I’m trying to resist writing too much about my experience at Whitney, but it’s difficult because it was such a great tour. If I compare Whitney to the narrative I was presented at Melrose Plantation earlier this summer, it’s like night and day in terms of content and critical race analysis. Basically the Melrose tour had no analysis. How Whitney differs probably from every other plantation tour out there is they present it from the perspective of the enslaved: what their lives would’ve been like, how they would’ve experienced the region.
Whitney’s tour was so in depth, so raw, that I felt like it needed to be longer just to offer a space afterwards for facilitated discussion among participants. Especially for all the white visitors (who were the majority of attendees), who probably had little to no comprehensive education about slavery prior to coming let alone the relationship of that “peculiar institution” (as they like to call it in history class) to present day systemic racism.
Our tour guide minced no words, and even knowing as much as I do about slavery, it was difficult to hear and see. I can imagine it was incredibly intense for white folks. Or maybe it wasn’t. I would’ve been interested to know what they thought of the experience–whether they really took in what was being said and believed it, whether they drew any connections to the present day state of affairs, or if they felt like it was all in the past, that this was all an exaggerated, overdramatized narrative for shock factor. Either way, I think a talk-back after the tour would be valuable, as well as built in time to guide people to further informational resources, which were available in the gift shop, to make sure the information sticks.
It was an incredible guided tour and one that everyone should do; it should be a mandatory field-trip for school children in Louisiana.
In the waiting area before the tour starts there’s a two room display with information about slavery in the region–particularly how women were affected, Louisiana laws, and the trafficking routes and how current African Americans are connected culturally to places they would’ve originated from:
First stop on the tour was to this church that was built by formerly enslaved Blacks, all the siding was handcrafted. It was originally named, Anti-Yoke, in protest of bondage, but eventually they changed the name to Antioch. Inside were sculptures created by Woodrow Nash. When we arrived for the tour we were given a lanyard with a picture of one of the statues with a name and a background story. They’re meant to represent the children who would’ve lived on the plantation, but aren’t necessarily depicting specific people’s likenesses. The stories however, or quotes, are based on real people. Ironically the stories come from the Federal Writers Project that are housed in the Cammie G. Henry Research Center–the last owner of the Melrose Plantation–maybe she wasn’t your typical “well meaning white” person after all…or maybe she was.
My card was for Francis Doby, 100 years old at the time of her interview:
…out in de camp, out yonda in de camp near da cane fields, de ole, ole women too old to work and too old to make de babies, dey stay an mind de young chilens so dat de ma kin all work in de fields and dey feed dam an all so when de ma come back all dey got to do is to push ’em in de bed, all of dem in de same bed.
Next we visited several memorials. The first were wall panels listing known names, birth and death dates, of enslaved people who lived on this plantation. A couple of names pointed out were the enslaved children of the plantation owner, demonstrating the sheer callousness, to rape enslaved women, who then have their children that they in turn enslaved and many times sold for profit. The bell was described as being rung to gather enslaved people, often times to make everyone watch as someone was whipped. It was also described as the north’s complicity in the institution of slavery–most iron made items, bells, shackles, jails, were produced in northern cities. Despite their keeping their hands clean in the trafficking of humans, they profited from the sale of items used daily on those plantations. There was also a memorial to the children who didn’t live past 2 years old.
Next we moved to the slave cabins, some original, others moved from other plantations, and a description of what the sugarcane growing, harvesting, and cooking process would’ve been like and how gruesome it was. Those big “bowls” are sugar kettles that would be heated up, and molten sugar would be stirred and reduced often causing disabling and deadly burns. The sugarcane plants were in dense fields for miles on our approach to Whitney. The original slave cabin had a couple more statues by Woodrow Nash on the porch.
We finished our tour rounding by some of the other structures on the property, some stables, outdoor spaces, the kitchen–a standalone building, and finally “the big house” where the master and his family would’ve lived.