Experiencing Whitney Plantation: The Nation's First Slavery Museum

A Louisiana plantation is reborn as a memorial to the slaves who built it. Writer Terri Simon Coleman shares her thoughts after a tour.

I was in elementary school the first time I set foot on a plantation. It was an educational field trip, and my classmates and I oohed and aahed as we learned about the wealthy family who lived in the big house. We learned about the land on which the plantation was built and the materials used to construct the mansion. The home’s cypress skeleton was inlaid with briquette-entre-pôteau, using locally fired bricks. Interior walls were plastered, while the exterior was stuccoed and then painted. We learned about the plantation economy: the crops that were grown, when they were sown and harvested, how much they sold for.

What we did not learn about—what was never really spoken of, only barely hinted at—were the slaves. The captives who cleared the swampland, who waded into mosquito-infested water to cut down cypress trees, hauled massive trunks to dry worksites, processed timber. We learned nothing about the people who fired the briquette nor of those who planted sugar cane or suffered machete cuts, infection and sepsis during its harvest. Our tour focused on the grandeur of the plantation and the genteel, aristocratic life its owning family lived.

And there it is—the problem with plantations. They are so strikingly, sickeningly beautiful.

Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana

This is especially true of plantations along South Louisiana’s Great River Road. There are mansions with brightly colored exteriors, elaborate decorative murals and picturesque porches. Allées lined with live oaks, Spanish moss dripping from their massive, majestic limbs. Compared to the more austere, Anglo-style plantations of Virginia, Gulf Coast plantations look like exotic tropical retreats. And many plantations have embraced this beauty, selling it to both tourists and locals. Louisiana’s Nottoway, a sprawling estate where generations were worked to death, is now a resort with tennis courts and a nail salon and, like many other plantations, is a popular wedding destination.

Do many of the wedding guests think about the enslaved people whose labor built the venues? I doubt it. I’ve been to plantation weddings and marveled at my friends’ gowns, how the intricate lace of their bodices and trains matched the mansions’ ornate molding. Toasting newly joined couples, I didn’t consider the enslaved artisans and craftsmen who worked the wood and plaster. On that first, long-ago field trip, my classmates and I didn’t stop to think about how many mothers had to be sold from their children to pay for the breezy veranda on which we played. Instead, we saw only the pretty parts of antebellum Louisiana’s culture of conspicuous consumption.

All of the ugliness and horror of history was hidden behind the beauty.

Slave children cutting sugar cane in Louisiana. (The Historic New Orleans Collection, Acc. No. 1992.2.21)

But there are people working to uncover that once-unspeakable past. Most notable is John Cummings, a retired New Orleans trial lawyer who has invested his fortune in restoring Whitney Plantation. The French Creole mansion at Whitney, built in 1803, is covered in murals by noted Milanese painter Dominico Canova. Its rich furnishings—Oriental rugs, antique armoires, 19th-century portraits of wealthy Creole families—are breathtaking, but that is not the focal point here.

Tours at Whitney begin behind the big house, in a painstakingly restored church. The clapboard building, moved to its current site from just across the river in St. James Parish, was built by newly freed slaves just after the Civil War. It has electric lights now, but even without them, it is bright. Tall arched windows flood the space with sunlight, which bounces and reflects off shining wooden pews. Scattered throughout are haunting sculptures that represent the formerly enslaved, interviewed as part of the 1930s Federal Writers’ Project. Most of those interviewed were just children at the end of the Civil War, and so they are represented as children.

Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Lousiana

Each visitor is given a lanyard with an image of a child enslaved at Whitney. On my first visit, a picture of Slack Wilson hung around my neck. At 7—the same age as my oldest son, a second-grader who loves dinosaurs and only recently graduated to making his own Nutella sandwiches for an afternoon snack—Slack worked in the cane fields. His likeness dangled from my neck as I walked through the slave cabins—dark, cramped buildings where as many as 16 humans at a time slept on moss and hay pallets after each day’s labor.

My eyes fell on Slack when I looked down, attempting to avert them from the metal cage where slaves who’d been sold were held as they waited for traders to march them away from their families. I held Slack’s laminated portrait as I walked through the Field of Angels, dedicated to the more than 2,200 Louisiana slave children who, according to records from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, died before their third birthday. At Whitney, you can’t take in beauty without also taking in the brutality that built it.

Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana

Whitney isn’t the only plantation moving to undo the erasure of the enslaved. The historic exhibitions at Laura Plantation include an 1808 slave registry, in which French words appear in swirling script. Behind each brief description of man, woman or child, to the right of the pagea price. Oak Alley Plantation has digitized its documents to create a publically accessible database full of information about the people enslaved there. At Destrehan Plantation there’s an exhibit about the German Coast Uprising, the largest slave revolt in American history. Destrehan was the site of a trial in which 44 captured insurgents were sentenced to death. Their heads, affixed to pikes, were placed at plantations and along the levee all the way to New Orleans as a warning to others thinking about revolt or escape.

Such ugly history.

Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana

But, just as there is ugliness behind the beauty of plantations, there is hope attached to the horror of plantation history. Dutch Morial, New Orleans’ first black mayor, is the descendant of both the Haydels (the owners of Whitney Plantation) and a slave woman who was their property. Our history is neither wholly good nor wholly bad; it’s a mixed bag.

I hope that when my own children go on field trips to learn about Louisiana’s rich history, they are presented with a more complete story, one that allows them to appreciate the beauty of those stately mansions, but that also pushes them to remember the ugliness that made them—that made our country, our state, our city, our whole world—possible.