August 2016

Whitney Plantation Memorializes the Lives of Enslaved People


Enslaved people at the Whitney Plantation lived in small cabins. They used these large kettles (left) to make sugar from sugar cane.

The Whitney Plantation is the first and only museum in the United States dedicated solely to teaching the history of slavery in America. It is located in Wallace, Louisiana, about halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. John Cummings, a New Orleans lawyer, and Dr. Ibrahima Seck, a historian from Senegal, transformed the plantation into a museum. They wanted to memorialize the countless numbers of Africans who lived their lives in slavery in the American South.

Visitors to the Whitney Plantation can take guided tours to learn about what life under slavery was like. There are seven slave cabins on the grounds where enslaved people ate, slept, and spent time with their families. Most of their day, however, was spent working against their will for long hours in the fields or at other jobs without pay. Visitors are able to go inside one of the cabins to see beds, chairs, and other simple furnishings slaves had in the 1800s. During the warmer months, it was often so hot inside their cabins that they chose to sleep outside on their porches.

Sugar cane can be found growing near the slave cabins. It was the main crop on the plantation in the years leading up to the Civil War. Sugar cane plants are difficult to harvest because their stalks are tough and hard to cut. Enslaved people were often injured in the fields because they were forced to work at an unsafe pace. Lined up near the cabins are many large sugar kettles. Slaves used these to boil sugar cane juice until it thickened and sugar crystals formed.

Just a short walk from the slave cabins is the “Big House” where the plantation owner and his family lived. Behind the house is a smaller building known as a detached kitchen. Two enslaved women worked long hours to keep the fires in the kitchen burning 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Using heavy cast-iron pots, they cooked three meals a day and any other food the plantation family might suddenly demand.

One of the museum’s most striking memorials is a group of 40 statues of enslaved children that were sculpted by Ohio artist Woodrow Nash. These realistic figures can be seen inside the Antioch Baptist church and at other locations on the grounds. They serve to remind visitors that children were also deeply affected by slavery.

Visitors can explore other memorials on the grounds, such as the Wall of Honor. It is dedicated to all of the former slaves of Whitney Plantation. Their names and information, such as age, place of origin, and skills, are engraved on large granite slabs. Another memorial honors all of the enslaved people who ever lived in Louisiana. More than 100,000 names of known slaves are carved into 216 granite slabs that are mounted on 18 walls. The walls also include quotations from slaves and related pictures. In addition, the Field of Angels section of the memorial is dedicated to 2,200 slave children who died within the surrounding area of St. John the Baptist Parish.

The Whitney Plantation provides one of the most complete pictures of slave life in Louisiana and across the American South. It educates visitors about the hard truths of slavery. It also helps bring dignity to the stories of enslaved people who had hopes and dreams just like everyone else.

Image credit: ©Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Question 1
What was the main crop grown at the Whitney Plantation in the years leading up to the Civil War?

Question 2
Who is the Field of Angels memorial dedicated to?

Rate this story:
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars