The Plantation Every American Should Visit

The moment I see her name, I feel a lump in my throat.

“Pauline Johnson” is written on the back of the small card hanging from a lanyard around my neck. It tells me she was a 12-year-old child who had watched her father die in Louisiana just before slavery was abolished in the United States.

Everyone who visits the Whitney Plantation, located on the west bank of the Mississippi less than an hour’s drive from New Orleans on Louisiana’s historic River Road, receives a similar card. Each bears the story of a different slave, derived from interviews with more than 2,300 former slaves conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s.

I am standing next to my own 12-year-old the moment I read Pauline’s story and can’t imagine him having to grow up knowing he was someone else’s property.

The inability to imagine is part of the luxury of this tour.

Visitors have the opportunity—the privilege—of learning about the complex and often grueling history of slavery in the United States from a distance of more than 150 years. The 13th Amendment to the nation’s constitution, which outlawed the practice unequivocally, was ratified in December 1865.

Despite the fact that the Whitney Plantation, a sugar-cane plantation formerly home to more than 350 African slaves, is immaculately groomed, the raw emotion of the place is undeniable.

Travel across sections of the American South and you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid running across one of the large antebellum plantations—some as populous as modern-day suburban housing developments—that once dominated the countryside.

Plantation tours are almost equally ubiquitous. At most properties, the visitor experience includes a guided exploration of the plantation home and grounds led by a living historian clad in period garb.

It typically goes a bit like this: Tour the big house with a docent portraying a privileged occupant, then follow one meant to be a black slave or cook through the fields and kitchens.

A retired (white) trial lawyer named John Cummings took it upon himself to tell the plantation story in a different way.

In 2014, at the age of 77, the New Orleans native opened the doors on a project 15 years in the making. The Whitney Plantation Museum is one of the only historic sites in the country focused solely on the slave experience.

From the outset, our guide Courtney makes it clear to the group, which includes a mixed bag of ages and races, that the goal here is to inform and educate, not to shame or romanticize. Notably, she isn’t wearing a costume.

Contrary to precedent, the tour doesn’t commence in the massive plantation home, where the land (and slave-) owners would have lived. This experience is not about them, Courtney tells us.

Instead we start in the tiny freed-slave-built Antioch Baptist Church, a cool spot to escape the searing heat of a Louisiana summer’s day, to be sure, but also the kind of place where slaves would have found sanctuary and a few moments of rest and peace.

The church isn’t original to the property; it was donated to the plantation in 2001 by a congregation in Paulina, a community located just a few miles away on the opposite side of the Mississippi River.

This kind of deliberate borrowing is part and parcel of the Whitney Plantation Museum experiment, which seeks to provide a unique perspective on the working plantation as it evolved over time in Louisiana in addition to paying homage to the experiences of slaves across the American South.

Many of the outbuildings that now sit on the living history museum’s grounds, including most of the slave cabins—small shacks that would have been shared by up to a dozen workers—have been imported from nearby plantations to help tell that story.

Though some acquisitions have been donated, Cummings has personally invested millions here. Art he has commissioned includes 40 life-size casts of slave children that stand and sit in and among the pews of the church, and a massive bronze angel erected in the garden to memorialize the 2,200 children who died on the plantation and across St. John the Baptist Parish before slavery was abolished in the United States.

As we walk through the fields where slaves once collected sugar cane, we come upon Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, an open-air monument honoring the 107,000 people who were held in bondage in Louisiana.

The group is left to read plaque after plaque in silence before Courtney shares more information.

We learn about Louisiana’s Code Noir, a list of state-proposed recommendations—regarding housing, clothing, food, and more—put forth in order to make the slave trade more “humane.” The terms of the code suggest slaves should be given a day off each week (it rarely happened, we are told), guaranteed food (insufficient weekly rations drove many slaves to hunt squirrel, possum, and alligator), and treated with care (abuse was rampant), exposing the shocking gap between prescribed behavior and reality.

We see the tiny outdoor kitchen (the oldest in Louisiana) where the enslaved cook would have prepared meals for the master’s family and the “hot box”—a rusting metal chamber barely wide enough to stand in with arms outstretched where slaves awaiting sale at auction or those being punished would be left to suffer in the hot sun. On the interior walls, Courtney points out small cutouts meant to hold a slave’s chains. Nearby, a list of slaves and the prices for which their lives were bought and sold is posted.

And on it goes.

By the time we get to the 14-room plantation house, it seems to have grown in size. Courtney shows us the fine china, elaborate drawing rooms, and frescoed ceiling without emotion. Still, I feel my stomach turn. The view of the cabins in the distance only makes it worse.

In addition to the escorted tour, the plantation offers a small self-guided area where visitors can learn about the history of slavery on an international scale, offering vital perspective on an industry that once fueled much of the world’s economy.

It is there that we learn most slaves came from West Central Africa, that Portugal and Brazil were among the largest slave traders, and that 2,500,000 slaves eventually were brought to North America. We are also introduced to the pope, Nicholas V, who authorized the King of Portugal to “capture and subjugate” people who weren’t Christians for the purpose of forced labor “in perpetuity,” a harsh reminder of how morally upright the practice was felt to be.

Courtney is careful with specifics of brutality owing to the children on the tour. My own two boys remain interested but detached as we make our way around the property. They take in the information presented, sometimes offering their thoughts (“That’s not right.”), and move along. But the tour dominates our conversation as we drive away from the plantation, grateful for the chance to talk about the experience in private.

Much like a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, there is no joy in visiting the Whitney Plantation, or in learning about the atrocities that happened there and on similar properties throughout the South. You won’t leave feeling better about humanity, especially in light of recent racial tensions across the United States. But you will leave informed…and affected.

Heather Greenwood Davis is Nat Geo Travel’s resident family travel advocate, guru, and soothsayer. Follow her on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis and on Instagram @heathergd.

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Comments

  1. Jeffrey Johnson
    February 16, 12:50 pm

    Tina has a typical knee jerk reaction rather than reading the comment. While the expression of the sentiment may seem callous, what Charles is talking about is the present day. He is not talking about slavery being good. He is saying that “slavery” was abolished 150ish years ago, so people today shouldn’t be claiming that they are owed something because their ancestors may have been slaves. He is saying that those who feel they are entitled because of the abuses their ancestors received are mistaken. That they are not slaves, their parents were not slaves, and most likely their grandparents were not slaves. There is lots of slavery in the world today, but most of it is overseas, and it is not based on race. Sex slavery exists in pretty much every country. And as Hidsya pointed out, the vast majority of people in this country today ARE better off (financially, physically, mentally) than those that live in most parts of Africa, and indeed in many parts of the world.

  2. Tina
    February 13, 3:23 pm

    “Slavery was an evil ended 150 years ago. The great grand children of slavery need to ponder if they are better off now or had they been left in Africa.” This comment is very disturbing to me. It comes from the conceited assumptions that the lives people live in Africa are somehow “less than” the life we live in America and that slave traders and owners somehow “saved” people by ripping them from their home and forcing them into a life where their destiny was not their own. We need to be bigger than that. Humans should respect that the life they choose does not afford them the right to judge the path that others take. Free will was a gift given mankind at creation. Who are we to determine that “our will,” “our way” is superior. Enslaving another human to work your will is not ok…if God doesn’t enslave us to His Will, who are we to think we have that right?

  3. Linda Cooper
    Milwaukee Wisconsin Born in Alexandria Louisiana!
    February 13, 12:44 pm

    I really enjoyed the film, and reading your article. I am from Louisiana and have always had an interest in my family heritage and slave roots. I will definitely visit The Whitney Plantation when I come back this spring. Just recently moved back to milwaukee from Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina, where I had an opportunity to learn more about my family members on both my Mother & Father! I have a fondness of the south that I share with my children and documenting our history for generations to come. Your article is inspiring! Thank you!

  4. Scott Cochran
    Georgia
    February 13, 11:12 am

    Well written and thoughtful.. my only dispute is with the statement “Travel across sections of the American South and you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid running across one of the large antebellum plantations—some as populous as modern-day suburban housing developments—that once dominated the countryside.” These large plantations are the exception, not the rule..and if you delve deeper into the history of many, you’ll find they were built and owned by wealthy Northerners, such as Longwood in Natchez Mississippi. I’m not making excuses for my southern ancestors..just pointing out that the institution of slavery would not have been possible without the support of the north…nor was it a strictly southern institution, before and during the War which eventually ended it.

  5. Hidsya
    NC
    February 13, 8:53 am

    Charles, to answer your question, I think we are better off in the USA than Africa. My husband is from Ghana and while he might VISIT Ghana, he loves the USA. Don’t be confused, Africa is a great travel destination, but it is not a place to CHOOSE to live permanently. There is governmental corruption, unreliable water system, crime, women aren’t respected!

    Don’t glorify Africa! Even Africans are dying to move to the USA!

  6. Ken
    Louisiana
    February 13, 8:47 am

    “It is the same today”? “Nothing has changed”?
    You better re-read it my friend.

  7. Jacqui Haffner
    Kansas
    February 13, 8:44 am

    Slavery is still ongoing in many parts of the world, it just is nice to think that it has ended. If your trip here actually touched your heart learn what you can do to fight modern day slavery, especially the sex trade.
    Societal rules regarding slavery in biblical times were much different than what was and is practiced in modern times. She fell into the same trap as many today who judge the past and the behaviors of it’s people by the standards of today. In 200 years what beliefs do we hold dear that will be shown totally incorrect by science, medicine and practical life?

  8. Charles
    Waxahachie, Texas
    February 12, 1:39 pm

    Slavery was an evil ended 150 years ago. The great grand children of slavery need to ponder if they are better off now or had they been left in Africa.

  9. Michael Ponzini
    Helper, Utah
    February 3, 11:53 pm

    I spent a couple of years growing up next to the Shadows on the Tech in New Iberia, Louisiana back in the early 60’s. My mother had a hard time with our history lessons as everything was sugar coated when it came to slavery in the south. How is it that slave owners went to church and never really grasp the gospel of brotherhood and love? Anyway…….its the same today ……….not much has changed. Great article, Heather you brought back memories.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      February 4, 8:57 am

      Thanks Michael. This plantation does a great job of promoting discussion. Hope you get to see it.