The Whitney Plantation Museum on Slavery

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I read a New York Times article a few months ago about a plantation converted into a museum on slavery about an hour outside New Orleans, so I planned a visit while in New Orleans on business. It has always bugged me that people take plantation tours or visit resorts on plantations that whitewash the awful history behind these estates. I can’t visit a plantation home and marvel at its antique splendor; I wonder about the suffering outside.

I called the Whitney Plantation to arrange my visit. First, you need to reserve a spot on a tour. There are same day tickets but tours get filled. And the only way to see the plantation is a guided tour – you cannot just walk the grounds. Second, the Whitney is about a 45-60 minute drive from New Orleans. I did not want to rent a car, so The Whitney recommended a bus tour company or a taxi service. We used the taxi service, Let’s Just Ride in New Orleans. From dispatch through the rides there and back, service was first rate and reasonably priced.

Once we arrived for our 10 AM to 1130 AM Saturday tour, we began at a chapel where statues of enslaved children look you in the eyes while you watch a short video. It is the narratives of enslaved people that guide you through this tour, some shared by the guide and some read along the way. The language here is always “enslaved people” never slave – it is an important distinction I had not considered before in my language.

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We then proceeded through a series of memorials that illustrated the scale of slavery on the plantation (through the names of all the enslaved people here), the scale of slavery in Louisiana, and the infant mortality among those enslaved. Again, it is the narratives of enslaved people written across the walls of the memorials that powerfully capture the quotidian indignities and horrors.

After the memorials, we visited the quarters – really huts – where the enslaved people lived. Adena, our excellent tour guide, shared stories of what daily life was like here – the excruciating work, the punishments, and what even Sundays off were like. She showed us the giant vats where sugarcane became sugar and the heat and danger involved. We then passed through the outside kitchen that cooked for the big house and the enslaved people.

Finally, we arrived at the big house. It was not as grand as I imagined although substantial. It made me recognize even more that slavery was not just for the extremely wealthy, but more widespread among farmers throughout the South.

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Our tour and tour guide were great and the narratives of the slaves were powerful. Having participated in an Underground Railroad experience where we were sold into slavery on a snowy night on an Ohio farm, screamed at and ordered around, escaped, hid and then processed it all, there was a part of me that wanted something even more confrontational about the horrors of slavery. A year after 12 Years a Slave won an Oscar, I don’t think we need to tone down the experience to make people comfortable. It was a horrific institution whose legacy we continue to experience today.

I also thought it would have been fitting to close out with an exhibit about this legacy of oppression – Reconstruction, Jim Crow, red-lining, mass incarceration. Overall, though, this is a powerful and necessary museum experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting the region. Go to the Whitney. In the age of “Black Lives Matter,” we need to reckon with this history.