Saturday, May 20, 2017

Telling The Story of Slavery in America

The magnificent oaks of Oak Alley. Image: Jim Lesses

During my 2012 American trip, I spent five nights in New Orleans and among the numerous activities I engaged in during my stay in the Crescent City, were tours that included the Laura, and Oak Alley plantations. Being the political animal that I am, I was very much aware of what seemed to be the ‘whitewashing’ of history associated with both these beautifully preserved sites, and the part they must have played in supporting one of the worst stains in human history—the institution and maintenance of organised slavery on a massive scale.

It is not as if the history of slavery was completely ignored at these former plantations, and others like them, but more that the legacy of slavery was left to the imagination of the visitor rather than bringing it front and centre. The beautifully maintained plantation homes, and the well manicured lawns and gardens, might leave visitors with the impression that life on a pre-American Civil War plantation wasn’t all that unpleasant. In fact, the Oak Alley Plantation can be hired for weddings, corporate events, and overnight stays—“A tranquil retreat in the heart of Plantation Country”—proclaims one caption to a series of images on the site. While life may have been very pleasant for the plantation owners, it was far from pleasant for the slaves.

John J. Cummings III; Screen shot from the New Yorker video.

Since my 2012 trip, I am delighted to see that at least one former property—the Whitney Plantation—has now been set up as the first memorial of its type in America. The New Yorker magazine, under the byline of Kalim Armstrong ran an item and video in February 2016, Telling The Story of Slavery from which the following quote is taken:
John Cummings, a lawyer who founded the [Whitney Plantation] museum, spent sixteen years planning and over eight million dollars of his own money to restore this site, which honors the memory of those who were enslaved on plantations and whose labor helped build this country. The Whitney Plantation is not a place designed to make people feel guilt, or to make people feel shame. It is a site of memory, a place that that exists to further the necessary dialogue about race in America.
The Whitney Plantation was founded in 1752, and is located in Louisiana along the historic River Road, which winds down the Mississippi toward New Orleans. Here is the New Yorker video:

It wasn’t hard to find other videos detailing various aspects of slavery and the plantation system online, and the following 28-minute video is from what appears to be a made-for-television series called Weekends With Whitney. Independently produced by Whitney Vann, the program focuses on the story behind the Whitney Plantation and supplements the New Yorker video very nicely. Note: This show has three advertising breaks built into the video, but thankfully they are short and almost unobtrusive.

If You Go
The Whitney Plantation
5099, Highway 18, Wallace, Louisiana.
Open 9:30am to 4:30pm every day except Tuesday
(The museum is also closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, New Years Day, Mardi Gras, Easter Sunday, and July 4th.)
Note: the website states that, “There are no self guided tours at The Whitney Plantation.” And further that, “The only way to visit The Whitney Plantation is through a guided tour.” Tours are given every hour between 10:00am and 3:00pm.
Prices range from $10.00 to $22.00 (see website for full schedule)


  1. Your assessment of the River Road plantations is fairly accurate ... for 2012. Today, nearly all of the plantations have incorporated the history of slavery in their tours, with Laura Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation being two of the best.

    So I guess the real decision for each tourist, and thus each historic site, is what part(s) of history do you want to share with your visitors. Some have chosen to tell only the story of slavery, some tell mostly the story of slavery, and some tell the story of slavery, and the US Civil and Antebellum Creole life together, to present a more thorough picture of Louisiana history.

    And, while it can certainly be argued that slavery is a piece of history that was neglected in the past and needs to be brought to the foreground today, I think it can also be argued that telling only one side of history without telling the other sides discourages visitors from learning the lessons that all of history can teach us.

    While I believe Whitney does an amazing job of sharing a comprehensive history of slavery, seeing only that plantation can leave visitors with the assumptions that (a) all southerners were slave owners and that (b) slavery / racism only took place in the south, while the northern states were enlightened and fully inclusive of our non-white population. Both assumptions are incorrect, but one can only learn that if you are willing to study all aspects of antebellum Louisiana history.

  2. Thanks for your great comment. I'm delighted to hear that the owners and operators of many former plantations are today more forthcoming about the real impact of slavery and the part the former owners of these properties played in maintaining that terrible institution. If I am ever back in New Orleans, I will be more than happy to revisit both the Laura and Oak Alley plantations as well as the Whitney Plantation.


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