we wanted on our own, we were told.
Up next: the houses of Whitney, slave and master.