The Resistance of Enslaved People: Whitney Plantation, Wallace Louisiana

For me as a white person, part of learning to be anti-racist is understanding better the origins and structures of White supremacy. Part of that is the retelling of history. For example, I knew very little about the resistance of enslaved people against their oppressors—from the 1811 German Coast Uprising, to the daily small acts of people trying to retain their humanity. This is part of the experience of visiting the Whitney Plantation, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans.

To visit Whitney Plantation is not to visit the version of the antebellum South I was taught as a child. No Gone with the Wind, no ball gowns, no delicate maidens. Rather, history is corrected here. Whitney Plantation is “the only museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people.”

You walk past the rough wood cabins where the enslaved people lived, standing in stark contrast to the “Big House”, which housed many generations of the Haydel family. Details paint the picture of dehumanization: even seemingly insignificant details such as the fact that the Big House (constructed by enslaved artisans) was insulated with a mixture of Spanish moss and mud, while the cabins, being uninsulated, were cold in winter and hot in summer.

The interior of a cabin where enslaved people lived
The Big House

The crops of Whitney Plantation were sugar cane and rice. Producing refined sugar from sugar cane was especially dangerous, involving hours of boiling sugar in the large vats shown below. But in case you assumed all of this exploited labor ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, think again. Descendants of enslaved people lived and worked on the Whitney Plantation until the 1970s. While the official institution of slavery may have ended, the workers of the 20th century still labored under harsh and indentured conditions.

A first important step of reclaiming the telling of history for the oppressed is simply naming names. Not a simple task for people who lacked even basic human rights. But here, the Wall of Honor displays the names and African countries and tribes of origin of hundreds of enslaved people. These snippets of reclaimed history have been determined through birth,court and sales records and also to the extent enslaved people still had names of African origin. In addition, there were historians in the 20th century who wanted to counter the dominant historical narrative — the Whitney Plantation focuses on the work of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a white historian who dedicated fifteen years to creating a database of enslaved people, record by record, with 104,000 individual entries.

Sculptures of people who might have lived at Whitney Plantation populate the site

I also learned that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) collected oral histories in the 1930s of formerly enslaved people, ones who would have been children at the time but still with vivid memories of life under slavery.

The Field of Angels honors the 2,200 enslaved children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish between the 1820s to 1860s.

Perhaps, as a parent, you will be overwhelmed by the stories of enslaved children, born to women who were often treated like breeders for their masters, seen as economically useful for the children they could produce. Children who were never given the chance for a childhood and more often than not, ripped away from their mothers to be sold. But to contemplate these horrific details of daily life is to confront the reality of the institutions of racism, legacies that still permeate our world.

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