by Daja Henry
There are many plantation tours across southeast Louisiana and most focus on the same old trite narratives—going on about how beautifully constructed the southern antebellum homes are with their high pillars and opulent gardens or how wealthy and well-known the rich sugarcane and indigo planters that owned the estates were—almost romanticizing plantation life with hardly a mention of the terror of slavery.
Whitney Plantation, located in Wallace, La., in nearby St. John the Baptist Parish, bills itself as different. It presses visitors to think about the plantation and the reality of America’s human chattel slavery system from the perspective of the enslaved, setting it apart from the many other plantation tours taking place along the winding River Road that stretches some 70 miles across southeast Louisiana between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The plantation prides itself on being the only museum dedicated to telling its story through the lives of those once enslaved there. Founder John C. Cummings said his purpose behind opening the plantation was “to start the dialogue.”
“Germany has over 200 museums dedicated to the Holocaust. They don’t let their children forget what happened,” he says.
Tours of the Whitney Plantation (originally known as “Habitation Haydel”) are led by passionate, knowledgeable guides who feel a measure of dignity in telling the plantation’s story through the eyes of the enslaved instead of the enslaver.
“This is our history and it must be told,” says Ali, a native St. John the Baptist resident as he guided a Saturday afternoon tour. “As my grandmother and grandfather used to say, sometimes you have to re-open a wound for it to heal right.”
In addition to more than a dozen buildings, there are three memorials along the tour as well, including the Wall of Honor, a memorial dedicated to all the people who were enslaved on Whitney Plantation and the Field of Angels, dedicated to 2,200 Louisiana slave children that died before their third birthday.
The plantation is chock full of carefully curated information that provides a picture of what life was like for the enslaved including direct quotes from the enslaved to the actual cells they were locked in.
Visitors are constantly reminded of the horrors the enslaved faced. There are remnants in every aspect of the tour.
“If nothing else, this tour gives you a far better foundation than you will ever receive in any history class,” Ali says.
At each stop, it is as if the stories come to life. The guide provides facts, laced with anecdotal knowledge, that allow those taking part in the tour to better understand the horrors of slavery while also offering the occasional opportunity to connect the past to the present. A notable story was that of Anna, an enslaved girl purchased to be the “pet” of her infertile owner. After she got too big to play with, she was tossed among the other enslaved; and like many other enslaved women, she was raped by white men. In Anna’s case, it was the plantation owner’s brother, Antoine Haydel. She bore his child, Victor Theophile Haydel, who is the great-grandfather of Sybil Haydel Morial, a prominent civil rights activist, educator and community leader in her own right, as well as wife of the city’s first African-American mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial and mother of Marc Morial, New Orleans’ third Black mayor who now serves as president and CEO of the National Urban League.
For more information about The Whitney Plantation or to book a tour, visit www.whitneyplantation.com or call 225-265-3300.