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The Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans shows the reality of slavery

There are a dozen restored antebellum mansions and plantations along the west bank of the Mississippi River, on the River Road outside of New Orleans, and they are among the most popular tourist day trips from the city.

Most of them spin the same fantasy — allowing visitors to imagine themselves as the master and mistress of the manor, strolling beneath the magnolias in hoop skirts and top hats, and then pulling a cord to summon a slave to bring a mint julep when it’s hot.

Such places are popular wedding venues, where would-be Scarlett O’Hara’s can marry under old oaks, in front of white mansions built with the money from sugar cane, rice and indigo fields worked by enslaved people.

Only one plantation goes out of its way to flip the story entirely.

The “Big House” plantation home built from cypress trees hewn by slaves, at the Whitney Plantation slavery museum near New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 

The Whitney Plantation, also along the River Road, tells the same tale — but from the enslaved people’s point of view. And it’s a fascinating one.

Originally founded in 1752, the plantation went through several owners before being purchased in 1998 by John Cummings, a white former trial lawyer and civil rights activist from New Orleans.

He spent $8 million of his own money and 16 years turning it into America’s most important (and maybe only) museum of slavery. It opened in 2014.

Cummings said that he didn’t know what he was going to do with the property when he first bought it from a petrochemical company that had unsuccessfully sought to build a factory there, but after reading accounts of slaves that lived and worked on such plantations, he was inspired to create a museum.

Historian and author Ibrahima Seck came from Senegal to be the plantation’s director of research and help plan the exhibits.

Property records kept track of the purchase and sale of slaves, as well as their disposition after the owners’ deaths.

The Haydel family, German immigrants who founded the plantation and operated it and adjoining ones until 1867, owned 354 slaves over the years, according to the records.

A memorial on the property pays tribute and lists the names of 107,000 people known to have been enslaved in Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Slave Database. The 1860 U.S. Census, taken right before the Civil War, found nearly 4 million enslaved people living in the United States.

Since the African slave trade and its harsh aftermath are such shameful episodes in American history, people might assume that the plantation tour is grim and painful.

It is emotional — tour guides don’t mince words or hide the hard parts — but this important tour of American history is ultimately satisfying and helps fill in the blanks of many people’s curiosity about slavery and how it was practiced on such plantations.

The movies “Django Unchained” and “12 Years A Slave” were filmed at Whitney.

Like all such restored sites, people coming to Whitney Plantation see the elegant manor known as the “Big House,” but in this case they don’t learn about the master and mistress. No hoop skirts are in evidence.

Instead, visitors learn that the house was built of cypress wood, from trees chopped down and planed by slaves.

They hear about the domestic servants who worked there in the house and adjacent tiny kitchen building, perspiring over the hot pots and fires to feed its inhabitants.

As the museum’s excellent audio guide explains, most people would assume that the life of a domestic in a house like this was much easier than a field hand, but it also had its hardships.

Domestic slaves typically lived together in a small building behind the main house. However, they were on call 24 hours a day, and sometimes required to sleep on a pallet outside the owners’ bedrooms. Obviously, this also made it easier for masters to abuse their servants, who were unable to fight back.

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On the other hand, field hands worked brutally hard from sunup until sundown, but they typically had their own small cabins to live in with their families, and the few hours remaining after sundown were theirs to enjoy.

Sugar cane plantations like this one were considered the most deadly places to work, with the types of diseases that haunt swamps, venomous snakes and sometimes fatal heat exhaustion in the high temperatures and humidity.

Legally, enslaved people were property — not human beings — so they could be whipped, tortured, mutilated, imprisoned or even killed with impunity, on the whims of masters.

These are the kinds of insights that Whitney visitors learn as they tour around the remaining 40 acres of the plantation.

At the Whitney Plantation slavery museum near New Orleans, LA. Bronze sugar kettle where slaves made molasses from sugar cane. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 

In addition to the Big House, it includes a gift shop, a church built by ex-slaves, an iron jail, a blacksmith shop, a mule barn, the kitchen, the overseer’s house,the  garden, commemorative sculptures and actual slave cabins decorated with statues of the children who would have lived there.

The variety of artwork around the property lend a poignant air to the stories of the people who worked there.

At the Whitney Plantation slavery museum near New Orleans, LA. This Baptist church built by former slaves shortly after the war was moved to the plantation. Sculptures from the “Children of Whitney” series created by sculptor Woodrow Nash. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 

Huge bronze sugar kettles demonstrate the legacy of sugar production, from sugar cane.

Some of the buildings are original, others were moved here or recreated.

Today, the museum is owned by a nonprofit devoted to educating the public about slavery and its legacy.

At this writing, adult visitors pay $25 to enter, depending on time of day and type of tour. Kids and seniors are cheaper. Both guided tours and self-guided audio tours are available. We did the audio tour, since no guided tours were offered the day we visited. The site is mostly wheelchair accessible on gravel pathways.

In the combined visitor center and gift shop, permanent exhibits describe the history of the international slave trade, worldwide and in Louisiana.

The museum is open daily except Tuesdays. The best way to visit is by rental car or by tour bus from New Orleans. Expect to spend about two hours at the museum.

Learn more: The Whitney Plantation, 5099 Louisiana Highway 18, Edgard, LA 70049. 225-265-3300. WhitneyPlantation.org

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