America's First Slavery Museum Shifts the Focus from Masters to Slaves
Unlike many plantation tours, which lionize wealthy white slaveowners, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana tells the violent history of slavery from the perspective of the people who were chained, maimed, and molested.
When you arrive at Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, you're given an enslaved person's image and story to wear for the day. Mine was Ann Hawthorne, who was 85 years old when the Library of Congress's Federal Writer's Project recorded her personal story of growing up enslaved on the Whitney Plantation, one of many plantations along the Mississippi's winding River Road. Each story is printed on a laminated card that you wear around your neck—a physical manifestation of the history of slavery; a reminder that real people lived here, died here.
Billed as America's first-ever museum dedicated exclusively to American slavery, Whitney Plantation sits amid acres of sugar cane that, on the late afternoon of my visit, swayed in a wild wind from a passing tropical depression. The plantation's swampy land lay heavy with ankle-deep water and hummed with voracious mosquitos. A long row of black and white umbrellas leaned against the visitors' center and gift shop so that those who had paid $22 a head to tour the grounds were not made uncomfortable by the day's fine, cool mist of rain.
As I waited for my tour guide, a black woman with long braids led a tour group past a white church, where statues of a young Ann Hawthorne and a dozen other enslaved children seemed to stare directly at—or, really, into—the visitors, who watched a video featuring their testimony.
The entire museum is similar: You walk the same pathways that victims of chattel slavery walked, you listen to their stories in their own words, you see and hear the pieces of history that aren't printed in textbooks or told on other plantation tours. You won't find much information on the wealthy slaveowners on this plantation. Instead, Whitney presents slavery through the stories of those who experienced it.
The museum's creation is owed in part to Dr. Ibrahima Seck, a tall, dark man with a florid African accent, who built the museum along with Whitney's owner, white New Orleans attorney John Cummings. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Antebellum South, and it's clear that everyone working at Whitney regards him as a living exhibit.
"According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Database, 60 percent of the people in Louisiana came from Senegambia, my area of Africa," Dr. Seck told me. "So there are very strong ties here from my home."
Seck had agreed to give me a private tour, so we climbed into his golf cart and drove past a small, rusty jail. Through its cage bars, we could see the slave masters' 220-year-old "Big House" in the distance.
"This jail wasn't on this plantation," said Dr. Seck, driving faster now so the mosquitos wouldn't catch up. "It was found in Gonzales, Louisiana, buried in the mud. At the slave markets in New Orleans, this is where the slaves were locked up before being sold."
There is no fiction here. There is nothing you can deny here. — Dr. Ibrahima Seck
Past seven small cypress wood cabins, which at one time slept dozens of slaves apiece, Seck stopped the cart at the marble Wall of Honor, which displays the names of over 350 people who were once enslaved at Whitney, plus how much each sold for and why. Seck, who originally gleaned all this information from documents found on the property, pointed out enslaved people who were deemed less valuable: a one-armed driver, a mentally-disabled woman, an old man with a hernia. Their prices were lower, but their fate was the same.
"Mentally-disabled or old slaves might be assigned to watch the master's toddlers or something," Dr. Seck said. "They sold for less, but were never retired. You worked till you died."
The list was filled with famous Louisiana names—Albert, Francois, Toussaint—but Seck explained that these were all first names, since "a slave doesn't have a last name."
"After slavery, for many of them, the single name they had on the plantation became their last name. Toussaint became a famous last name. The name Ebow is from Nigeria—but then I ask people in Louisiana, 'What is the origin of your last name?' and they don't know. If you go on ancestry.com, Ebow says 'origin unknown.' Plenty of people in Louisiana have the last name Poulard, and that is from Africa, and the search will tell you it's a funny French word meaning 'fat chicken,' and of course it means that in French, but what they don't know is it's also the name of the Fulani people of African cattle raisers. I'm telling you, there is a lot to learn about slavery."
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Seck joined this project out of desire to see Americans' vague knowledge of slavery made precise, and to help make history's words—so easily dismissed, especially by those who wish to—into haunting visuals.
"Everything we provide here is based on real people and very specific things. You find the real people, where they came from, what were their skills, their diseases. You can find them also being taken to court because they run away. You see them being punished. You see some of them in revolts. There is no fiction here. There is nothing you can deny here."
We drove past the Field of Angels, a statue of a black angel cradling a dead baby while surrounded by the names of thousands of enslaved children who died in the area in the 40 years since Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It's a haunting sight. When a group of students toured here with the Neighborhood Story Project, a writing group in New Orleans, many were visibly moved.
"[They] were very ready for this level of truth," said Neighborhood Story Project co-founder Abram Himelstein. "Whenever you're teaching students about atrocity there is trepidation, but it's always gratifying as a teacher to see young people begin to have this more nuanced understanding of something so terrible."
Himelstein added, "The other thing that museum does is articulate the whitewashing happening at so many other places. The particular focus of that museum also articulates the whitewashing of history."
You go around to many plantations around here and they have only pictures of the masters. Here, we have no pictures of the masters. — Dr. Ibrahima Seck
Seck then led us to the lagoon where Whitney plans to host another more brutal monument dedicated to the slaves of the "German Coast Uprising" in 1811. Dressed in faux military outfits, the 125 enslaved people marched along River Road toward New Orleans until confronted by militiamen who killed 95 of them. As a lesson to future dissenters, several dozen of the slaves were decapitated and their heads posted on spikes in the vicinity of the plantation as well as in world-famous Jackson Square, the jewel of New Orleans's French Quarter. Artist Woodrow Nash is almost done creating the 60 ceramic heads that will sit atop spears at Whitney.
"John Cummings was thinking it would maybe be too graphic and maybe we shouldn't put it up over there," recalled Seck. "And I said, 'John Cummings, you're gonna put it there.'"
We continued across the vast grounds past a row of giant metal bowls, which slaves used to boil down their master's sugar cane. While cotton is often remembered as the primary slave-tended crop, Seck said southern Louisiana was actually too hot and wet for cotton, which tended to grow further north.
"The primary crop down here was originally indigo, used in dyes," he explained. "But competition drove out indigo along with a type of parasite a worm. Sugar can live in the heat. At one time, Haiti had been the number one producer of sugar in the world. But after the Haitian revolution, the market became open, and there was a lot of money to be made in Southern Louisiana."
Today, money is what's mostly celebrated at the nearby plantations. While plantations like Evergreen emphasize the horrid institution that originally built our country, most plantation tours still focus on the opulent lifestyles of the white masters.
On my visit, I chatted with Linda Collins, a white tourist from Reno, Nevada, who had toured several of the former plantations along River Road. "The other tours, you've seen the period pieces, people dressed up in amazing suits and dresses, but they don't have slaves in those re-enactments," she told me. "It is strange, because there couldn't have been that life [without the slaves]. Even though at the other places they'll take you to the slave quarters, it's really more about how the white families lived their lives. And this is completely the opposite."
Seck proudly agrees. "You go around to many plantations around here and they have only pictures of the masters. Here, we have no pictures of the masters."
In fact, it's this consistent, white-oriented view of American history on plantation tours, textbooks, and elsewhere that makes Whitney so valuable to Dr. Seck.
"Most of the people who come here, they know nothing about slavery," he said. "And I feel whenever they come here and leave, they feel enlightened because maybe they did learn a lot of things. Maybe some of them have hated black people without even knowing why, without even knowing the history of black people, without knowing the roots of the black people today. Black Americans maybe poor, violent, and all of that, but people have to understand that the violence in the black community is rooted in the history."
That kind of internalized-racism springs up among visitors, Seck said: "I welcomed here a group of very wealthy people. I was talking to them and I thought I did my best speech ever, and at the end a lady came to me and asked me a question: 'Doctor, don't you think these people were still better off here in Louisiana than in Africa where they would be mistreated?' I just didn't know what to say. At that moment, I regretted that the 1811 [decapitation] memorial was not up over there yet. If I had that memorial that day, I would have just pulled the hand of that lady and told her, 'Look! Does this seem like they're better off in America? Is this a good treatment for slaves, for Africans? Did they come to Louisiana for this?'"
At one point during my tour, I'd overheard a guide telling a group that Seck had been working on the project for over ten years, and would be here for another ten. I asked Seck if this was true, and if it was, what he hoped to accomplish in the coming decade.
"I expect to stay here ten more years because we want to make sure and go beyond the museum and build a real research center for slavery, like they have the Schaumburg Center in New York," he replied. "We have a lot of room here, and we want to repopulate the plantation, but with researchers and students and summer camps. We want to have a music festival, like a Congo Square at Jazz Fest, but bring all the music from Africa." He paused and smiled. "I want to bring music back to this place."
Even in the project's relative youth, Seck considers Whitney one of the first American examples of reparations. "After maybe 200 years of slavery, then 100 years of Jim Crow, there have never been real reparations," he pointed out. "Even the meager Civil Rights people got from the struggle, in some places it has been taken away from them. If you have more places and textbooks where people are really willing to talk about slavery, that's how we get enough people who would understand the problem and who would be willing to do something about it."
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