In planning my third trip to New Orleans, spending a day on a plantation tour was high on my to-do list. But, I wanted the experience to be more than a photo-op in front of a southern mansion. My research quickly turned up Whitney Plantation, the first museum dedicated to American slavery.
The 2,000-acre sugar plantation dates back to 1752 when it was developed by German immigrants Ambroise Haydel and his wife.
According to the plantation's website, it stayed in their family for 115 years, before being “sold to Bradish Johnson of New York, who named the property after his grandson, Harry Whitney.”
Fast forward to the early 2000s, and John Cummings, a successful lawyer from New Orleans, purchases the property as a real estate investment.
Over time, he realizes how little he knows about the history of the slaves who once worked on such properties.
And as he learns more, he decides to invest millions of dollars of his own money into turning the plantation into a museum honoring their experience.
Whitney Plantation Tour
The Whitney Plantation opened in December 2014.
Unlike most plantation tours that focus on the large houses of the owners, the Whitney Plantation tour is given from the slaves' perspective.
Visitors meet their guide in the Welcome Center, which also serves as a tasteful gift shop, primarily offering books on slavery.
The Antioch Baptist Church
The 90-minute walking tour begins with a visit to the Antioch Baptist Church, which was built in 1870 on the eastern side of the Mississippi River.
Slaves would come from nearby plantations to worship there.
The church was donated and relocated to the Whitney after its community opened a new, larger one in 1999.
The Children of Whitney
Walking inside the historic wooden structure, one's attention is drawn to the lifesize sculptures of child slaves. Their innocence and vacant eyes evoke empathy.
The children bring the space to life in a way I've never experienced in a museum before. We would see more of them as the tour continued.
The Wall of Honor
Next, we visited The Wall of Honor, which memorializes stories from the 350 slaves who worked on the Whitney Plantation.
Etched into the granite slabs, in their own words, are horrific, heartbreaking accounts of their treatment.
My words certainly won't do these stories justice, so I took a few photos to share here.
“The most crue master in St. John the Baptist Parish during slavery time was a Mr. Valsin Mermillion.
One of his cruelties was to place a disobedient slave, standing, in a box, in which there were nails placed in such a manner that the poor creature was unable to move.
He was powerless even to chase the flies or sometimes, ants crawling on some parts of his body.”
— Mrs. Webb, Louisiana Slave
“We jus' have co'n braid and syrup and some times fat bacon, but when I et dat biscuit, she comes in and say, ‘What dat biscuit?' I say, ‘Miss, I et I's so hungry.'
Den she grab dat broom and start to beatin' me over de head wid it and callin' me low down nigger and I guess I jes' clean lost my head 'cause I know'd better fan to fight her if I knowed anything ‘tall, but I started to fight her and de driver, he comes in and he grabs me and starts beatin' me wid dat cat-o'-nine tails, and he beats me 'till I fall to de floor nearly dead.
He cut my back all to pieces, den dey rub salt in de cuts for mo' punishment, I's only 10 years old.”
— Jenny Proctor
Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall
Following The Wall of Honor, we had a few minutes to walk through a memorial to the 107,000 Africans enslaved in Louisiana during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The memorial is named after Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a historian, teacher, and author who compiled a database known as “Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820.”
The black granite walls are filled with more names, stories, and images of the enslaved.
The Field of Angels
The Field of Angels recognizes the 2,200 slave children born in St. John the Baptist parish between 1823-1863, many of whom died before their second birthday.
Most were buried on the grounds of the plantation; some were buried in the cemetery of a nearby Catholic church.
“Death rates on Louisiana’s cane plantations were relatively high compared to cotton or tobacco plantations.
Many of the children honored at this memorial died of diseases, but some of them died under tragic circumstances such as being hit by lightning, drowning, or burning.”
— Whitney Plantation website
The striking statue at the center of the memorial is “Coming Home” by Rod Moorehead. It depicts a black angel carrying a baby up to heaven.
The Slave Quarters
The Whitney originally had 22 cypress slave cabins. However, in the 1970s, all but two were destroyed to make more room for larger trucks and more modern harvesting equipment.
Some of the family owners, who were focused on selling the property rather than preserving it, believed the value would increase as a result.
The rest of the cabins visible on the Whitney Plantation were purchased from the Myrtle Grove Plantation.
The Children of the Whitney make another appearance on the porch of a slave cabin.
This particular cabin had a wall in the middle, splitting the single building up for use by two or more people.
Each side had a fireplace, bedroom, and what appeared to be a sitting room.
Constructed in Pennsylvania in 1868, this rusty metal jail was donated to the Whitney by a Louisiana couple.
The metal box, about the size of a shipping container, would have been used to hold slaves who were caught trying to escape.
It is similar in design and appearance to what was used during slave auctions, as well.
Robin's Blacksmith Shop
As the Whitney Plantation tour continued, we passed by Robin's Blacksmith Shop.
According to a plaque, Robin was an enslaved man born in 1791 on the east coast of the U.S.
His job was to provide all the metalwork for the plantation, including “horseshoes, nails, hinges, and curtain rods.”
Built in the early 1800s, Whitney's kitchen is the oldest detached kitchen in Louisiana.
Here, a slave was responsible for cooking all the meals for the plantation owner's family.
Pigeon holes were cut in the roof so that the loft could be used as an additional pigeonnier (a space created for pigeons to nest).
The Big House
Last but not least, we walked from the kitchen to The Big House, where the plantation owners lived.
The house was rebuilt in its current form sometime before 1815, making it a little over 200 years old.
It's an excellent example of Spanish Creole architecture.
Each floor has seven rooms. However, the guided tour only passes through the dining room in the middle of the ground floor.
There's not much to see. I found it the least interesting part of the experience.
Overall, I found the effort to present plantation life from the slaves' perspective to be a success.
Walking the grounds where so many indentured men, women, and children toiled without choice, were mercilessly tortured, and sexually abused is a heavy experience.
The investment in bringing a church, slave cabins, and original artwork to the grounds has paid off. The Children of the Whitney, especially, give faces to the names and stories.
Seeing them throughout the tour reminds you what happened there was real, not some abstract history lesson.
There's no public transportation from New Orleans to the Whitney Plantation, so the easiest thing to do is sign up for a tour, which includes roundtrip bus transportation (from the French Quarter) and admission for a guided tour.
I went in partnership with Gray Line, which sells adult tickets for $69. Children age 6-12 cost $35 each.
The whole trip takes five hours. To make a full day of it, you can add a second plantation for an additional cost.
I also visited Oak Alley Plantation, where the focus is on the owners' home and oak trees. It's a beautiful property, and there are some slave cabins to see; however, the impact wasn't the same.
If you have a car and prefer to visit Whitney Plantation independently, it's recommended you buy your tickets in advance. Adult admission is $25; children age 6-18 are $11 each.
My trip to New Orleans was in partnership with New Orleans & Company and The Quisby; this tour was provided compliments of Gray Line.