POSTED Fri. Dec 30, 2016

NOLA History

Bearing Witness at the Whitney Plantation
Cree McCree
Written by CREE MCCREE
SHARE

Visitors to New Orleans often make day trips to the old Gold Coast plantations along the Mississippi river, where wealthy landowners made a fortune growing sugarcane harvested with the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans and their descendents.

Though the Whitney Plantation is located in the heart of Gold Coast country, its visitor tour is a far cry from those of neighboring spreads. Instead of focusing on the Big House where the master and his family lived, it tells the plantation story as seen through the eyes of slaves who toiled and died in round-the-clock shifts to maximize the owner’s profits.

It’s not a pretty story. But it’s a vitally important one, and the young man who tells it as he leads us around the property clearly feels it in his bones.

“You’re going to learn more about slavery in America in the next hour and a half than you did in your whole career of schooling,” says our tour guide Ali Johnson, who hails from nearby LaPlace, where his grandfather was a sharecropper in the not so distant past.

Boy, was Johnson right.

From the moment I stepped inside the Whitney visitor center in St John the Baptist Parish, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans, the scales started falling from my eyes.

Wall displays trace the inception of modern slavery back to 1452, when Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull that made it legal to enslave non-Christians in colonial Africa. They also depict African slave traders who built empires buying and selling people from other tribes.

“I never point fingers or blame people,” says Johnson at the outset of the tour, a point he reiterates several times. “People of all races took part in the institution of slavery.”

After directing us to grab umbrellas for shade from the blazing sun, Johnson leads our mixed-race group of visitors to the first stop on our tour: the lovely Antioch Church, built by former slaves as soon as they threw off their chains and were finally free to practice religion.

Johnson knows the church well; it sat directly across the street from his grandfather’s house in Paulina. After it was damaged by a storm, it was torn down and lovingly reassembled and refurbished at the Whitney.

Inside the sanctuary, we settle into pews under the watchful gaze of lifelike bronze statues of slave children. They represent the 2,300 slavery survivors interviewed by the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s, who witnessed the day-to-day horrors of slavery first-hand as children.

Etched in stone on the grounds, and related by Johnson during the tour, their personal memories bear witness to a long, winding trail of tears.

As we proceed around the property on a scorching summer day, Johnson reminds us that shackled slaves walked these very paths every day to the sugarcane fields. There they labored in 16-hour shifts with razor-sharp machetes; many lost limbs to errant swings or simply died of heat exhaustion.

Some of the outbuildings are original, like the open-air kitchen, where a single cook prepared three elaborate meals everyday for the Big House after rising before dawn to feed hundreds of slaves on their way to the fields. That she did all this while training several girls as apprentices makes her feat even more astounding.

As Johnson notes: “If my nephew has a flat tire on his bike and asks me to show him how to fix it, it takes me twice as long than if I did it myself.”

Other buildings, including most of the slave shacks, have been imported from nearby properties to help tell the story. Each of these crude, two-room buildings housed about a dozen slaves, who slept on mattresses stuffed with Spanish moss teeming with bed bugs. But one shack original to the Whitney has another notable feature.

“You see that rectangle cut in the wall, that looks like where a light switch would be?” asks Johnson. “That’s exactly what it is. This was working sugarcane plantation into the 1970s.”

And though the workers weren’t technically slaves, they never saw a dime for their labor and owed their soul to the Whitney Country Store, “just like in that song, ’16 Tons,’” notes Johnson.

That’s pretty shocking. So is the fact that Brooks Brothers once made a special “slave line” of tophats and tails to make shackled men more attractive to buyers when they were auctioned off in New Orleans’ bustling slave district, now the CBD.

Johnson weaves slave auctions into the narrative while showing us a rusty metal hotbox; moved here from New Orleans, it served as a holding pen for incoming slaves, who were often locked inside for weeks while awaiting sale. Why sell a new arrival for peanuts in August when he could be fattened up and fetch big bucks during harvest season?

The Big House we enter at the end of the tour is beautifully detailed with murals and frescoes, in stark contrast to the slave shanties. But it’s part of the story too, and its meticulous restoration caps a multimillion-dollar project funded by retired trial lawyer John Cummings, a native (white) New Orleanian who made it his mission to tell the world the true story of slavery.

Johnson and the other tour guides take that mission very seriously.

“If we can get these youngsters when they’re young, and get it in their head that they’re valuable, then we can save them,” says Johnson, who loves guiding school tours and took a special interest in the tweens in our group today. “We need to get our kids here and educate them, so that they don’t fall victim again.”

The Whitney Plantation is open daily except Tuesday from 9:30am-4:30pm. Tickets for tours are $22 and $10 for children ages 6-12. Visit the website for more info and to schedule group tours, which must be booked in advance. Image via the Whitney Plantation Facebook page.

POSTED Dec 5, 2016

Creative Culture

The Mermaid Lounge Rises Again

The Mermaid Lounge Rises Again

“Did you hear!? The Mermaid is closing!” Twelve years ago this month, in December 2004, that news was greeted with stunned disbelief by the hundreds of musicians, artists…....
CONTINUE

Written by CREE MCCREE
POSTED Nov 30, 2016

Events

Celebrating the Season the Islenos Way

Celebrating the Season the Islenos Way

The last vestiges of Spanish Colonial Louisiana reside in the least fancy of places: New Orleans East. Out in St Bernard Parish, just before the land tapers off…....
CONTINUE

POSTED Nov 29, 2016

Creative Culture

A Creole's 'Krazy' Take on the Comics

A Creole's 'Krazy' Take on the Comics

When I moved to New Orleans in 2001, Michael Tisserand was then editor-in-chief at Gambit Weekly. When I worked there, I found him smart, funny, and deeply sympathetic…....
CONTINUE

POSTED Nov 18, 2016

Creative Culture

Through a Lens, Darkly: The Works of Clarence John Laughlin, at THNOC

Through a Lens, Darkly: The Works of Clarence John Laughlin, at THNOC

A veiled figure of uncertain provenance stands enshrined in a ruined mansion. A dead bird hangs from a wire, its wings suspended above statues of the Holy Family.…....
CONTINUE

Written by CREE MCCREE
PAGE

    Our Local Publisher Partners

    • The Arts Council of New Orleans
    • WWNO
    • WWOZ
    • PRC
    • NOMA
    • The Historic New Orleans Collection
    • Southern Food
    • Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities
    The Arts Council of New Orleans

    The Arts Council of New Orleans is a private, non-profit organization designated as the City’s official arts agency. The Arts Council serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers available municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans. The Arts Council works in partnership with the City of New Orleans, community groups, local, state, and national governmental agencies, and other nonprofit arts organizations to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans community through a diversity of initiatives and services.

    WWNO

    WWNO, the NPR member station for New Orleans, serves southeast Louisiana and parts of southwest Mississippi by broadcasting balanced news, thought provoking analysis, classical music, jazz and other musical styles, intelligent entertainment, and unique local content. We broadcast on 89.9 FM, and KTLN 90.5 FM in the Houma-Thibodaux area as a public service of the University of New Orleans. All of WWNO’s programs, including its growing local news coverage, are available online at WWNO.org.

    WWOZ

    WWOZ 90.7 FM is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station offering listener-supported, volunteer-programmed community radio. WWOZ covers many events live in and around the city and across the United States, and broadcasts live from the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival annually. WWOZ’s mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.

    PRC

    Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has been preserving, restoring, and revitalizing New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods since 1974. Throughout its history, PRC has acted as an advocacy agent on a local, regional, and national scale, spreading the word about the city’s rich architectural heritage and the economic importance of preserving this heritage. PRC also takes a hands-on approach to preservation, with a history of successfully restoring over 1,400 properties. The center strengthens and revitalizes New Orleans in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, yet sensitive to the city’s past and its heritage.

    NOMA

    As a nexus for the arts in New Orleans, NOMA is committed to preserving, interpreting, and enriching its collections and renowned sculpture garden; offering innovative experiences for learning and interpretation; and uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures.

    The Historic New Orleans Collection

    The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

    Southern Food

    The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

    Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

    The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to all Louisianans.

    The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.

    X

    Thanks.

    was added to your favorites.

    VIEW YOUR PROFILE

     


    Share On Twitter Share On Facebook