Whitney Plantation near Wallace, Louisiana
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New Orleans is one of the most unique cities in the United States. The jazz music, cultural heritage, architecture, and delicious food keep millions of visitors entertained every year. Pulling back the curtain on that entertainment reveals an area that is also rich in history. A dark history.
What many Americans may not know is that New Orleans, before the Civil War, was the center of the U.S. slave trade. Louisiana alone had up to 1,600 plantations producing sugar, indigo, rice, and cotton.
As a result, a common thing to do while in New Orleans is to visit a former plantation. There are quite a few of them. However, after doing some research, you realize not all plantation tours are the same…
About the Whitney Plantation
Located in Wallace, Louisiana, along the mighty Mississippi River, the Whitney Plantation is the only museum and memorial dedicated to slavery in the United States. It opened to the public in 2014 after 15 years in the making.
The exhibits at Whitney offer written testimony and oral history from surviving slaves who took part in the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers Project. A job program that stemmed from the New Deal after the Great Depression, when the US government sent unemployed writers to document the life stories of people across 17 states.
It’s a beautiful museum with over $8 million dollars invested in it. The founder was John Cummings, a white trial lawyer from New Orleans, who felt it was important to tell the story of slavery from a different perspective.
He commissioned original artwork and created a masterpiece. Most notable are the life-size bronze sculptures of slave children from Whitney by artist Woodrow Nash.
The plantation began in 1752 and was owned by German immigrant Ambroise Haydel, his wife, and later their descendants until 1867. It was home to over 350 slaves.
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Why You Should Visit the Whitney Plantation
There are several plantations you can visit that are only a short drive outside of New Orleans. Oak Alley plantation is one of them and although it’s incredibly beautiful, the majority of the tour is through the eyes of the French enslavers that operated it. This is the norm on most plantation tours.
What makes the Whitney Plantation unique is that the plantation story is through the lived experience of the slaves themselves. After all, who knows their story better than them?
It gives you an opportunity to deepen your understanding of slavery and offers a fascinating glimpse into the origins of American capitalism and an industry that once fueled much of the world’s economy.
Quentin Tarantino also shot movie scenes for the film Django Unchained on the plantation.
Some Thoughts on the Whitney Plantation Tour
On the day of our visit, it was cloudy, with thunderclouds looming in the distance. It really added to the weight of being there. The plantation is beautifully groomed and maintained, but it’s a heavy, hot, and humid place.
My tour group was a mix of races and people of all ages. Rather than the tour starting in the big house focusing on the family that owned it, this one starts inside the Antioch Baptist Church. The church was built by freed slaves after the Civil War and donated to the property.
Standing out in the blazing sun, you can imagine how brutal it must’ve been being a slave, working in the field for 12-16 hours a day. As sweat was dripping down my forehead, I kept reminding myself that I was privileged to be visiting as a tourist.
At one point our guide told us that children of the enslaved were taken from their mothers and put to work around age eleven. We saw a young child there with another tour group, whose mother then turned to tell him “That’s how old you are”.
Clearly, the conditions of slave life on a plantation were miserable. Many slaves had to hunt squirrels and possums to supplement their food rations. Furthermore, injuries in the fields were also common and overseers punished slaves for seemingly insignificant things.
One sad story recalled a woman brutally beaten for stealing a biscuit because she was hungry.
Relevance in the Current Political Climate
There has been a lot of discussion in the US about racism over the last several years since the murder of George Floyd. Many of these conversations are long overdue. Unfortunately, because of these discussions and a renewed push for change, there has also been a backlash.
Books are being banned and school curriculums are being changed. Because Republicans are passing legislation against teaching the darker aspects of US history in classrooms. Even going as far as trying to paint slavery in a more positive light by saying that slaves learned useful skills.
Our preference for comfort doesn’t make what happened in the past any less true. If you have any interest in truth whatsoever, the past matters.
How can we learn or do better if we don’t know our true collective history? Yes, it’s sad and not fun to think about, but it shouldn’t be denied and whitewashed either. That’s inexcusable and dangerous.
People need to know these things. Our inability to face and acknowledge our nation’s history perpetuates racism and inequality today.
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Slave Culture and its Effects on New Orleans
On the tour, we learned that most of the wonderful things people love about New Orleans, the Creole cuisine, the jazz, and the blues, stem from slave culture.
The level of erasure is astonishing when you realize the immense contribution enslaved people made to the region and to the culture of the United States and how little credit has been given.
Life After Slavery on the Whitney Plantation
After chattel slavery was abolished, some slaves became sharecroppers during the Reconstruction era. Continuing to live and work on the compound in exchange for a small share of the total crop. Living under a system of debt peonage.
What little money they made was often needed to repay debts from purchasing things at the owner’s store at overinflated prices. Most sharecroppers were unable to leave the plantation for this reason. Sharecropping continued well into the 20th century.
Memorial to German Coast Uprising
There is also a memorial for the 1811 German Coast uprising on the property. This commemorates a two-day march held by an estimated 200-500 slaves armed with hand tools who left their plantations for the city of New Orleans in defiance of their masters. It was the largest slave revolt in US history. Have you ever heard about it?
Along the march, slaves were burning crops and plantation buildings. White planters killed forty-five of them. In the following weeks, the planters had an additional forty-four tried and decapitated. Their heads put on pikes to intimidate other slaves who might also get the bright idea to revolt.
Field of Angels
The Field of Angels is another memorial for the 2,200 enslaved children who died in the St. John’s Baptist Parish. The statue by artist Rod Moorehead in the memorial depicts a Black angel carrying a baby up to heaven.
How to Get to the Whitney Plantation
The easiest thing to do is to rent a car to pick up in the city and drive yourself there. If you’d rather not drive you can take a tour from New Orleans, leaving from the French Quarter. Another option is to combine it with a hovercraft tour through the swamp and make a day out of it.
Whitney Plantation Location and Hours
The Whitney Plantation is located on Louisiana’s historic River Road about an hour from New Orleans at 5099 Louisiana Highway 18 70049.
The visitor center is open from 9:30am to 4:30pm, Wednesday to Monday. The museum is not open on Tuesdays. The grounds open for tours at 10am, and the last tours leave at 3pm. So get there before then!
Anyone may enter the visitor center, but touring the plantation requires a ticket.
Whitney Plantation Tours
Self-guided audio tours and guided group tours are available at the Whitney Plantation. I took a guided tour and really enjoyed it. It’s nice to have someone who can also answer questions you might have.
Whitney Plantation tickets are available both online and in person:
- Self-guided tours may be booked in advance online or in person and cost $25 per adult.
- Group tours can also be booked online or in person and cost $32 each.
There’s a gift shop there with a large number of items. You’ll find books, African handicrafts, postcards, jewelry, and more. You can also find post-it notes left by visitors sharing their thoughts.
What to Bring to the Whitney Plantation
- An open mind
- Comfortable shoes
Slavery is a part of US history. The Whitney Plantation is not an easy place to visit, but an important one. It’s something every American should see. The stories and testimonies of the slaves are heartwrenching.
Just remember if it makes you feel uncomfortable to go to a place like this, think of what it must’ve been like to live there as a slave. As property of another person from the cradle to the grave.
Above all, visiting these kinds of places helps people to develop empathy and more empathy in the world is always a good thing. The objective of the tour is to educate people, not to shame anyone or glamorize anything and I think it accomplished that goal.
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