John Cummings is a unique individual. A talented trial lawyer, real estate magnate, and wealthy man. He has utilised his personal fortune in a unique way. A white-Catholic, from New Orleans, he has invested millions of his own wealth into calling attention to slavery’s evils through education at Whitney Plantation.
The machine that powered the southern economy of the United States from its time as a British colony through the nation’s independence and its eventual spiral toward Civil War in the 19th century was slavery. With fertile planting grounds running the length and breadth of the traditional American South, plantations sprung up in areas ranging from the Carolinas and Georgia through Alabama, Mississippi, and to the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Millions of people, predominantly from African roots, were brought to these plantations to provide free, forcible labor that would power the commodity-based economy of the South.
Today, the United States continues to attempt to come to grips with the lasting legacy of slavery. Though Abraham Lincoln brought an end to slavery with Union victory in the Civil War, the disadvantage of African-Americans continues to this day and is rooted in the awful treatment these people endured at the hands of plantation owners and southern whites. One man, a retired lawyer from New Orleans, has used millions of dollars from his own accounts to revitalize Whitney Plantation and open its 250-acre plot as a museum to slavery in the United States.
John Cummings is on a mission to open the eyes of Americans to the tragic story of slavery in this country, and here in the heart of Louisiana’s Creole communities lies a place where people can now learn more about the scars of slavery. Cummings spares no detail in shining a light on slavery while providing a different type of plantation experience in modern America than those of neighbouring plantations around Wallace, Louisiana.
Meet the Man with the Plan: John Cummings
John Cummings is a son of the Bayou State. Born in Louisiana, he grew up in a large family that was strictly Catholic. The family attended mass weekly and his father was adamant that the family arrive early to every service. The only son in the family, Cummings is straight forward in his recollection of childhood:
“Let me tell you how this worked. I came from a family of seven kids, I was the only boy, and those sisters got Hell from me, and we were raised in a Catholic home, and we went to mass every Sunday, in fact my father would get us there fifteen minutes early, I don’t think we’ve ever forgiven him for that, but you had to be in church before everyone, before anything started, and if you would dare put your butt on the pew while you were kneeling, you’d get extra admonition because you weren’t religious enough. Anyhow, as I got old it wasn’t as bad, because I could go and look at the girls. That was another good reason to be in church, which I didn’t mind at that point.”
Unlike his standing in the world today, Cummings’ family didn’t grow up with wealth of any level. He recalls hitchhiking just to get to high school, and not having the money to get into the annual fair each year. The fair cost a meager 10 cents. Fortune may not have been in his pocket, but it was on his side. Cummings’ father was a CPA who taught accounting free of charge at Loyala during World War II. Loyola repaid his father’s volunteerism with the offer of a scholarship to each of his children. At the time, there was only one Cummings child. Eventually, there were seven. John was able to attend Loyola on a scholarship.
After excelling in school at Loyola, he went on to law school and did well there also. While some people choose law school for a sense of aiding in the cause of justice, John has a more lighthearted reason for eventually finding himself in law school. He tells Kreol Magazine:
“I always knew I was going to law school, always. I always, like today, talk quite a bit, and it was always, always my practice to get involved in everything that was being talked about and I’d always have an opinion, you know? I was always very active and whenever there was a debate society or somebody was fussing with somebody, I’d always get in the middle of it and pick a side, and just argue it. Sometimes I’d get beat up, but I’d always do that, I don’t know why. I would realise that there was a difference in people who were persuasive and people who were not.”
Unexpectedly Amassing Wealth
Following his time in law school, Cummings had no connections or contacts among lawyers or judges. Near the end of his law school studies, he met a man named Brendan Brown who was a professor and lawyer who had worked on the war trials following World War II. To many he was, as Cummings noted, a “fuddy-duddy.” To Cummings though, he was a national hero who knew law school grads often left the academic world with little to no connections. Cummings was able to overcome that lack of connection though and launch his career.
A trial lawyer in New Orleans, Louisiana hired Cummings for 425 hours per month of work. He worked there for about four years before joining the firm Battle & Discan. It was there that he found his path to working on major disaster cases. He was involved in a big case with an American sugar refinery that had exploded. Cummings was merely helping take depositions and categorising the results when the lead attorney suffered a heart attack. As second chair on the team, Cummings took over the case and landed a huge win. He explains this seminal moment in his career as follows:
“The judge recessed the case for two days, and on the third day I was lead council, but I may have been an error. I was never in doubt and I just, we just, went man ‘got enough ahead on the books on the lawyers, some of them twenty years older than I was man, and I’m just, we’re doing it man.’ We settled it for big money, then big big money, and I just walked away without saying anything like ‘good job’ or anything like that man, but when I got out of there and after I got home, man I literally danced-jumped with my feet up. You remember Steve Moore with the happy feet bit going raising hell, because I had done it see, and then from then on any major case in the city I was asked to join because I had the experience. So we had the Shell Oil explosion, we had the Case of the Chinese ship, about ten just came right along and I was sitting and then we went to the MGM Graham Hotel fire.”
How to Spend a Fortune
Over the course of his career, Cummings has earned millions on disaster cases. He’s represented countless different individuals and groups in major lawsuits, winning more than his fair share of encounters with others in the courtroom. He recalls that the first few years, and the big case victories that came with them, were fraught with pitfalls. When one comes into that kind of money, as he notes, there are many traps. “Young lawyers, in particular, buy gold Rolex watches, encrust them in diamonds, and buy a Mercedes or other high-end automobile”. Cummings largely avoided these trappings though.
He bought second-hand or used automobiles. He bought and wore blue jeans, cut his own grass at home, and even cut his own hair from time to time. He viewed those wasting a fortune as foolish and spoiled. For Cummings, his millions would go to a better cause. Cummings has always had a sense of social justice, and as a mature adult in the latter stages of his life, he knows right from wrong. Both on a personal level, but on a national level.
To him, there was a big wrong that a lot of people in America were simply ignoring.
The Road to Whitney Plantation
When Cummings was a young man, he recalls one of the more unfortunate encounters with race he had in his life. Cummings, a white Catholic, could easily have gone about his life in America during the middle 20th century and enjoyed his position of entitlement. However, he believed in giving back and getting involved. When he was a young teen, he met a woman named Leona who lived in his neighborhood. Leona was a kind, beautiful young black woman. Cummings recalls passing by her house on a daily basis and vividly remembers the red daisies with orange petals in her house. From time to time, he would stop to offer his help digging in the garden to Leona.
This action did not go unnoticed by other members of the community, particularly those who didn’t view interactions between the races with such a forgiving eye. A former policeman, by the name of Mr. Reinhart, crossed paths with Cummings on this matter, and he will happily recounts how he handled the situation:
“So one day I came home, and there was a man that lived near Leona, between our house and Leona, and his name was Reinhart. Mr. Reinhart, he was an ex-policeman and he’d always tell stories about when he was a policeman and how they were going to get him. I’d been down at Leona’s and my mother said ‘I got a call from Mr. Reinhart, John.’ I said ‘about me?’ She said ‘yes,’ I said ‘what did he say.’ She said ‘well, I’m going to tell you exactly what he said, he said Mrs. Cummings your boy John’s spending too much time with that ni**er woman.’ I said ‘he called Leona, ni**er?’ She said ‘that’s exactly what he said,’ and she said ‘I want you to know that I’m so happy that you do help once in a while.’ I didn’t worry about that, I went and I found me a two by four, and I went down there and I went right up to his screen door and his door was closed. I leaned that two by four behind me where he couldn’t see it. I rang his bell so he opened the screen door and I said, and the screen door he didn’t unlock, I said ‘Did you call Miss Leona a ni**er?’ He said ‘You’re damn right and that’s what she is.’ I grabbed that two by four (a heavy piece of wood, measuring 2″ x 4″) and went right through that screen looking for him, he slammed the door and he’s the big policeman with the pistol, man, I mean with the bullet man, a ten year old, twelve year old kid’s chasing him with a two by four and then I went home and told my mother what I did and she said ‘I’m proud of you.’ That’s the last I saw of Reinhart, and he didn’t make any more phone calls.”
All of this is part of the experience and view of Cummings that led him to invest millions of his own wealth in establishing a museum to slavery in the United States. It was time for the nation to come face to face with the real, actual existence of slavery in the country. What had it done to those enslaved? How had it shaped the region?
History of Whitney Plantation
In 2000, Cummings started on his quest to turn his vision into a reality. Part of his wealth had come from winning major disaster cases, but he had enhanced his own wealth through real estate over the years as well. He had purchased various properties around New Orleans and southern Louisiana, turning each one into a fortune for himself. It was in 2000 that a new kind of opportunity landed on his doorstep, one that he would use to make his biggest push for social justice, equality, and atonement. A friend of Cummings’, from St. James’ Parish, whom he describes as a Cajun boy, called him one day to inform him that Whitney Plantation was for sale.
The plantation had originally opened in the 1750s as the Habitation Haydel. It was founded by a German immigrant by the name of Abroise Heidel. The Haydel Family farmed indigo on the property initially, but later turned to the eventual king crop of Louisiana: sugar cane. That sugar cane was harvested with the labor of over 350 slaves. Their names, and the names of 107,000 other slaves who toiled away in Louisiana are now found on black granite slabs at Whitney Plantation, but how did it all come to pass? With $8.6 million of his own money, Cummings did what the US government never could (or would), and turned Whitney Plantation not into a tourist attraction and hotspot for chic weddings, but into a museum highlighting the toil, labor, and suffering of black slaves in America.
The property wasn’t easily purchased and acquired without work. Cummings recounts that he had to read an eight-volume study of the property’s history. It was a prerequisite of the state to complete the work before building could take place. Whitney Plantation as it now stands was not how it looked when he took over:
“When I bought the property it was terrible. Terrible condition. You saw the big house. It had no porches. You saw the kitchen. The kitchen was on the ground. But, I covered everything with plastic. First thing I did. Everything I covered with plastic trying to preserve whatever was there. During that first year I started to read these eight volumes. I figure I better find out what the hell it is. The first was on the buildings and the architecture. That was interesting.”
Whitney Plantation’s main house, known as the Big House, is the primary building on the plantation complex that includes a variety of homes and outbuildings with at least 12 historically recognized structures. The Big House is today considered one of the finest existing examples of Spanish Creole architecture. Based upon when it was built, the Big House is also one of the earliest raised Creole cottages in the state.
Learning the dark, sordid details of Slavery’s Existence
American history books teach children of the existence of slavery in the United States. It is often framed, however, in light of the Civil War. Children are taught that southern landowners didn’t want to relinquish their right to own slaves and work the land, turning massive profits in the process on major cash crops like tobacco, cotton, and sugar cane. Based entirely upon the free labour of slaves. Many Americans probably think they know the reality of slavery, but as Cummings is quick to point out, there are a lot of Americans who consider themselves smart that likely don’t understand the reality:
“The real interesting part was the part on successions. When the owner dies and then it passes into other hands. When that happened then, within days of the death, the notaries would come to take an inventory of everything that you had. The state would collect an inheritance tax on that. So, I looked at all of that and in looking at the inventory I saw that the second most valuable asset were human beings. Here I was in my 60’s and it didn’t ring a bell. I didn’t know that. I mean, I knew it but I didn’t know that. It was a number like 1-100. 1-100 was 24 years old. His job on the plantation was, he was a blacksmith. Any comment that they wanted to put in there like, broken, anything, just comment. And, then, in currency, a value, in either French, Spanish, or U.S. currency, was placed on every human being.”
The reality of slavery, mostly overlooked and glossed over in American culture, is the harsh truth that people were nothing more than property. There was a monetary value to every human being, captured on ledgers, in black and white, with a figure next to a name. For example, Cummings recalls that a single black woman was worth slightly less than a black woman with a child.
Whitney Plantation (the slaves experience) vs Other Plantations (the Southern landowners version)
Perhaps even more disturbing was his find that certain women were good breeders. Some landowners would operate plantations based upon children as the actual crop. Slave women with proven ability to breed were matched up with strong, powerful slave men to impregnate the women so the children could be sold off as slaves. Young children, black Africans and Creoles born in Louisiana, brought into this world, simply to serve in a life of forced labour. For decades, extending from one century into the next, many white Americans viewed black slaves as something less than human. Beyond simple property, people actually viewed black slaves as inferior and animalistic.
Cummings set about repairing and rebuilding Whitney Plantation. The move wasn’t as easy as paying some bills and getting the work done. Cummings faced resistance from other plantation owners in the area. Many of those plantations are visited annually by tourists to the area as a symbol of the Old South. Big homes, fancy dresses, and debutant balls all come to mind. Many of these other plantations are used on numerous weekends throughout the year as settings for weddings.
The buildings at Whitney Plantation would serve as a stark reminder of what actually went on within the grounds of these plantations. How has his work at Whitney Plantation been received in the nearly 2 years since it has been open? Whitney Plantation Draws People from All Walks of Life
The immediate reception of Whitney Plantation’s near-two-decade makeover was largely positive. People come from across the country, and from 35 miles east in New Orleans, to walk the grounds and try to come to terms with what had gone on, in reality, on these plantations. The regions other plantations have few African-American visitors walking the grounds in awe of the architecture and antiques. Whitney Plantation is a different story.
Cummings notes that among the unique visitors to the plantation have been a group of Black Panthers and a motorcycle club. The Black Panthers were derogatory toward Cummings at first, demanding free access as black people themselves who had likely come from slavery’s roots. When he explained the plantation was a museum to slavery and told them where the money went, the members of the group each paid $20 to enter and go on the tour to understand the real impacts of slavery.
The biker group was perhaps a more intriguing story:
“They came. I mean they were tough. I told some guys, “Why don’t we have a day where you just get all your friends with the motorcycles.” ‘Cause they came there one day with three or four motorcycles. We set it up on a Saturday. Out comes 22 motorcycles, man. I thought to myself, “What do we have here?” And, every one of ‘em had a motorcycle momma back there. The guy I talked to who was in charge of it had converted the bags, you know the bags on the side of the motorcycles, into an icebox and she had cold Miller Life long necks in there. All these tough women when I told ’em the story about the little girl who was out in the field and got raped and ran screaming to her mother, she was bleeding, and jumped in her mother’s lap. The only thing the mother could tell her was that she was wise to have submitted because if she hadn’t they would’ve killed her. When I told that story all the women started crying.”
Whitney Plantation: an education and an acknowledgment
The focus of Mr. Cummings’ efforts with Whitney Plantation isn’t just about enlightening people on the horrors of slavery. Like many other Americans, he sees where the country is right now and acknowledges the struggles it faces with racism. It is inherent in some institutions and the mindsets of some people. The goal of Whitney Plantation isn’t to shed light on the horrors of slavery simply to abhor people or make them gasp. As Mr. Cummings himself is quick to point out: “Education is the key to turning racism around”.
Only through greater understanding of how this nation got where it is; only with greater understanding of the trials and tribulations that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of African slaves on southern plantations, can the nation put into focus some of its current issues. Education will help defeat racism. Whether people appreciate Whitney Plantation or not, Mr. Cummings understands that this hallowed ground shouldn’t be glossed over. The experiences of hundreds of young black children, women, and men who suffered here needed to be told to the masses, so that the history of slavery was not disregarded.