Thirty-nine miles from New Orleans, there is a remarkable place known as Whitney Plantation. Of the thousands of tourists and conventioneers who spend time in New Orleans scarfing up beignets, soaking up great jazz and blues, and consuming generous quantities of alcohol, few know of its existence and significant history.
John Cummings has spent the last 15 years turning Whitney Plantation into a museum that tells the story of slavery through the eyes of children who lived there. He has worked diligently to make it a place of profound understanding and learning.
My visit to Whitney Plantation was sandwiched between the last speaker of the national charter school conference, Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and my flight back to Seattle.
There were about a dozen of us on the tour, all wearing badges, each with a picture of a named slave child, his or her story on the back, and in their words.
A local woman named Kristen was our tour guide. When we entered the first building, her baptismal church, I felt I had been punched in the stomach. The old wooden church is filled with clay statues of children—children who lived on the property as slaves. Each child and member of their family are named. It is their history you absorb on your 90-minute tour.
Hiding under enormous umbrellas to shield us from the blistering hot sun, we walked to a two-sided wall of honor listing names, birthdates and excerpts of stories from deceased slaves.
Kristen asked if there were any questions. The first one came from a young towheaded girl with a pixie haircut wearing a Disney shirt and a medical ID bracelet. She could not have been more than 8 years old. The little girl asked, “Did they go as hard on the children as the adults?” Kristen’s answer came carefully and quickly, “How the children were treated depended on the plantation.”
The juxtaposition of the restored antebellum house—where the plantation owners and their children lived—to the dark, crowded slave quarters was jarring. Hearing about the baby shackles was sickening. Seeing original carriages with cages on the back of them made me quietly gasp. We didn’t get inside the jail, a rusted metal railroad car exposed to the full force of the sun. One of those impressive southern thunderstorms moved in, but the outside of the jail left no doubt about a particularly cruel form of punishment.
We learned children were children until their 10th birthday. Then they became adults. Kristen told us later that there was a memorial on the grounds to honor all the children who had died while enslaved there.
There was a wall listing the names and prices of the slaves bought and sold at what was then the St. Louis Hotel in New Orleans. Today, the OMNI Hotel sits on that ground, directly across from the Convention Center where I had just spent two days.
The land on which Whitney sits grew and harvested indigo. Later it became a sugar plantation. Many years ago, my parents had a boat named Indigo. My ancestors were not slaveholders—but if my family had lived in the south, they might well have been in that reprehensible place.
Over the years, I have read about slavery, but not enough. I left the visitor’s center of Whitney Plantation with the books, “Chained to the Land” and “Twelve Years a Slave.” “The New Jim Crow” and “Just Mercy” were already on my summer reading list.
But as much as you read about the dark shadow of slavery, it is not the same as visiting a place that tells you its story through the eyes of children. Thank you, John Cummings for giving the nation its first museum dedicated to the history of slavery.
The last thing you see when you exit Whitney Plantation are three words. Let us take them to heart.