How a Louisiana Plantation Museum Is Helping Us Think about Our Slavery Content

Published:November 30, 2018 by Brendan Wolfe

Figures of enslaved children on a porch at Whitney Plantation (Photo: Justin Reid)

This blog post was written by Miranda Bennett, assistant editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.

John Little, who escaped to Canada from bondage in Tennessee, told an interviewer, “Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is,—’tis he who has endured.”

This seems an obvious observation and yet it’s something we think about a lot at Encyclopedia Virginia as we continue work on an NEH-supported section of content about the African American experience in Virginia before the Civil War. When studying slavery, it can be easy to listen to those who stood and looked on at the expense of those who endured slavery. There’s a practical reason for that: a lot more has been written by enslavers than by the men and women they enslaved. We often use this imbalance of recorded information as an excuse for not exploring the humanity of enslaved people.

So, how do we avoid making this mistake? How do we tell the story of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved?

It’s important to learn from what other institutions are doing, of course, and on a recent visit to the Whitney Planation in Louisiana I got to witness firsthand the compelling ways this museum has found to help its visitors understand the perspectives of the enslaved.

In addition to assigning entries on the lives of enslaved people and publishing dozens of Virginia slave narratives, we’ve been documenting, using a 360-degree camera, slave dwellings that have survived the century and a half since emancipation. The images we create of these often anonymous and forgotten buildings can then be viewed through our headsets that transport you to the space virtually. For those structures that sit on private property or are on the verge of collapse, this is the only way to experience them. More importantly, though, we document them because intimacy with a space is a powerful connection to the past and the people who lived there.

Located on the Mississippi River, forty miles west of New Orleans, Whitney was founded as an indigo plantation in 1752 before transitioning to sugar in the 1800s. At its height, the plantation enslaved 120 people, and during harvest season, they labored twenty-four hours a day over open fires ladling boiling sugar juice through a series of open kettles.

In 2014 Whitney Plantation opened as the first museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery in the United States. When guiding visitors through the site, staff members use the interviews with freedpeople that were conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s and 1940s as the launching pad for an enslaved perspective on slavery. Those freedpeople would have been children at emancipation—and throughout the plantation there are clay figures representing the children enslaved at Whitney. The recollections of these children offer insight into this foundation of American history that’s usually told in the words of those profiting off the institution.

At the start of the tour we were each given a card with the name of a former slave interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project, along with an excerpt from their interview. I was stunned to see that the card I received had an excerpt of an interview with Peter Barber, a man who was, like me, born in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was the first of many times during my visit that I would be asked to emotionally connect with the enslaved women and men who built Whitney and the country.

The tour began with our group experiencing some of the many memorials shaping the landscape of Whitney. At first it felt jarring to be asked to memorialize these people whose lives we didn’t know. But the Wall of Honor, a memorial dedicated to all the people who were enslaved on Whitney Plantation, was deeply affecting. Reading and touching their engraved names, ages, origins, and quotations revealed and emphasized the humanity of Whitney’s enslaved laborers. When it came to absorbing the functional details of the plantation, we didn’t lose sight of the people at the heart of the system.

The memorializing continued as we moved on and passed a bell mounted on a frame. When Whitney was a working plantation the bell was rung to mark the start to the day, meal time, and bedtime, a routine that reminds us of the complete lack of control enslaved people had over their time. Our tour guide encouraged us to ring the bell with the name of a child in mind, a sonic memorial that clanged across the landscape.

Throughout the tour I found myself losing track of the bounds of that landscape. It wasn’t even clear where the “big house” was until we saw it at the very end of the tour, an inversion of your typical plantation tour. The order and manner in which we were introduced to the memorials and buildings was spatially disorienting. It felt like an intentional effort to ensure our dependence on the tour guide, who kept us from falling into the mainstream script of slavery.

At this point our tour guide gave us an introduction to the way the plantation worked. It’s the white owner’s perspective on slavery, an economic system devoid of humanity. But you still carry the names of the enslaved with you. You have the human cost in your mind when you hear the numbers that make up this economy, from slave sales to production amounts to hours of labor to lives lost. The Whitney staff designed the tour so that you cannot hear these facts and numbers detached from the people on whose backs that system was built.

The thoughtful interpretation I got on the Whitney tour has stuck with me and made me reflect on the way we interpret slavery and, in particular, slave dwellings, at Encyclopedia Virginia.

How can we reintroduce the lives of the enslaved into these spaces?

Joseph McGill, the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project and someone who is dedicated to identifying and preserving the structures where enslaved men, women, and children lived, has emphasized the important role they play in helping us to remember our history.” As long as these spaces are there,” he has said, “it’s very hard to deny the presence of the people who lived in them.”

Another preservationist, Jobie Hill, whose project is called Saving Slave Houses, has suggested that we research the names of all the people who lived in these slave dwellings. Without some details of the people who turned these buildings into homes in spite of extreme hardship, the images can feel like clinical architectural documentation.

Amassing the names, ages, skills, and origins of more than 300 people who labored at Whitney Plantation was a feat made possible only by extensive records and years of research. And even then there aren’t more than a handful of stories that researchers can attach to these families.

We’ve thought of interviewing descendants of the enslaved people who lived in these dwellings in order to connect our audience to their ancestors and the era of slavery. On the Whitney tour, our guide traced the lineage of a young enslaved woman to the present day, quoting her descendants’ reactions to Whitney. The purpose of including the descendants in the tour was to show their redemptive journey from slavery to becoming a prominent New Orleans family. That’s very different from the descendants becoming an emotional conduit for us to experience the horrors of slavery.

Our goal with these virtual tours is not to elicit an emotional response. But in order to capture the history of the enslaved, maybe we can’t be totally dispassionate. I’m not suggesting we produce historical fiction, but I wonder if there’s a way to create opportunities for creative empathy. When we go to historic houses we are constantly asked to imagine ourselves in the shoes of whatever wealthy (usually male) elites made their home there. That’s partly because there’s more about these people to draw upon when painting historical figures as real people. I wonder if getting inside the head of these people comes to us more easily because history is so often taught from a white male perspective. We’re not practiced in extending empathy to enslaved people. How can we inspire an imaginative empathy that allows us to inject humanity into these slave dwellings when the historical record is woefully incomplete?

Discussion

2 Comments on “How a Louisiana Plantation Museum Is Helping Us Think about Our Slavery Content”

  1. Ashley Turner-Walker

    What you are attempting to do is admirable…So do not give up. I am an African- American female who has spent the last year absorbed in the researching of my family history in American. This includes how my family got into slavery, and when they came out. Sometimes the truth can be a hard pill to swallow. Yet, I am determined to see it through. Doing this research has already made me a more complete human-being, and a more grateful American. I continually have to wrestle with the grace of forgiveness, for myself, my people, and my Country. I have concluded that there is no way around this family history. One has to toughen up and do straight through it…See it for what it was…understand how it came to be…and know how it has defined my own self, and my Country. This requires BRAVERY and PERSISTENT, and the belief that I will be all the better for it. The same efforts must apply to your project. In the end…shouldn’t we all be better for having looked the past in the eye?

  2. Geoff

    “Reintroduce” isn’t the right verb to use when discussing slavery in 2018. “Rehash” is more accurate. The academy, and the media, put the subject of slavery before us in a way that makes the position of sin in Puritan theology seem comparatively minor.

    I feel a bit like Jamie Lee Curtis correcting Kevin Kline in _Fish Called Wanda_ when I say: the year is not 1960, the historical experience of African-Americans is not overlooked in the academy or the media, and empathy, while admirable, isn’t scholarship. It’s rhetoric.

    You write as if slavery has been overlooked by historians. This is an indefensible position in 2018. How many books and articles have been written that focus on slavery? How many academic careers are built on this study? How many disciplines as silly as “critical race theory” derive their supposed legitimacy from the mere fact of slavery’s existence? How many movies, books, tv shows, and articles in the mainstream media focus on slavery? How many more treat slavery as something we must reverently reference, like we’re dipping into the holy water before stepping into church? How many political careers (Al Sharpton comes to mind) use an outdated, race-baiting misinterpretation of history to gain power? How often does left-leaning social commentary attribute everything from contemporary economics to education to “our tragic heritage of slavery,” when there are numerous better explanations (the failed welfare state, or teachers’ unions, come to mind) readily at hand?

    You, and your point of view, aren’t embattled or oppressed. Please consider your position. You’re paid by the state to maintain an encyclopedia about that state. You’re part of an academic elite. You determine what information people can find, how they find it, and how they will view it. And, by the way, they’ll probably find it through Google, a left-wing echo chamber whose leadership favors your myopic misinterpretations.

    However, while slavery isn’t overlooked, you can make a case that individual slaves are. But, if you are concerned that individual slaves go unnoticed, don’t look to “institutional racism,” or some other myth, for the reason. Look to how the academy has practiced history for decades.

    You can’t expect a focus on individuals from post-modern historiography. This is because post-modern historiography takes its cues from marxism. Individuals are secondary to that mindset. This dynamic isn’t new. Look at how the marxist Brotherhood treats the nameless narrator of Ellison’s _Invisible Man_ for an older example of how the radical left’s worldview reduces people, of any color, to pawns.

    While I agree that a new approach to history is needed, I don’t think your idea of “creative empathy” will refocus us on what’s overlooked. We don’t need an attitude change. We need a return to objectivity. The solution, I’d argue, is legitimate history, rather than history as most of the academy practices it today. The solution is a genuinely fair and open-minded outlook that begins with evidence, rather than presuppositions. The solution, in Goethe’s final words, is, “more light.” More primary sources. More complications. More debate, free of the fear we’ll be labeled as racists for thinking differently.

    To get to this sort of history, though, we may have to give up certain cherished academic myths, like the idea that the Civil War was only about slavery, or the idea that America is some racist monstrosity. Those myths liberate us from having to think, but they do nothing to help us understand the past.

    We may have to practice history by approaching primary sources with a radical openness, rather than subjugating evidence to ideological prejudices. We may have to interrogate, and deconstruct, the liberal ignorance that has reduced much of academic history to a blame game. To that end, we may have to approach, say, a soldier in the Stonewall Brigade with the same sympathy and acuity we’d bring to a slave narrative. It’s a radical experiment. But so is our country.

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