I’ve visited many plantations and historic homes in the south. They usually center their tours around the history of the home and the white families who lived in the “Big House”. There’s usually a cursory mention of the slaves, specifically how many were held in bondage to drive home the wealth and prestige of the white families who kept them as forced labor on the property. If there’s an interesting story about one particular slave, then the tour guide may take a couple of minutes to talk about them. However, most of the time, the cumbersome and controversial nature of slavery can make visitors uncomfortable, so it’s omitted from the tours.
This, however, does a disservice to not only the public who come to visit, but to the memory of the enslaved who lived and died there. In the south, it’s common to see these omissions of history due to the engrained dogma of the Lost Cause perpetuated after the Civil War, but that doesn’t make it morally or ethically acceptable.
One place has worked to fight against this trend of omission and it’s located in the deep south, just an hour outside of New Orleans along the Mississippi River. Whitney Plantation focuses exclusively on the story of the enslaved from the operations of the Atlantic Slave Trade when Africans were transported to the plantations in America, through to just after the Civil War when newly freed blacks struggled to define what freedom really looked like for them. They’re the only plantation in Louisiana (and there are a lot of them) that provides this full, unabridged, and uncensored look into what was once coined a “peculiar institution.”
Whitney Plantation was first established in 1752 by the Haydels (spelling in primary source documents vary), a German immigrant family that settled along what became known as the German Coast just outside New Orleans. They were not the only Germans to settle here, hence the name, but they did become one of the wealthiest plantation dynasties, lasting for 110 years. Their family is connected with many others in the New Orleans area, and their legacy can be traced to some Creole families that still reside in southeastern Louisiana. The patriarch of the family, Ambroise Haydel was born in Neunkirchen in November of 1702, immigrated to Louisiana in 1721 with his family aboard the Les Deuc Freres, and settled in St. John the Baptist Parish between Edgard and Wallace. He later married Marguerite Schoff and fathered three daughters and seven sons. The youngest, Jean Jacques, would later inherit the property, but his children married with neighboring plantations, spreading their familial influence in the community.
Ambroise was recorded as having three slaves on the 1731 census, but he soon built on his assets and established himself as a prosperous rice and indigo planter. Both of these cash crops made it necessary to import Africans from the West Coast of Africa. New settlers in the French colony of Louisiana were untrained and uneducated in the cultivation of these crops, but the blacks in Africa were. In the course of constant war and conflicts between the tribes along the West Coast (conflict sometimes instigated by the white countries who made a profit from their conflict) provided a steady flow of prisoners of war to sell into slavery, supplying the Atlantic Slave Trade with its human cargo. From the West Coast of Africa, they came to the Caribbean and other North American colonies. For the French in Louisiana, the initial distribution of slaves involved giving the slaves to the wealthy and elite of the planters, while selling them to the poorer class of farmers who weren’t as likely to be a major player in the local economics. Roughly 12.5 million Africans came across the ocean to be sold into slavery. These slaves came from a variety of countries and cultural backgrounds, but the majority came from Senegal and Gambia – sometimes referred to as Senegambia. Their naming practices often hinged on what order they were born in, what day, what tribe, and their family connections. The ancestry of these first Africans in Louisiana are illustrated in the names they went by. Today, at Whitney Plantation, one can read the recorded names of the Africans who were owned by the Haydels on the “Wall of Honor”, the first stop for any visitor to the plantation. Some African names are lost to history, as the Code Noir (Black Codes in France and extended French colonies) required that slaves be baptized and given new, Anglo-European names.
Legislation in 1808 outlawed the Atlantic Slave Trade, making the domestic slave trade vital to the continuation of the enslaving institution in North America. By then, Louisiana was now American territory (Louisiana Purchase in 1803), and planting families like the Haydels had to rely on slave trading with other states in the south, or the raising of a new generation of slaves on their own property. A decline in the indigo trade around the turn of the century forced the Haydels to shift their focus from indigo to sugarcane. While the process of producing the indigo dye for cloth was dangerous, sugarcane was even more dangerous and resulted in serious injury and death of several slaves on the plantation. By now, “Habitation Haydel” was owned by Jean Jacques Sr. and his wife, Marie M. Marmillion (part of the Marmillion family from today’s San Francisco Plantation) and together they owned 61 slaves and had bought more land to expand their enterprises. They had eight children and would pass on the plantation to two of the brothers, Jean Jacques Jr. and Jean Francois Marcellin.
The “Big House” at Whitney Plantation was built around 1790 by the enslaved population on the property. Everything from the bricks, which were hand-cast, to the cypress framework that was cut down from the cypress swamp, to the unique insulation material known as bousillage (a mixture of mud and Spanish moss), were supplied by slave labor. It remains a fine example of Spanish and French Creole architecture in southern Louisiana. At the time the author of this blog visited the plantation, the home was closed off to visitors, but the audio tour does imply that access to the interior of the home is normally available (in a non-Covid setting).
One of the many other unique aspects of a visitor’s experience to Whitney Plantation is that an extensive tour of the interior is not provided, like in most plantation homes. You can glimpse bits of the interior and certain rooms like the dining room and public rooms, but the rest is limited. Once again, this is because the focus of the tour and education of the place is meant to be centered around the enslaved, who would have also only caught glimpses of the prestige and glamorous lives of their owners. The exception would have been for the domestic slaves who took care of the cooking, cleaning, and child raising for their owners. While this might seem less arduous of a lifestyle compared to those working in the fields, the domestics were still subject to the whims and demands of the master and mistress, day or night. This made them susceptible to all-too-common cases of sexual violence, but it also put them in a situation where they could commit acts of resistance by gathering news from the Big House and spreading it to the rest of the enslaved community.
Another structure that was an integral part of post-slavery plantation life is featured at Whitney. The Plantation Store served as an indirect way to keep the free blacks bounded to the masters of the property, even though slavery was abolished in 1865. Up through the 20th century, the workers on the plantation would go to the store for food, clothes, medicine, etc. and the cost of these supplies was deducted from their pay. If the cost exceeded their pay, they would be in perpetual debt to the point they could never leave. The original store at Whitney was burned down during the Civil Rights Era, but has been reconstructed for historical interpretation for the public.
Other structures on the property include the original kitchen house, built in the mid-1800s. Here, domestics would cook meals for their owners and themselves. Foodways was another form of resistance among slaves and the echoes of it are still seen in southern or “Cajun” cuisine today. Dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and even grits have their roots in African recipes or ingredients. The cooks on these plantations shared their recipes with other slaves and with the white population, causing the traditions to spread and take on an ethnic identity of their own. Slaves also utilized other trades, such as blacksmithing and animal husbandry. Knowing this trade made them more valuable to their owners. They were often hired out to other plantations if they were not needed by their masters. Those who practiced these skilled trades could sometimes earn tips, which they would save up in order to buy their freedom. While this wasn’t common, it did take place on Whitney Plantation and there are records of formerly enslaved coming back to the plantation to buy back family members.
A focal point of the tour at Whitney Plantation is the row of slave cabins. There are 7 on the property today, mostly transported from other plantations, but there were once 22. These homes would be the center of daily life apart from their work. There was no insulation and the quality of living was poor. They were allowed to keep their own gardens, and if they were given passes, they could visit family or loved ones in neighboring plantations. Many of the cabins on the property were still occupied by workers at Whitney up until the 1970s.
The lives of the enslaved also revolved around the work they performed from sunup to sundown, or “Can’t-see to can’t-see.” This was the life of any child over the age of ten, who were immediately put to work in the fields. The many sugar kettles a visitor sees around the plantation are reminders of the dangerous work performed by the enslaved. Many aspects of sugar production were often deadly, which meant that planting families were perpetually in the market for more slave labor.
The overseer’s house on the property reminds that violence and oppression were everyday facets of the life of the enslaved. It was the job and responsibility of the overseer and slave driver to maximize profits and productivity on the plantation. That legitimized the cruelty inflicted upon the slaves. Much as a wagon driver whips a horse or mule, the slave drivers whipped the slaves as a form of punishment or motivation to work harder in the fields. It was also their job to make demonstrations to the other slaves of what would happen to them if they stepped out of line. These demonstrations would be carried out in full view of the other slaves. The recapture and branding of runaway slaves was one part of that.
Another symbol of the barbarism of slavery is in the “holding pen” seen as part of the Whitney Plantation tour. It wasn’t a part of plantation life, but it is a big part of the life of the enslaved. Before auction, slaves were held in cages or jails like the one at Whitney. Being sold at auction was a fear for many enslaved. They wouldn’t know if they would be sold with their families, if they would be transported across state lines, or if their owner would be more cruel than the last. The act of selling slaves either in private sales or at auctions was conducted as if the human goods they promoted were animals or tools. Dehumanization accounts for every aspect of the institution of slavery and Whitney Plantation is not shy about making sure this is properly expressed.
Along with providing education of the institute of slavery on plantations, Whitney Plantation devotes much of its tour and property to memorializing those who have been marginalized by history. A memorial to the heroes who were executed for leading the German Coast Uprising in 1811, presents a chilling display of the severed heads of those leaders. These were sculpted by Woodrow Nash, who also made the statues of enslaved children scattered around the plantation. More moving statues were commissioned, symbolizing the Atlantic Slave Trade and the end of bondage that came in 1865, sculpted by New Mexico artist, Ken Smith. Another sculpture of an African longboat representing the first leg of the Atlantic Slave Trade was made by Ed Wilson.
A separate memorial is dedicated to the names of children who lived on Louisiana plantations in St. John the Baptist Parish between 1823 and 1863 and did not reach adulthood due to the harsh lives they were born into. These names came from baptism records from the church. 2,200 names are inscribed on these low walls, along with the names of their mothers who were often children themselves when they became mothers as well. The statue of the angel cradling an infant slave at this memorial was crafted by Rod Moorhead.
Around the corner from the “Field of Angels” is another breathtaking memorial. 18 stone walls contain the engraved names of 104,000 enslaved persons in Louisiana between 1719 and 1820. Sprinkled amongst the names are quotes from the enslaved themselves. This collection is incomplete, due to a lack of primary sources. Hundreds of thousands more have been lost to history. This monumental research task was carried out by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, who rejected the false interpretation that blacks were an inferior race to whites. She was born in 1929 and raised in an era fraught with racial prejudice in New Orleans. For 15 years, she dove through archives and sales records, collecting the names of the enslaved, their countries of origin, their family relationships, occupations, owners, and what they were sold for. Her work is available to the public through the Louisiana Slave Database. Through her efforts, many families today have been able to trace their ancestry. Her exhaustive endeavors have given a voice and a story to those who had been denied freedom and a legacy in American history. In essence, Dr. Hall’s mission is also the mission of Whitney Plantation.
Marcellin Haydel took over the plantation from his brother, Jean Jacques Jr. Upon Marcellin’s death, it passed to his wife, Marie Azelie Haydel and she became the last Haydel to own the plantation until her death in 1860. During the Civil War, the plantation was sold to Brandish Johnson, who also owned other plantations in the vicinity. He continued to produce rice and sugarcane and profited from the newly freed slaves who stayed on with the plantation as paid laborers. The estate was renamed “Whitney Plantation”, after Johnson’s grandson, Harry Whitney. The property did not stay in the family and continued to change hands through to 1975, at its height consisting of 1,200 acres. The decline of Whitney Plantation came after it was abandoned in 1975. In 1990, it came into the hands of the Formosa Chemicals and Fiber Company that wanted to tear it down and create the world’s largest rayon plant.
Through much legal struggle and historical activism, it was decided that the plantation would be preserved and made into a museum instead (The Museum of Louisiana’s Creole Culture). It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 and eventually was sold to the Cummings family of New Orleans in 1999. That’s when it was decided to be revamped into the Whitney Plantation that can be visited today. In his book about Habitation Haydel and the history of slavery on the German Coast, Ibrahima Seck writes, “Whitney Plantation Museum is meant to pay homage to all the slaves who lived on the plantation itself and to all of those who lived elsewhere in Louisiana.” He also leaves poignant parting words to the visitor to Whitney Plantation through the audio tour, “If [you] leave the plantation feeling guilty or angry, that means I have failed in my mission. Because this museum is about educating people about the past. It may be a very painful past, but we cannot hide history. Hidden history hurts.”
At Whitney Plantation, the visitor can expect to feel a rollercoaster of emotion. As Dr. Seck says, the past can be painful. But it’s history that should not be pushed aside, sugar-coated, or ignored. Visiting the museum myself was eye-opening and I left feeling heavy. Not heavy with guilt, but heavy with new inspiration to do as Dr. Hall had done and ensure that history is properly interpreted, and that the general public are educated about the truth, no matter how inconvenient.
The tours at Whitney are self-guided and based through a new audio tour that can be downloaded though any app store on your mobile device. Since the tour is audio and there can be different groups of people on the property at various stages of their tour, I would recommend bringing headphones or earbuds to connect, so as to respect those around you. If you’re visiting with more people than yourself, a transcription of the audio is also available on the app. Or, turn down the volume. Get creative, but be respectful.
Because of Covid, the tour tickets should be purchased ahead of time. If they’re not busy that day, you can risk purchasing a ticket when you arrive, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There is also a small museum and gift shop inside the visitor center, so make sure you allot time for that in your visit. The museum takes a closer look at life past the 13th amendment on plantations, as well as other aspects of the institution of slavery that wasn’t covered in the tour.
If you want to learn more about the Haydels and the history of slavery along the German Coast, I recommend picking up Ibrahima Seck’s book titled “Bouki Fait Gombo: A History of the Slave Community of Habitation Haydel (Whitney Plantation) Louisiana, 1750 – 1860”. It can be purchased at the gift shop or online.
Visitor Center hours of operation at 9:30am – 4:30pm,
Tour times between 10am – 4pm.
Adult – $25; Children 6-18 $11 (under is free); Seniors/Military/Student – $23; Parish residents – $15
Address: 5099 Louisiana Hwy 18, Edgard, LA 70049
Website (order tickets): https://www.whitneyplantation.org/