History of the Whitney Plantation
Wallace, Louisiana is a small town of 670 residents, about an hour outside of New Orleans. 90% of residents are black, and many are descendants of slaves and farmworkers who had worked these lands years prior. Over the past few years, Wallace has been a popular tourist destination, thanks to the Whitney Plantation, the first plantation museum in America dedicated to the story of slavery. Louisiana is home to nearly 150 registered historic plantations. Plantation tours in the South usually include a romanticized version of southern culture and values of the past, keeping afloat financially with weddings and sorority reunions. The Whitney Plantation is different as it remembers the uncomfortable history that many in the South choose not to remember.
The land that the Whitney Plantation was built upon was bought in the late 18th /early 19th century by German immigrant Ambroise Haydel. It was his son, Jean Jacques Haydel to build the Big House and expanded the estate to transform it into a sugar plantation. Sugar at the time was proving to be more profitable than other popular crops, such as indigo. The Whitney Plantation soon turned into the shining star of Louisiana's sugar industry (Keller 2016). Sugar plantations were considered to be some of the most dangerous to work on, for the processing of sugar was extremely difficult. During the harvest season in the fall, it was common for hundreds of slaves to work with no sleep to keep the sugar kettles going. This ensured peak sugar profits. Dark, hot, and stuffy working conditions lead to slaves commonly getting third-degree burns, and even losing limbs over the hot sugar kettles (Keller 2016).
After the Civil War, the Plantation was sold and passed around to a couple of different owners, until it caught the eye of Formosa, a petrochemical factory in the mid-nineties. They wanted the estate to become a rayon factory. This proposal was followed by environmentalists, preservationists, and local residents of Wallace to protest, causing Formosa to have an extensive grounds survey to not place the proposed 700 million dollar factory on prominent historic sections of the grounds(Amsden 2015). Formosa never did build the factory there, for a man named John Cummings purchased the Whitney Plantation, and received the 8 volume study for the grounds upon purchase.
Mr. Cummings made his fortune as a lawyer and a real estate investor, and saw the Whitney Plantation as an important piece of history. As an activist, he never wanted to refurbish the Whitney to become clones for others in the area, but knew it had to tell a different story of the American South. Cummings has received much criticism for two reasons: funneling millions of dollars into something he simply will not profit from, and being a white man. His answer? “Challenge me, fight me on it...I’ve been asked all the questions, about white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit off of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?” (Amsden 2015). Since Cummings purchased the property in 1999 until opening day in 2015, Cummings began refurbishing, collecting and learning about slavery, specifically in Lousisnia (Amsden 2015).
One memorial at the Whitney Plantation, memorializing infants and children who died on the grounds. (whitneyplanation.org)
8 million dollars and 15 years later, the Whitney Plantation museum opened to the public. Described as “part performance art, part museum, part plantation tour”, Cummings and his team have masterfully created a place of remembrance for those who hadn't had their story told before (Amsden 2015). Memorials that litter the grounds are all created by New Orleans artists. Movies, such as Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave have been partially filmed there. In 2019, Cummings donated the Whitney Plantation to its board of directors, who continues to govern the operations of the museum. Although he does not own the Whitney anymore, Mr. Cummings is frequently seen at the gates of the plantation, telling guests as they enter, “When you leave here, you’re not going to be the same person who came in” (Keller 2016).
Discover the experience of the Whitney Plantation and more on the World Affairs Council’s tour in May.
Amsden, D. (2015, February 26). Building the First Slavery Museum in America. Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/magazine/building-the-first-slave-museum-in-america.html
Keller, J. (2016, April 04). Inside America's Auschwitz. Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/inside-americas-auschwitz-180958647/
Louisiana History. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://www.whitneyplantation.org/history/
World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. (2021). Legacies of Race: A Southern Search for America's Soul [Brochure].