Famous for its jazz, cuisine, and Mardi Gras, it’s not often that the topic of slavery comes up when planning a vacation to New Orleans.
This trip, however, I wanted to learn more about the history of the people in this area, and to see for myself how enslaved people once lived. New Orleans locals recommended that to best tell the story, I needed to go to the Whitney Plantation.
After its opening in 2015, the Whitney Plantation became the only museum in the United States exclusively dedicated to telling the real and raw history of slavery. Nearly 150 years after the abolishment of slavery, it’s a place that honors the men, women, and children who lived, endured, and lost their lives while enslaved.
Located only an hour away from Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery in downtown New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation is a simple and scenic drive. Once outside of New Orleans, the landscape turns to swamps fed by the Mississippi River, sprawling plains and the scattered small towns of rural Louisiana.
Upon arriving at the Whitney Plantation, an ominous feeling spreads across the group as we wait for our tour guide to arrive. Most people hover around the museum gift shop in whispers. There is an air of sadness and, perhaps, shame about the thought of what is to come.
Our tour guide, Amanda*, is a descendant of those once enslaved at the Whitney Plantation, speaks openly about her time leading groups around Whitney. “Some days, I give three or four tours. Sometimes, it’s fine and then other times, it just hits you all over again and makes you sad,” she says. Amanda continues to say that she is not trying to make us sad or angry, she is just going to tell the facts based on the research and findings of documents and diaries from previous enslaved people. It is sad though. And I did cry.
The guided walk continues through the original slave quarters to the area where small rooms housed five to seven people. Here, enslaved people slept side-by-side on the floor with one bed dedicated to either the oldest or the children. Families were separated and the plantation owner, who could move or place people wherever he saw fit, determined housing. Illness was rife and death rates were high especially among the children.
Large iron kettles flank the walkway through the slave quarters, where enslaved people would stand all day stirring boiling syrup for sugar. One season, around 407,000 pounds of sugar was produced at the Whitney Plantation.
The first view of the plantation home is through the bars of an original jail cell relocated from the docks of New Orleans. The sight is haunting. It’s a poignant piece of history that depicts how enslaved people were chained and stacked in groups of ten into tiny cells while waiting on the docks to be sold in New Orleans. The jail is seldomly taught in schools or discussed yet remains an excruciatingly real beginning for those enslaved throughout American history.
The big house is just that. Big. Its opulent rooms, ornate painted marble murals, and grand bedrooms overlook beautiful Louisiana oak trees and the Mississippi River. We don’t stay long at the plantation house. That is not why we came here. We have no interest in celebrating the success or wealth of the person who built this.
Instead, we head back to the Field of Angels, a memorial dedicated to 2,200 enslaved children who died in the St. John the Baptist Parish area of the Whitney Plantation between 1820 and 1860. The black angel statue, gently lifting and carrying a dead baby to heaven, is a beautiful yet sorrowful reminder of the tragic history of the people held in bondage here for over 100 years.
For more information on the Whitney Plantation or to book a tour that will pick you up from the Old 77 Hotel & Chandlery, please visit www.whitneyplantion.org.
*Name has been changed
Written by: Jay Bowen, Director of Marketing for Provenance Hotel