Whitney Plantation, River Road Louisiana

We have been hesitant to take a Plantation Tour in the South.  Because of what they celebrate, often only the beauty and opulence of the grounds.  And for what they don't, the very reason for their existence and the success.

The Plantations are something to behold.  They history they tell of New Orleans Delta, and how they literally built an agriculture economy out of cotton and sugar cane from the swamps that dominate the area.

What is often left unsaid, or glossed over is how these riches were built on the backs of Black men, women and children.  How slavery enabled the rich and privileged to build and maintain their power through the forced labor of human beings.  Humans who were brought here from Africa, and later their sons and daughters, and then their grand and great grand children who were sold as property through the domestic slave trade.  Their labors enforced through the brutality of cruel masters and overseer's.

A walk through the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana tells those stories.  Their walking tour takes ninety minutes and provides a history we never learned in our schooling.

John Cummings, a New Orleans trial attorney purchased the property, and turned it into a place that tells the true history of slavery here on the delta, and into a memorial to those slaves who labored on this property and throughout the region.






The tour begins in the Freeman Church, the building that was moved on to the property.  It serves as a reminder of the importance the church has played in the fight for freedom, and the secret nature of this memorial.





At the beginning of the tour, you are given a card on a lanyard that has the identity, and the story of a child of slavery who lived on these plantations.  The stories were a result of the Federal Writers Project, a part of Roosevelts Work Progress Administration.  FWP writers interviewed, and recorded the stories of slaves, and children who grew up in slavery.

Mine was Catherine Cornelius.  She was recorded when she was 103 years old.  She said:

AH WAS A SLAVE BORN AND RAISED ON DE SMITHFIELD PLANTATION...AW WAS A GROWN WOMAN WHEN DAT WAR BRODE OUT.  AH WORKED IN DE FIELD CUTTING CANE.  DE PLANTATION SAT OF THE RIBBER.  DERE WAS MO DEN A HUNDRED SLAVES ON IT.  DE CABINS WAS WHITE AND DERE WAS ONE FAMILY TO A CABIN.  SHO, WE HAD GUDTIMES.  WE HAD SINGIN, DANCING, AND VISITIN AMONG OURSELVES AND ON UDDER PLANTATIONS.










Steff's card had the story of John McDonald, of Baton Rouge, LA.

NO, SUH, BOSS, I CAN'T READ AND WRITE.  WHEN I WAS BRUNG UP EF'N MY BOSS MAN KETCH ME WIT A PENCIL AND PAPEER IT WAS 25 LASHES.













 Outside of the church are a series of memorials that honor those who lived through slavery.  The first is a memorial to the identified slaves who spent their lives on the Whitney plantation.  Records, and the accounting of property in the Louisiana territory was detailed enough to identify individuals who were brought over before the Atlantic Slave trade was stopped in the early 1800's.  The earliest names on these panels reflect African names and birth places.

Also engraved in places is the testimony of men and women living under the oppression of their owners and overseers.






Before coming to this plantation, a slave would most likely go to the slave market in New Orleans.  Man, woman or child would be kept in cells just like these.  Prior to going to the auction block these people would be washed, often in water and bear grease to make their skin shine, and then dressed in fine clothing to make them more presentable when sold.  There were businesses who provided these service to the slave brokers.




 Sugarcane replaced cotton as the primary cash crop.  This generated more profit for the plantation owners but was not good for the slaves.  The average life span for a field slave on a sugarcane plantation was ten years.

Slaves were literally worked to death.  No one wanted to be sold to a sugarcane plantation.  Problem slaves else where in the south would be threatened with being "sold down the river."

Harvesting and processing took place from October through January.  Sugar was only stable for shipping once crystalized.

The cane needed to be cut and collected before it rained or froze.  Then the cane was processed in a series of four iron kettles called the Jamaican Train.


 The cane juice needed to be boiled down in this succession of smaller kettles.  Stirred constantly, and ladled into the next smaller kettle when needed.  As the juice began to crystalize in the smallest kettle, it was dried and packed into hogshead barrels for shipment.

The effort to process 18,000 acres of cane field required slaves working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  There were three shifts.  Slaves were required to work a shift in the field, and a shift in the mill, separated by a 6 hour shift for sleep.


Slaves quarters were small two room cabins.  Up to twenty-four people lived in each room.  Slaves maintained their own small gardens, and were responsible for feeding themselves.  On cold winter nights the smaller children were boosted into the attics to sleep warmer.

Not much changed after emancipation.  The law required that former slaves be paid for their work.  However, all supplies and commodities had to be purchased from the company store.  In this way the plantation owners were still able to keep their workers indebted to them.











The blacksmith shop is many ways was the heart of the plantation.  Operated by a trusted slave, the shop crafted all the tools needed in the field, mill and the household. Blacksmiths often remained working for years.






The Big House is where the family lived and conducted business.  It is built in the Creole style, reflecting the original French influences of the region.  Facing the Mississippi River, the windows could be opened to allow for breezes off of the river to cool the house.  Two stories tall, and one room deep.





While slaves had to fend for and feed themselves, they also managed the family kitchen for the owners.

Here meals were prepared for the plantation owners and overseers, and served in the big house.  Domestic slaves would then serve the meals.












The detached kitchen had two cooking hearths to prepare the meals.



The house was managed from the ground floor, where supplies were kept and meals served.  Domestic work took place here.  

Wine Room

Pantry


It was upstairs that the family would display their wealth and privilege.


Ceiling


Cypress wood exterior walls painted to resemble marble



This place stands as a memorial to the slaves built it, and have been fighting for freedom ever since.




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