From our recent experiences on the road from Washington DC, including the Civil rights Museum in Memphis, and reading up on the history of the South as we traveled, it was blatantly obvious that the living history of the South that is portrayed to this day is a revised view of the past.
Putting it plainly, slavery is pretty much a dirty word. The economic history of America’s rise to economic powerhouse was predicated on the use of people stolen from Africa, thought of and used as property, and disposed of without feeling, like a broken machine, when they became no longer productive. The South did it, and the North profited by it for along time.
So we spent the day at the Whitney Plantation.
In the cloying, sweaty heat of a late summer’s day, Edward, our tour driver, took us straight to a memorial, stark and powerful.
Here are the words that describe what we were to see next…
A rag-tag conglomeration of slaves revolted, gathering supporters as they went from plantation to plantation, but never making it to New Orleans. This was the result…
Summarily executed by beheading, without trial, their heads were thrust on spikes for other slaves to see.
There are many memorials at Whitney, but the most moving is the ‘Wall of Honor’, where every slave who ever came to the plantation has their name inscribed. By viewing their names and the scant identifying information with each name, some small semblance of justice is shown, in honoring their involuntary sacrifice.
Viewing this, you are inescapably enveloped by the horrific circumstances you will witness, as you move on with the tour.
The ‘Field of Angels’ commemorates every slave child who died in Louisiana.
“Thirty-nine children died on the Whitney Plantation from 1823 to 1863, only six reaching the age of five. The level of this death toll can be better understood when one thinks of a house where a child dies every year. Some of the children, either on this site or elsewhere, died in tragic circumstances such as drowning, epidemics, being burned or hit by lightning.”
The slave ‘children’ were everywhere, like silent ghosts…
And when we finally moved on to the ‘big house’, our guide first asked us to step inside a transportable prison cell, used by slave owners to keep rebellious slaves in check. It was entirely made of metal, and on the hottest of hot days must have been a living hell…
The plantation owners aspired to gentility, but the means with which the slave cooks were required to make food for their mistress and master were quite basic.
And when we approached the big house, and were asked to come inside, we crossed an invisible threshold, from squalor and brutality, to comfort, and freedom. It was quite disconcerting.
As we finished at the Whitney Plantation, silently milling around, I was struck by this final exhibit.
Slaves were thought of as less than human. A thing to be used. A vital part of the emerging American economy. And the potential for their owners to suffer penalties for ‘improper’ treatment – removing restraints that were ‘deemed’ necessary for continued subjugation – held the whole system in an oppressive vice.