Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Whitney Plantation

Whitney Plantation – originally known as Habitation Haydel – is a former plantation on the Mississippi River about a one hour drive west of New Orleans. This part of the Mississippi is called the "German Coast" as many settlers from Germany came here to grow food to begin with and later sugar cane as the major cash crop of Southern Louisiana during the 19th century.

There are plenty of old plantation homes that are open to the public that tell about plantation life and history during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, many plantation tours only briefly mention slavery and may point to some small cabins adjacent to the splendid big house before indulging once more in the wonderful Southern lifestyle back in the days.

Whitney Plantation features a different approach: They do a lot of research on the institution of slavery which is not only featured in a small exhibition on site. The guided tour is led from the perspective of slaves. As there are not that many remnants of former slaves left as history is usually told from the perspective of the slave owners and their houses and belongings, artwork is used for remembrance of the sufferings of the slaves.

There are walls of remembrance with names and as much information as possible of individuals brought to Louisiana from the Senegambia region of Africa. Some spaces also access the narratives of former slaves that were conducted by the Federal Writers' Project. Parallel to the Farm Security Administration, that hired photographers to document the plight of farmers during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration hired writers and anthropologists to give them jobs. As there were still people alive who were born into slavery the FWP conducted many interviews throughout the South gaining precious first hand accounts of formerly enslaved African Americans. Alan Lomax, who at the time was archiving the American folk song traditions, drafted a questionnaire used in this research.

Distributed throughout the site are sculptures by Woodrow Nash, mainly life-size sculptures of enslaved children.

Some of the slave cabins are original to the Haydel Plantation but were moved closer to the house. Most of the cabins were demolished in the 1970s, but now the Whitney Plantation buys such structures from other former plantations in the area.

The prison was found someplace else, but plantations often would use prisons like this to discipline slaves who had tried to run away or did not behave according to the expectations of the slave holders.

Not included in the tour – because visitors felt offended – is the memorial to the initiators of the so called 1811 German Coast Uprising, the largest slave revolt in US history. Slaves from different plantations marched towards New Orleans to gain freedom. Eventually they were defeated and the organizers beheaded. Their heads were displayed on poles along the river to discourage future upheavals.

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