Whitney Plantation opened in December 2014 amid much controversy about its depiction of slave history. Certainly, its factual records are chilling to the soul and their presentation is stark, beginning with the lanyard presented to each visitor on admission.
Each one has a picture of a carving of a slave, that person’s name and a brief comment from that person.
I had Catherine Cornelius: “Ah was a slave born and raised on de Smithfield Plantation… Ah worked in de field cutting cane.”
In the church are carved statues of adult and child figures, dressed in the clothing of their era; at the front steps, posed on chairs and around the altar, astonishingly life-like and challenging visitors to relate to them.
It is hard not to be disturbed by them, not that the figures are bent in pain or depicted as suffering in any way. Their very passivity and fixed-eyed looks are a mute challenge to our conscience.
The centrepiece of the Whitney Plantation is the marbled walls recording the names of more than a hundred thousand slaves documented as having lived in Louisiana sometime before the end of the Civil War, when Union troops enforced President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
The walls copy the Holocaust Memorial; there are 107,000 names and quotations from the slaves, who came mostly from the Senegal/Gambia area of West Africa.
One named Anna was transported with her mother and two brothers. Her mother died on board and she was separated from her brothers. Sold on the auction block at age five, she recalls crying at the time. She was purchased as a playmate for a child of a wealthy white family, a common practice at the time.
Another woman tells of the breeding dormitories, where she had 15 children all by different fathers; all the children were sold.
A pregnant woman is caught stealing. The plantation owner had a shallow pit dug in the shape of her pregnant belly to protect the baby while she was tied down and flogged.
The quotations come from a remarkable piece of historical research undertaken in the Depression. As part of his economic recovery program, President Roosevelt commissioned the Federal Writers’ Project and 6,600 volunteers documented the experiences of everyday Americans, including many former slaves.
Whitney was started by a German family called Hydell in 1752, who owned it until 1867. It then passed through various hands before being bought by an elderly, wealthy, white trial lawyer from New Orleans called John Cummings, an Irish Catholic real estate magnate who then spent 15 years and $8 million on the project to tell the story of slavery. It is still the only museum in the whole United States to do this.
The enigmatic Mr Cummings told the New York Times, when the facility opened in November 2014, “Don’t you think the story of slavery is important? Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it, so I figured I might as well get started.”
At the other plantation houses in Louisiana, the stories are those of the white folks in the big houses. And they are certainly compelling and interesting, and also widely promoted by the local tourist industry.
Louisiana was originally a French colony, with French settlers arriving from the 1680s until it was taken over by the Spanish in the 1760s, retaken by the French in 1800 and then sold to the United States by Napoleon in 1803.
The French brought their own language, their Roman Catholic faith and their own culture. Back then, the main crop was indigo, but later sugar became the main source of wealth.
Sugar, even more than cotton, is a labour intensive crop and slavery was an integral part of the society and economy of the time.
Whitney is all about the slaves and is therefore an important balancing of the historical record.
For instance, I learned that insurance companies AIG and Aetna sold property insurance in the early 1800s to plantation owners to cover the lives of the slaves, who were their property and insurable like any other asset.
I ask Cheryl, our tour guide if she gets upset telling the story of slavery so often.
“It does get me down,” she replies. There are 11 guides doing three tours a day, six or seven days a week. “I tell myself the story is so important that I have to keep going and I do.”