Authors: Kayla Jordan and Liz Galarza
The Whitney Plantation, located in Wallace, Louisiana, is the first and only museum in the United States that is completely focused on highlighting the harsh realities of slavery from the slave’s perspective. In the 1990s, John Cummings purchased the land as a real estate investment, but after discovering the rich history, he spent sixteen years collecting artifacts, memorabilia, and the stories of individuals who were enslaved themselves, or were direct descendants of previously enslaved labor, to build what has become an embodiment of remembrance (Rosenfeld). John Cummings partnered with historian, Ibrahima Seck, in attempts to discover and illustrate to the visitors the honest truths of slavery that had failed to be acknowledged or memorialized in the United States prior to this attempt. The Whitney Plantation opened to visitors in 2014, and since then thousands of people have followed the winding path through the plantation tour while placing themselves in the shoes of a slave and interpreting the facts of slavery through this unique lens (Whitney Plantation). Although it is still expanding, the museum currently contains gardens, preserved slave quarters, pre-existing barns, a church, and many more collected artifacts that emphasize an authentic view of slavery in the 1800s (Whitney Plantation).
The Whitney Plantation educates people on the realities of slavery in order to inspire them to make changes to eliminate racism in their lives. This education is vital to bridge the gap in the society’s knowledge about slavery, which has resulted from the United State’s little effort to acknowledge the occurrence of slavery in their history.
This museum memorializes the lives of those who were enslaved by incorporating a variety of approaches and styles that all work together in attempts to elicit a powerful emotional response from the visitors of the plantation. The Whitney Plantation takes the full-disclosure approach by presenting the facts of slavery through a first-hand perspective of the slaves, thus providing visitors with an experience that discloses a deeper layer to slavery that is more frank than the education system includes in the curriculum for students today.
Historical and Cultural Context
Following the Seven-Year War that ended in 1763, a portion of what is now Louisiana was given to Spain, which yielded to a large increase in the amount of enslaved labor (Louisiana.gov). In the early 1700s, the land that the Whitney Plantation now occupies came under the ownership of the Haydel family, whom used the land to create a sugar plantation that was comparable to the other plantations lining River Road. Louisiana’s River Road, located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is famous for its seventy mile span of massive plantation houses “built by wealthy sugar planters in the Greek Revival Style” (Louisiana Division). All of these plantations were the epitome of the typical plantation house in the deep south: a big white mansion framed by spanish moss hanging from the trees, slave quarters scattered around the property behind the house, and a sugar house at the back of the plantation (Louisiana Division). The River Road used thousands of slaves through all of the plantations and flourished until they were forced out of business due to the improvements in sugar technology and the abolishment of slavery after the Civil War. The abolishment of slavery caused a shortage in the slave labor that was vital to the success of these sugar plantations, thus being a primary reason for the closing of these plantations along River Road and throughout the south as a whole. (Louisiana Division). Today, 90% of the population on River Road is African Americans who have some connection to slavery (Amsden). When asked why they are still living in this area they respond with, “Our journey in America began here, and our life here is testament to our age-old journey of tears” (Lewis). These individuals’ lives were directly impacted by slavery, therefore they understand the significance and recognize the afterlives of slavery present today. They are living on this road because of their connection with it in the past; their history is rooted to River Road, paralleling to how racism is rooted in slavery. The River Road is so rich with history, and a majority of the people still occupying this area are descendents of slavery who are still connected with their past, which makes this road even more valuable in analyzing the repercussions of slavery in the United States.
Through the 1700s and 1800s, the present day Whitney Plantation was operating under the ownership of the Haydel family, german immigrants who used their indigo operations as an excuse to gather slaves through the domestic slave trade in the Upper South (Whitney Plantation). The youngest son of the family, Jean Jacques Haydel Sr., inherited the land in 1803 and turned the indigo plantation into a sugar plantation, mirroring the surrounding plantations, and as a result purchased several more slaves to meet the high demand for labor necessary to run the sugar plantation. In the early 1800s, the daughter-in-law of Jean Haydel, Marie Haydel, purchased the plantation and used it as an agro-industrial unit for more production. Due to the large amounts slave labor that Marie employed, she was recognized after her death as being one of the largest slave owners in Louisiana with her estate valuing to $187,000 (Whitney Plantation). In 1860, African Americans began to gain freedom in the United States, and the number of free African Americans accumulated to 190,000. As these numbers began to climb, the enslaved laborers working on the Haydel family plantation began to resist and many attempted to escape, but were instead met by “punishments such as branding with a hot iron, mutilation, and eventually the death penalty” (Whitney Plantation). Over time, the majority of American people, primarily in the north, unified and sought to end slavery causing the Haydel family’s plantation and other surrounding plantations to become obsolete. Although the physical use of slaves ended, the discrimination against the African American society continued and is still continuing in the present day, which is what the Whitney Plantation is working to end racism and stereotypes. In 1992, the land that the Haydel family’s plantation once occupied was classified as a historic landmark and recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. It remained a historic landmark for seven years without any attention before falling into the hands of John Cummings who restored it’s history and significance by creating the Whitney Plantation in attempts to tackle to controversial topic of slavery (Whitney Plantation).
Themes and Style
Remembrance is the overall theme that Whitney Plantation epitomizes in hopes of ending racism in the future. This museum humanizes the idea of slavery by developing a very mimetic approach to memorialization in its exhibits. In an excerpt from American Art, Renee Ater reveals the significance of art and monuments by confronting the question of how the nation is supposed to memorialize a past that they would rather forget. There is value in using visual elements to represent significant historical events because it presents the necessary facts, but leaves them to interpret the information themselves and react in their own way (Ater). The United States is avoiding the topic of slavery out of shame and embarrassment instead of teaching the truths of that time period. This avoidance has led to a lack of memorials and remembrance of slavery, but the Whitney Plantation is working to address this problem and reveal the truth. Mayor Landrieu, the mayor of Louisiana, recognizes how the visual elements throughout the Whitney Plantation make the harsh realities of slavery undeniable (Amsden). The monuments and statues work together to elicit an emotional response from the visitors in attempts to prevent society from ignoring the history of slavery and recognize how the impacts of slavery are still relevant in the world today. Ibrahima Seck, the historian at the Whitney Plantation, explains that the overall goal of the Whitney Plantation is to educate the ignorant society on the consequences of slavery, and how he hopes that the style of the museum inspires people of all color to make a change in the legacies of slavery (McWhirter).
Statues depicting actual slave children that worked on the property are scattered around the plantation making the visitors realize that that it was actual people who were being exploited and treated so cruelly, and that slavery should be acknowledged because it is more than an isolated event of the past. The plantation refers to these statues as “The Children of the Whitney,” and each statue is named to represent an enslaved child that worked on the Whitney Plantation. John Cummings and Ibrahima Seck collected stories from previously enslaved children on the plantation and paired each statue with a story.
All of these elements incorporated in these statues are significant because they “[introduce the visitors] to the lives of the enslaved workers based on the recollections of those who endured, and who shared the stories of their lives as children in slavery” (The Whitney Plantation). “The Children of the Whitney” gives the visitors a more intimate experience when learning about the history of slavery through their life-like features and the personal stories associated with them, thus making the visitor’s reactions to the facts being presented more powerful. The visitors feel like they are personally connected with the enslaved child, and it gives them an honest, and intense view of slavery. Making everyone who visits the plantation have this emotional reaction and personal connection with the statues is working to accomplish the main goal of inspiring change in the society through education. The artist, Woodrow Nash, purposely designed these sculptures to resemble children to connect with the visitors on a deeper level because “[protecting] children is among the few noble human instincts, and the slave masters were as truly exploiters of children as the people we now call ‘predators’” (Nyce). Thus, the children draw a deeper emotion from the visitors than adult statues would have.
The visitor pass at the Whitney Plantation is an artifact within itself. On the back of each pass there is the name and picture of a slave who worked on a plantation in the United
States, many whom worked under the Haydel family, followed by a short personal narrative explaining their life (Whitney Plantation). Similar to “The Children of the Whitney” exhibit, the slave described on the visitor pass has a matching statue somewhere on the property for the visitor to find and connect the personal narrative with. When the visitor connects the story with the life-like statue, they come face to face with the past, enhancing the truth. This small detail that the Whitney Plantation has incorporated creates an authentic experience for their visitors that sets them apart from all the other plantations and museums attempting to memorialize slavery. The Whitney Plantation owns the past mistakes and makes the story of slavery personal; they tell the cruel story from the slave’s perspective, the true perspective. The Whitney Plantation recognizes the roots of racism that are tied to the ignorance of slavery, so they are working to end this and educate everyone sufficiently.
One of the main monuments at the Whitney Plantation is The Wall of Honor, a tribute to the 354 slaves that were owned by the Haydel family and worked on the plantation. This wall has all of the slave’s names engraved in a random order followed by their personal information and a brief description of their life, thus showing more information about the enslaved residents of the plantation than a typical museum or monument would (Whitney Plantation). The Wall of Honor resembles other monuments that recognize soldiers who fought and died while serving the United States such as those in Washington D. C. and Virginia; thus, the Whitney Plantation memorializes slaves as fallen soldiers of America (McDonald). Just as the memorials “[honor] the brave men and women who served in the armed forces,” and bring attention to their valiant efforts, the monument in the Whitney Plantation uses that rhetorical tactic to highlight the also honorable efforts of slaves (McDonald). Memorials highlight what it means to be
American, and the Whitney Plantation recognizes that to be American, we must honor slaves just as we honor soldiers, for both groups have fought their whole lives for freedom. Including the personal information of the slaves on the wall emphasizes that this maltreatment was forced upon actual humans, therefore humanizing the idea of slavery further and making theme remembrance more influential for the visitors. The random order of the names mirrors “the confusion and chaos that defined a slave’s life” (Amsden). This monument is so powerful because it represents the realities of slavery in a way that allows viewers to have their own emotional response, provoking a deeper intellectual understanding, rather than being told facts that an individual is forced to believe.
Critics recognize that the Whitney Plantation is purposely designed differently from all other plantations in that it is attempting to “elicit an emotional reaction to slavery’s horror rather than just presenting historical facts” (McWhirter). Other plantations and museums have included slavery exhibits, but it has never been the main focus nor have they been so interactive until the opening of the Whitney Plantation. Furthermore, the neighboring plantations in Wallace, Louisiana, that claim to be memorials to slavery were solely created for a profit gain rather than as a tribute to slavery. They are used as wedding venues, reunions, and social gatherings, but the real value of what the museums are structured on, slavery, is ignored (Amsden). The Whitney Plantation eliminates the ignorant attitudes about slavery among the white society and also honors the African American culture by educating everyone with the true realities of the past. It shows the visitors the cruelties instead of just stating facts and statistics relevant to slavery. Acknowledging the past of slavery, owning the fault, and becoming educated is the first step to reducing racism and building a better future.
Experts recognize that the development of the Whitney Plantation is a critical turning point for eliminating racism the United States. The mayor of Louisiana, Mitch Landrieu, compares the significance of the Whitney Plantation to Auschwitz, and states that the remembrance is needed for the American people. Landrieu says, “it is fortuitous that we come here today to stand on the very soil that gives lie to the protestations that we have made, and forces us as Americans to check where we’ve been and where we are going” (Amsden). The critics of the museum, even the most powerful such as the mayor, recognize the significance of the museum and how it is working to change racism in the future. A visitor of the plantation claims, “I see now more clearly that even, the dots across the timeline of history that led to our current situation of racism and the effect that it has across an entire community and nation” (Whitney Plantation). According to critics, this museum is establishing a whole new understanding of slavery that will have a powerful impact on the future of the United States. In the past, the United States has been ashamed of their history of slavery and it has become a topic that is avoided out of embarrassment. Before to the development of the Whitney Plantation, critics have raised the question of how a nation should “memorialize a past it might rather forget” (Ater). This museum recognizes the need of education to honor this period of slavery and it is working to fulfill this gap in education.
Due to him being a white male, there was a lot of criticism regarding John Cummings’s true motives behind building the Whitney Plantation as a tribute for the enslaved labor. At the opening, many individuals claim that the museum was needed in the United States, but they were confused as to why Cummings took it upon himself to use over $8 million of his personal money to build it. John Cummings approaches this question on opening day stating, “Like everyone else, you’re probably wondering what the rich white boy has been up to out here” (Amsden). Being in the heart of Louisiana, 90% of the population in Wallace consists of African American people, who voiced their confusion to Cummings. Along with the African American culture asking questions, his own family has asked the questions trying to discover Cumming’s motivation. Cumming’s frustratingly says that people have tied his motivation to feelings of guilt regarding white superiority, and to just simply trying to make a profit. Cumming’s put all questions to rest in his speech on the opening day by saying, “But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important,” followed by silence for the audience to think, and then ending with, “Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it, so I figured I might as well get started” (Amsden). Amsden analyzes Cumming’s sentence as being an “earnest form of self-indictment: Cummings’s way of admitting his own ignorance on the subject of slavery and its legacy, and by extension encouraging visitors to confront their own.”
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The Whitney Plantation, John Cummings, Ibrahima Seck, Woodrow Nash, Slavery Tributes, Remembrance, Wallace, African American, River Road