“Who built this house?”
A carefully restored sugar plantation outside New Orleans may be the only one in the United States devoted solely to the history of American slavery.
There are several well-preserved plantations around the southern United States. Nearly all of them go to great lengths to re-create the splendor and serenity, the grandeur and gentility of the Antebellum lifestyle.
For the most part, they also have tended to gloss over the enslavement of the Africans and their descendants who made it all possible.
On Monday, Dec. 8, yet another such museum is due to open, this one a carefully restored sugar plantation in Wallace, LA. You’ll find it on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about an hour’s drive upriver from New Orleans.
But if this one lives up to its billing, the Whitney Plantation will not be not be whitewashing the issue of slavery. Its current owner, a white lawyer named John Cummings, isn’t having it.
While other plantation sites around the Dirty South have belatedly begun to discuss the role of slavery in the Antebellum economy, Whitney Plantation is the first in Louisiana — and perhaps the first in the United States — to be devoted entirely to the history of “the peculiar institution.”
The plantation stands about 40 miles from New Orleans on the Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi from its origin in Minnesota to its end at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.
It is officially designated a national historic treasure, so if you’re into both history and road trips, this is your road.
In New Orleans, they call that lagniappe, a little something extra.
If any of it looks familiar, it might be because a portion of the live “Django Unchained” was filmed there.
Mr. Cummings says white and Black Americans alike need to see this place to get a true understanding of the life that bound together both its 101 slaves and the German family that called them household property.
Unlike other plantation sites, the main house, where the Haydel family lived in comfort and ease, will not be the focal point. The focus instead will be on restored slave quarters and workshops, even the sugar cane fields where they toiled in broiling heat and stifling humidity.
The exhibits include some of the oral histories of 4,000 former slaves in Louisiana, and a courtyard listing the names of 2,200 babies born into slavery in St. John the Baptist Parish, where Whitney is located.
All those babies have one thing in common: They died before they were three years old.
To all who visit Whitney Plantation, Mr. Cummings promises knowledge, enlightenment. He does not promise a fun time.
“When you leave here,” he told the New Orleans Advocate, “you’re not going to be the same person who came in.”
That, I can believe.
Mr. Cummings clearly doesn’t care if you’re jarred by the images you see and the accounts you read and here at Whitney. If anything, he wants you to be jarred.
“Education is the takeaway here, including the education of African-Americans, so they can realize how badly the deck was stacked against them,” he said.
There is talk of donating the plantation to the Smithsonian Institution, to eventually building a civil rights museum across the road from it. And the staff isn’t done adding exhibits yet.
When John Cummings looks at Whitney Plantation, he asks, loudly, a question that could stand as a metaphor for America.
“Who in the hell built this house?”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Whitney Plantation
WHERE: 5099 Louisiana Highway 18.
From New Orleans, take I-10 West towards Baton Rouge for 39.3 miles. Take the LA-641 S exit, EXIT 194 towards Gramercy. Turn left onto LA-641 S. Take the LA-18 ramp toward Edgard/Vacherie. Turn right onto LA-18/Great River Rd. Continue one mile on River Rd. then turn right into main entrance.
WHEN: Open daily except Tuesday. Guided tours 10am-3pm.