A Step Back In Time at Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation
“Imagine what it would feel like to be someone else’s property. Imagine you are a field slave. You wake up before sunrise. You work until dark, which is 8 or 9 in hot humid summers. Your life depends on the whims of your master or mistress.”
̶̶̶ Whitney Plantation
I arrive at the Whitney Plantation at 8:30 in the morning before anyone else. The sun is coming up behind me, casting a golden glow over empty fields that were once filled with eight foot high stalks of sugar cane and hundreds of slaves who worked the fields. I walk toward the welcome center when I hear someone opening the door.
“Bonjour,” says a lovely young Creole woman. “Welcome to the Whitney Plantation.”
“Merci,” I reply as I enter the newly built welcome center.
If you live in Louisiana, you are not far away from the reminders of slavery and oppression in the South. Along the banks of the Mississippi River, on both the East and West banks, are over forty plantations that have been restored to their splendor of the 1800s.
There were once hundreds of working plantations along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. They were first established as indigo farms in the 1700s, but after an insect infestation destroyed the crops at the end of the eighteenth century, the wealthy owners planted sugar cane. With the help of African, Caribbean, and Native American slaves, the sugar industry became very profitable. By the 1860s, Louisiana produced all of the sugar consumed in the world with the majority of the work on the plantations performed by slaves.
Although there are still a few working sugar cane plantations, the majority are now a destination for tourists who come to hear the history of the plantations from tour guides who focus on the grandeur and restoration of the houses, the families who owned them, and their antiques. For many years, the plantations made little reference to the slaves. It has only been in the last few years that they have incorporated the narrative of the slaves as part of their history. Recently added to the tourist destinations along the river is the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, a plantation devoted to telling the story of slavery. After 17 years of restoration, owner John Cummings, a former attorney and New Orleans native, opened The Whitney Plantation as a museum in December 2014.
It is in the welcome center that I first encounter the life-sized ceramic sculptures of the “children” created by artist Woodrow Nash. Their images also appear on the cards that are given tourists when they purchase a ticket; on the back are narratives from the former slaves, who were children at the time of emancipation, from the Library of Congress that were compiled by The Works in Progress Administration in 1939. The children are one of the reasons I have chosen to visit. I read about them on the Whitney’s website and in several news articles. The images of their haunting, empty eyes beckoned to me.
By 9:30, about twenty people had gathered for the tour. Our first destination is the restored, historic Antioch Baptist Church, a building that was donated by the town of Paulina, Louisiana. “There was not a church originally on the grounds,” our guide tells us. There pretty much would be no church on any plantation. This particular congregation began in 1868, after the emancipation. This was the only African American church in the tri-parish region.”
As I enter the church, I am greeted by the sculptures of the children: beautiful, brown clay children with tattered clothing sitting on the pews, standing along the walls, in the aisles, and around the altar. There are over 20 sculptures of the children on the grounds, and more on the way. I sit in the pews among the children and watch a video about the history and restoration of the plantation.
Cummings commissioned most of the art at the plantation. “I use art to tell the story of the slaves because,” Cummings says, “it produces an emotion in the viewer.”
The artists were chosen because Cummings was familiar with their work. He met Woodrow Nash at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and approached Nash to create the children. He met Rod Moorhead after reading an article in the New York Times about another angel he had created and commissioned him to create a statue of a black angel cradling a baby in her arms as she takes him to heaven. There is also art that has been donated by collectors, but most of the art is commissioned by Cummings who plans on adding more pieces.
From the church, we are guided to the Wall of Honor, also a beautiful piece of artwork that was inspired by May Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Wall of Honor is a memorial dedicated to the people who were enslaved on the plantation. Cummings bought an engraving machine to etch the names on the granite. The Haydel family, the original owners, owned 354 slaves. There are 350 names engraved on the wall including Victor Haydel who is the ancestor of all the black Haydels and the great-grandfather of Sybil Haydel Morial, wife of the first black mayor of New Orleans and mother to the second.
From the Wall of Honor, we move on to Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, which are monuments dedicated to the 107,000 people enslaved in Lousiana. Engraved on the walls of the monuments are photos and the names of slaves. The names come from a slave database compiled by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a civil rights and labor attorney. Cummings states that there will be 400,000 names on the walls one day.
Our next stop is the Field of Angels, which consists of a circle of granite tablets engraved with the names of 2,200 slave children who died in St. John’s Parish. There are photos and narratives from slaves etched in the granite. In the center is the Black Angel carrying a baby to Heaven created by artist Rod Moorhead. However, all is not art on the plantation.Cummings purchased an 1868 steel jail like one that would have been on the plantation. It sits on the edge of a grassy clearing where its lattice windows have a full view of the Big House. Our guide tells us that this is where run-a-way slaves would be kept after they were branded on the forehead with a Fleur de lis to serve as a warning to the other slaves to not attempt running away.
There are slave quarters also on the grounds, some are original to the property and some were moved from other plantations. Also a one room cookhouse, adjacent to the Big House, where meals for the Haydels were prepared.
Our last stop on the tour is the Big House—the dwelling where the Haydel family lived. This is a Spanish Creole raised-style house built in 1803. It has a large veranda in the front to catch the breezes off the river and another in the back. The family would sleep out there during the summers to keep cool. The murals on the walls and ceilings, inside and out, have been restored to their original splendor.
The group turns and follows our guide down the back stairs into the garden on the side of the house. The tour is over. I said goodbye to our guide and returned to the church to spend some quality time with the children in the peaceful solitude of the church. This is an experience I will never forget and a journey I am sure I will make again as Cummings plans on adding more structures to the grounds as well as more art.
The Whitney Plantation is located at 5099 Highway 18 in Wallace, Louisiana. It is on the West Bank side of the Mississippi River. It is 32 minutes from the New Orleans airport and about thirty from Baton Rouge. To find out more information about the Whitney, visit their website at www.whitneyplanation.com.
(Featured sculpture in this article is by Woodrow Nash whose work will be also be featured in the Black Art In America™ (BAIA) Fine Art Show at the Faison Firehouse, Harlem (NYC), 10/23 – 10/25/15)
Reed, Mimi. “New Orleans lawyer transforms Whitney Plantation into powerful slavery museum.” The Advocate [New Orleans ]. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.
Seck, Ibrahima. Bouki fait Gombo: A History of the Slave community of Habitation Haydel (Whitney Plantation) Louisiana 1750-1860. New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press, 2014,
Whitney Plantation, 5099 Highway 18, Wallace, LA
Renae Friedley is a writer and photographer who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She has a BA in English Literature from Columbus State University, a Masters in Museum Studies from Southern University at New Orleans, and is working on a Masters in creative writing. She is the author of Images of Breaux Bridge, which was published by Arcadia Publishing in March 2014. She is currently working on a photo exhibition—“Loving Louisiana: Celebrating the Cultures and Traditions of South Louisiana”—which will be at the Old State Capitol Museum in Baton Rouge January 19 through March 19, 2016.