From the moment the French began to colonise the Gulf Coast of America, African slaves were being brought across the Atlantic Ocean by the shipload to help till the land, build infrastructure, and harvest crops for sale, by massive property owners. As the French established a colonial capital in America, that would become the city of New Orleans, landowners spread throughout the region, grabbing large tracts of land to plant various crops. Like other colonial powers of the day, the 18th century French settlers brought in slaves to work in forced labour to increase their revenue.
For better or worse, the French were meticulous in their bookkeeping. While many slave communities in what would become the United States lost their ties to their heritage in Africa, at Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, and immaculate effort is underway. In 2014, Whitney Plantation opened to the public for the first time in its 262 year history. While it is hard not to dwell on the past of slavery in North America and its impact on generations of people to come, Whitney Plantation also serves a nobler purpose. It sheds light on the daily lives of the people who worked this land and provides first-person narratives of the people forcibly brought to this location.
Less about preserving the appearance of slavery, Whitney Plantation provides insight into a period of American history that no one wants to see repeated in anyway. There are many lessons to learn from Whitney Plantation. In a nation built on slavery, one needs to understand the source of the problem in order to solve it.
Brief Background on Whitney Plantation
What is today Whitney Plantation, was originally known as Habitation Haydel. Occupation and cultivation of land started in 1752 by a German immigrant known as Haydel, together with his wife. The descendants of the Haydels, both black and white, owned the plantation until 1867. The 2,000-acre property encompasses a variety of buildings that include the so-called Big House (main building) and a blacksmith’s shop run by a slave named Robin at one point in time. The primary residence, the Big House, is built in the style of a French Creole raised home, and the site is also home to the only surviving French Creole barn in Louisiana.
Today, Habitation Haydel is known as Whitney Plantation. Trial lawyer John Cummings purchased the property in 2000 and spent millions of his own money to revitalise the grounds to open a museum to slavery. Mr. Ibrahima Seck from Senegal, West Africa was brought in to help Cummings turn the then-decrepit grounds back to life as a monument to the horrible impacts of slavery, while also preserving the lifestyles and impact of the Africans brought across the world against their will to work in a foreign land.
16 Years of Hard Work
The effort to restore Whitney Plantation and open up a center of learning spanned a total of 16 years. Cummings spent some $8 million of his own money over the course of one-and-a-half decades to create the museum as it is today. Mr. Seck, from the Department of History at the University of Dakar, Senegal, has worked full time with Mr. Cummings on the history of the plantation since 2012. As a native French speaker, from another former French colony, Mr. Seck uses both his native tongue and knowledge as a historian to sift through the impeccable records of the French colony in Louisiana.
Teaming up with the New Orleans History Collection and the New Orleans Notarial Archives, Mr. Seck has been able to start the project by solving one of the greatest mysteries many descendants of slaves face: their Heritage. Mr. Seck notes the following regarding French record keeping: “We have many documents related to this plantation here. When you (would) go to New Orleans, you buy slaves or you buy land or whatever you do, you have to have a notary over there, putting down on paper everything. If you borrow money from the bank, you have to sign a mortgage so it is really easy. And those documents allowed us to uncover the history of this plantation. And we have many inventories dating back from the 18th century all the way to 1860 where you see people coming from Africa who were enslaved here and have the names of the nations even. That was something you can find wherever the French were.”
Slaves coming into the French colony of Louisiana originated from many countries of the African continent. Though they may have looked all the same to their masters, the slaves were from diverse tribes and cultures, the modern-day regions of Senegal, Nigeria, Central Africa, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Mr. Seck has meticulously worked his way through these records that accurately reflect the real-life details of the people enslaved at Whitney Plantation: “So that’s how I became the historian of this place and I have a book about the history of the plantation. And the research, the thing we were able to uncover, the history of the plantation was implemented on the grounds. We have memorials built around what we found in the archives. All our memorials are based on hard facts we find in the archives which we completed before oral tradition, oral stories.”
Life on Whitney Plantation
The slaves of Whitney Plantation had but one job: make their masters wealthy and the plantation profitable. African slaves became seamstresses, midwives, weavers, spinners, and household servants. Others worked long, hard hours in the fields harvesting crops in the Louisiana heat.
While many books, films, documentaries, and other research focuses on the vile institution of slavery and its impact on African slaves, there was one thing about slavery that is often overlooked. Colonial masters were cruel to their slaves, by and large. Mr. Seck points out how slaves on Whitney Plantation would sneak out on Sundays into the woods to enjoy their own bit of culture, try and find a way to preserve their African roots and heritage. Some were even as bold as to try and go all the way into New Orleans to dance, drink, and gamble.
But if you were caught, the consequences were severe. Based upon records from the area, Mr. Seck details some of the treatment of slaves at Whitney Plantation who were caught sneaking out or all-out running away: “You run away the first time, they catch you, they would brand you on one shoulder with a Fleur de Lis and then they cut your ears. It becomes your identity. You run away the second time they catch you, they brand you on the other shoulder with another Fleur de Lis and then they cut your arms free. But if by any chance you crawl away a third time, you get away a third time? Now it’s the death penalty. It was a really vile institution, with a lot of pain inflicted to the flesh of the enslaved in order to tame you.”
What the masters of the plantation never understood was that damage to the flesh could never change the soul of the person inside. Even when flesh is harmed and bones broken,slaves resisted by holding onto their culture. Mr. Seck notes that this resistance came in the form cultural expression. Slaves held onto their own religions, their own folktales, and their own music. African cuisines flourished behind the scenes for more than a century, and eventually many of these things became part of the fabric of New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole.
For Louisiana, much of its identity today comes from African slave culture. Their act of resistance preserved their cultural identity, which was eventually folded into that of the region. Jazz music came from the plantations, so too did blues music and the famed zydeco music. Tap dancing and other forms of celebration, music, and cuisine all came from the resistant acts of African slaves in places like Whitney Plantation.
Who is Mr. Cummings?
No federal or state money was used to rebuild and preserve the legacy and contribution of the African slaves at Whitney Plantation. The money all came from one man: John Cummings. In late 1999, Cummings bought the plantation and saved it, and its stories, from being lost to history. From 1990 to 1999, a company from Taiwan owned the land and had plans to erect a chemical plant on the grounds. After Mr. Cummings purchased the land, he pushed forward with a previous plan that the LSU Department of Anthropology had hoped to facilitate, to turn the plantation into a museum of Creole culture.
A study of the plantation was undertaken, its archaeology examined, and the history of the place sifted through down to every last, little detail. As Mr. Seck notes, the sale to Mr. Cummings was fortuitous because, “When they decided to sell it, it just came like a package into the hands of John Cummings when he started reading the documents, that’s when he really discovered first hand slavery and he said this has to be a museum of slavery.”
Mr. Cummings was a trial attorney on major cases in New Orleans. With each win in the courtroom, he was able to earn large payouts as the representing attorney of the wronged parties. He would use that fortune for good, to create the only museum in the United States that focuses entirely on slavery. Mr. Seck says the average tour length at Whitney Plantation is 90 minutes. While 10 minutes are dedicated to the house and the slave owners, the majority of the time talks about the lives of the slaves. The efforts they went through to preserve their own cultural identify for generations to come, and the impact slavery had on their lives. Whitney Plantation is less a place of preservation and education. Here you’ll see the sadder stories of slavery in Louisiana, but you’ll also learn how these people sought to overcome cruelty to maintain a semblance of their own culture.