The current iteration of the Big House (as the Whitney staff call it) was built in 1815. It’s a raised cottage in the Spanish Creole style, with seven rooms on each level and a full length gallery across the front.
Don’t see a gallery? That’s because this is the back of the house. I inexplicably failed to take a photo of the of the front.
Oh wait. Here’s one of the gallery.
The house is notable for its decorative paintings and woodwork.
“Any questions about the house?” the guide asked.
Who did the paintings and woodwork?
How many people lived here?
“The personal slaves slept near their masters. They were the only ones who lived in the house.”
What about the Haydel family? How many of them?
“We don’t talk about them.”
The guide would only answer the question that had to do with slaves. Talking about the plantation owners (unless it had to do with their relationship to their slaves) or about the architecture of the house was verboten. Or whatever the Swedish version is (the online translator tells me förbjuden, which doesn’t have the same effect).
So the tour guide mostly stood on the veranda as we oohed and aahhed over the interior. From their webpage, I got that the furniture is early 19th century Louisiana, but not original to the house. The decorative painting has been cleaned but not otherwise restored.
So back to the slave side.
There were 22 slave cabins at Whitney Plantation before the Civil War. None survived but there are seven cabins on exhibit now, which have been moved from other plantations nearby. Two are from another Haydel plantation, called Mialaret, and five others were moved from Myrtle Grove Plantation, south of New Orleans.
The most disconcerting object we experienced was the iron slave holding cell, below. We were there on a warm but not brutal September day, and the inside of the cell felt like an oven. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be in there on a Louisiana summer day, or for more than a few minutes. Dozens of people were stuffed into those cells, waiting to be moved elsewhere, we were told.
So what about the Africans who sold other Africans into slavery?
“They had to do it. The slavers would go to Africa and give one side of a conflict guns. Then they’d go to the other side and say, ‘Your enemy has guns. We can give you guns, if you’ll sell us some of your people.’ So these African leaders had no choice but to sell the people.”
What about blacks who owned slaves?
“Blacks bought their relatives. They were just trying to preserve their family.”
The basics of those answers wouldn’t be a surprise to most. Of course slavers traded guns (and other goods) for slaves. That’s the way a market works. And people did buy family members, in order to free them or otherwise ensure their safety. But the way that the guide presented this information – the “no choice” and implication that blacks only bought their relatives – was, I thought, not as balanced as a museum’s interpretation should be.
I came away from the tour thinking that Whitney’s narrative definitely had a bias. The “facts” that the guide was so adamant about, at the beginning of the tour, were selected to tell just part of the story. Yes, I know that there are plenty of museum tours that skew the narrative white (I wish I had a dollar for every plantation tour guide I heard claim that their plantation’s owners were “good masters”), but teaching history shouldn’t be a tit-for-tat proposition. Besides, maybe it’s just me, but I think that it’s the complexities and contradictions that make people and history so interesting.
That isn’t to say that I don’t think that Whitney is not a worthwhile visit. It absolutely is. As a major part of its narrative, it targets and acknowledges the lives and stories of individuals who were enslaved like no other historic site in the US. The memorials to those enslaved people are worth the visit, just in themselves.
Take Whitney’s tour and judge for yourselves. Am I right to be skeptical of Whitney’s interpretation or does history stand on Whitney’s side?