In honor of Black History Month, we seek lessons learned from a plantation with a dark history.
By Mike Hiestand, Houstory Founder
Every home, as we like to say at Houstory, has a story.
And while much of our marketing material shows families happily living their stories and enjoying their homes, the truth, of course, is that not all home stories are rosy. Some stories can be hard to hear. But such stories are often those most worth preserving and sharing.
In honor of Black History Month and the idea that these difficult but important stories are worth sharing, we turn our attention to the Whitney Plantation on Louisiana’s River Road, 35 miles outside of New Orleans. The location opened its doors to the public in 2014.
Records show that an immigrant family from Germany bought the land for the plantation in 1752. Its second owner named it Whitney, after his grandson.
While there are a number of historic plantations on River Road, most focus on what one writer called the “hoop-skirt version of Southern history,” where visitors can tour grand, restored antebellum southern mansions and have picnics under trees or host weddings under big tents.
Whitney is the first plantation museum in the country dedicated to telling the unvarnished story of slavery. And much of that story is told by houses on the property.
A society’s architecture, and particularly the way those who make up that society choose (or have chosen for them) to put a roof over their heads gives unique insight into what life was like at a given time and place. It does so in a way that historical facts and statistics cannot.
At its peak — statistically — Whitney Plantation included 1,700 acres, most of it planted in sugarcane. According to historians, the original owners became one of the largest slaveholders in Louisiana. In 1860, a household inventory showed they owned 101 black slaves.
Over the years, many more people were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation; the names of 356 of them are etched in granite slabs on the museum’s Wall of Honor.
The biggest building on the property — simply known as the “Big House” — had seven rooms on each level and was completed sometime prior to 1815.
The Big House’s residents included the house slaves, who were — euphemistically — “on call” 24/7. Unlike their owners, slaves in the Big House slept on pallets on the floor.
The majority of Whitney’s slaves lived in cabins on the property. Before the Civil War there were 22 cabins. In the 1970s, 20 of the cabins were torn down to make it easier for tractor-trailer trucks picking up sugarcane to enter and exit the property. Since then, a few slave cabins from nearby properties were moved to the site and today visitors to the Whitney Plantation can tour seven cabins that housed slaves.Made from cypress wood, the cabins look to have held up remarkably well over the past century-plus, bearing witness to our past in a visceral way that sticks.
As New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu said, “Go on in. You have to go inside. When you walk in that space you can’t deny what happened to these people. You can feel it, touch it, smell it.”
That’s the power of architecture. And particularly the power of a house. A house tells a story in a way that history books never can. As you see where slaves cooked their meals day after day, where they slept, where they washed and how they lived their lives as humans, the story of slavery in America changes from something we’ve all read about to something you feel, something that touches the core.As one visitor remarked:
“When we can get visitors to actually think about who these folks were and what their lives were like? That’s when you’ve made a difference.”
While the story of the Whitney Plantation is powerful, the story of the storyteller — and how the museum came to be — is also fascinating. The short version is that John Cummings, a white New Orleans trial lawyer now in his late 70s, purchased the plantation from a petrochemical firm in the 1990s and has spent millions of dollars on research, restoration and artifacts.
In an interview last year with National Public Radio, Cummings said he was inspired to turn the Whitney into a slavery museum after reading the slave narratives collected from 1936-1938 by the Works Progress Administration.
Americans, he said, have a hard time talking honestly about the legacy of slavery.
“If we can demonstrate that there is a hangover from slavery, they will then understand exactly what happened, and what obligation we [have] as a nation,” he says. “Maybe not as individuals — we didn’t own slaves. But as a nation, what is it that we can do to right some of the wrongs?”
Now, on to The Herd for this month…
What is “The Hearth Herd.” It’s simply a roundup (or “Herd”) of a few stories we’ve seen recently that we feel our fellow Houstorians would be interested in. The Herd’s content will generally focus on three things: 1) House and property history; 2) Family heirlooms; 3) Environmental sustainability. If you see something that you think belongs in The Herd, we’d love to hear from you!
Author: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Herd-Worthy Because: The author remembers her great grandfather and the issues he faced regarding race and culture—as well as his connection to Olympian Jesse Owens. “Recently, I inherited a precious family heirloom, a signed souvenir book from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”
Author: PRI (Public Radio International)
Herd-Worthy Because: Author Marie Mitsuki Mockett explores how the Japanese often tell stories through their family heirlooms and precious belongings. “I have this theory that one of the reasons why the Japanese are so good at design, is because they see objects as alive,” she says. “It’s not just a thing. Like when you pick up a cup you want to feel good about the cup and feel it’s an object that has a soul.”
Herd-Worthy Because: Do you think your home belongs on the National Register? Read this article and find out if you make the grade.
Author: Charlotte Observer
Herd-Worthy Because: Old vs new. Gentrification vs recognition. Historically black neighborhoods in Charlotte face a lot of challenges. “It has taken a while for buildings to get enough mileage on them for people to look back and say: ‘That’s history.’ Many buildings have been torn down here before that magic moment arrived.”