Different people want different things from travel – nature, culture, nightlife, history. When I travel, I like to understand a bit of the social history – how people lived, that kind of thing. So it is perhaps inevitable that we made the decision to visit a slave plantation while in Louisiana.
This was not a decision I took lightly. I have read Af Am History Fail’s Twitter feed, after all (#NotAllMasters). I know that this brutal period in American history is not often handled well, neither by those who preserve the historic sites or those who choose to visit. I did my research though. And today we visited Whitney Plantation, LA.
I actually don’t know if I can write enough to do this place justice. I implore any who can to go and visit. When you arrive, you’re given a lanyard with a name and a picture. Mine was Julia. She was a slave who was freed by the Emancipation proclamation. The reverse has a quote from her, collected as part of the Federal Writer’s Project and their work to document slavery.
This tour, as you may have guessed, tells the story of plantations through the lens of slavery. After a visiting a church, you start by touring three memorials. The first is inscribed with the names of those who were enslaved at Whitney. On the second, names of the 107,000 enslaved people from all of Louisiana. The third, the 2200 slave children who died in this parish before they were 2. The names come from bills of sale, inventory and tax documents. Many of the children’s names from the final memorial are missing, with inscriptions like “a little negress” in lieu. Each memorial also has extracts from the Federal Writer’s Project – the words of the enslaved people of Louisiana punctuating the lists of names.
I am trying not to cry while writing this. I am not ashamed to say that I wept while reading the memorials. There was something about the idea that people lived and died and that we only know their names because of tax documents that valued them as property… I cannot fathom it. It is painful to try to understand. But this is a painful, brutal part of history – it should not be easy to visit a plantation.
We saw the slave quarters, the sugar mill equipment, the jail and the detached kitchen. The last thing we saw was the big house – it seemed insignificant compared to the rest.
I realise I have not yet explained the picture that accompanies this text. Inside the church – which incidentally was a period structure, founded by emancipated people, that was donated by a local Baptist community after Katrina – there were some clay sculptures. All of the former slaves who told their stories to the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s were children at the time of emancipation. Based on contemporary photographs of slave children, an artist made these sculptures to serve as a physical counterpart to their words. They are beautiful, and sad.
I don’t know that I can say much more that will interest anyone – although I did learn a fair few nuggets of historical interest. The emotional toll was high. But I walked away with Julia still around my neck, and remembered that she survived this.
I comforted myself with that thought, and with ice cream.