Outside New Orleans is a unique historical experience, the Whitney Plantation. Imagine a plantation exhibit that focuses on the lives of the enslaved people who produced the crops, instead of focusing on the white plantation owners. It is emotionally challenging to confront the realities of slavery and its continuing impact on American culture. The Whitney Plantation is a don’t miss excursion if you are visiting New Orleans, Louisiana.
New Orleans Plantation from a Slave’s View
Rural plantations that produced sugar cane and other crops were the economic engines of New Orleans until the Civil War. One plantation that has opened its doors to visitors, the Whitney Plantation, is unique. The exhibit focuses on the lives, backgrounds, and working conditions of the enslaved people, not on the owners.
Guided tour of New Orleans Plantation
The Whitney Plantation can only be experienced on a guided, 90-minute walking tour of the memorials, slave cabins, slave jail, church, big house, and grounds. Wear comfortable shoes. Our tour guide was Ali, a Louisiana native whose deep knowledge and lively storytelling helped bring the place to life. Given the emotionally difficult history of slavery, Ali’s sense of humor was welcome.
Statues of Enslaved Children
The spiritually challenging tour of the Whitney Plantation begins with a short video. We learned that the many statues of children on the Plantation represent people who were born into slavery and interviewed in the 1930’s by the Works Project Administration. Those published interviews are first-person narratives of life under slavery. They were children at the end of the Civil War, so their images on the Plantation are statues of children. To symbolize the hopelessness of enslaved children, the statues have hollows where eyes should be. The statues are chilling.
New Orleans Memorials to Enslaved People
Plantations near New Orleans are built on swampy land along the Mississippi River. Enslaved people on the Whitney Plantation built the levees and buildings, cleared the fields, raised the sugar crop, boiled sugar cane in giant cauldrons to manufacture granulated sugar, and endured disease and natural enemies, like mosquitoes and reptiles. Enslaved people on the Whitney Plantation had a lifespan of about 10 years after beginning work.
To help appreciate enslaved people as individuals, the Whitney Plantation issues each visitor a lanyard with the name of a freed slave, an image of the statue representing that person, and an excerpt from an interview.
On my lanyard, Henrietta Butler remembered her childhood in slavery: “My damn ol’ missus was mean as hell; I know ever’ night I had to wash dat ol’ woman’s foots an’ rub dem ‘fo I could ever go home to bed…They made my Ma have babies all de time. She was sellin’ the boys and keepin’ the gals.”
The Whitney Plantation has carefully researched Catholic Church records and legal documents to identify the names and origins of enslaved people who worked on the Plantation. A memorial wall lists their names and sometimes where they were from, including individual African countries or American colonies. I was most moved by the granite inscriptions that included the words of freed slaves.
Cabins of the Enslaved People
The walking tour includes the wooden cabins enslaved people lived in, usually 8-10 people in each small cabin. These are real cabins, although some were moved from a different Louisiana plantation. Beyond the sugar cane fields are swamps. Enslaved people who escaped and lived in the swamps were called maroons. The tour included descriptions of physical punishments for the “crime” of escaping, which might be hard for younger kids to hear.
Our tour guide Ali told us his least favorite part of the walking tour was the slave jail, a freestanding metal room used at slave markets to hold enslaved people before an auction. The slave jail would not have been not on the Plantation grounds, located instead at a slave market, perhaps in New Orleans. (This metal jail was made in my home state of Pennsylvania.) I cannot imagine how hot it must have been inside a metal room exposed to the Louisiana sun.
Practical Tips for the Whitney Plantation
Stop in the visitor’s center before the tour for images and text about the history of slavery to put the plantation visit into context. I was surprised to learn about the roles of African leaders, the Catholic Church, and other institutions in creating American slavery.
The bookstore is excellent. It includes books collecting the Works Project Administration interviews with people who survived slavery, as well as a history of the Whitney Plantation itself.
Be sure to book the tour at least a day in advance. The Whitney Plantation is about 45 minutes outside New Orleans. No taxis or Uber return from there to New Orleans.
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We did not have a car in New Orleans, so we booked a ride with Legendary Tours (504-471-1499). Legendary Tours picked us up at our New Orleans hotel, drove us to and from the Whitney Plantation in a clean air-conditioned van, and added a stop for photos at the beautiful nearby Evergreen Plantation. The friendly driver also threw in restaurant tips – a gracious extra that captures the wonderful New Orleans concept of “lagniappe.”
A visit to the Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans is a fascinating, must-see experience. It requires confronting the worst period of American history. Yet the visit was both heartbreaking and uplifting, perhaps because the Whitney is careful with facts, careful to acknowledge widespread complicity in creating slavery, and careful not to demonize.
Have you visited a plantation near New Orleans or elsewhere? Tell us about it in the comments.