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.