By Fletcher Word
On my journey south to New Orleans, my host, a longtime friend, informed me that he and his family wanted to take me to a plantation on the outskirts of the city. ‘Another plantation,’ I thought to myself with a heavy sigh. Touring the glory of the ante-bellum South – the carved cyprus, the ornate fireplaces, the endless chamber pots – was the very last thing I wanted to do in my brief time in the Crescent City.
Perhaps he heard my sigh for he quickly informed me that the plantation we were to visit was unique. It’s the only one in the United States that has been reconstructed, he informed, to tell the story of slavery and plantation life from the viewpoint of the enslaved Africans.
And so it was.
The Whitney Plantation, located on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. John the Baptist Parish, is about 50 miles outside of New Orleans. The plantation, originally named Habitation Haydel, was founded by a German immigrant, Ambrose Heidel, in 1721. Three generations of Haydels (as the name would be spelled in the second generation) owned and operated the plantation until the Civil War, first with indigo as the main crop and then, in the late 1700’s, switching over to sugar cane.
The plantation was in a state of disrepair for decades until purchased about a dozen years ago by a local Louisiana family with the idea of turning it into the museum it is today – a memorial to African slaves.
The present-day owners engaged Ibrahima Seck, PhD, a faculty member of the history department of Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, Senegal to ensure that the reconstruction would be historically accurate. Seck’s academic research has been devoted to African history in Louisiana. His doctoral thesis was entitled “African Cultures and Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley, from Iberville to Jim Crow.”
Over the years, Seck, now the academic director of the Whitney Heritage Plantation Corporation, has transformed the plantation into a memorial to the thousands of Africans who were enslaved and brought to this country to enrich European landowners and manufacturers.
Using the Louisiana Slave Database, built by historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall in 1992, Seck gathered the names of virtually all the Africans enslaved in Louisiana from 1719 – the arrival of the first slave ship directly from Africa – to 1820 when the slave trade on the high seas had been effectively outlawed by Great Britain.
Seck has turned the Whitney into a memorial not only for the Africans who lived and toiled at Habitation Haydel but also in honor of those who were enslaved all over Louisiana. Included are names, many countries of origin and, in some cases, quotes from the enslaved Africans (gathered from the Library of Congress from work compiled by writers during the heyday of the New Deal’s WPA in the 1930’s).
He has also has taken pains to emphasize the influence in Louisiana of the various ethnic groups to the region – the melting pot. Louisiana heritage is a combination of a variety of African, European, Caribbean and Canadian influences – “Bouki Fait Gombo, Lapin Mange Li” goes the famous Louisiana proverb from the late 19th century evoking the multicultural reality of the plantation slave communities. “The He-Goat makes the gumbo, but the rabbit eats it.” Bouki – in Senegalese is the hyena who does all the work; the rabbit is the folktale ancestor of Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny.
The Whitney Plantation sits on 40 acres and consists of a blend of restored original buildings and buildings newly constructed to resemble the originals.
The Big House, an original building, is neither imposing nor big. Habitation Haydel was a working plantation and the owners’ dwelling was not their primary residence. The house, initially built on stilts, reflected the practicality of living so close to the volatile Mississippi.
The plantation houses the oldest kitchen in Louisiana, a French Creole barn, a blacksmith shop and quarters for the enslaved Africans. These cabins originally numbered 22 but most were torn down in the 1970’s. There are currently seven on the property – two original structures.
However, the memorials to the enslaved distinguish this plantation from any other. Opened in 2014, it’s still a work in progress. The Wall of Honor is dedicated to all the people enslaved on Habitation Haydel – the names and related information is engraved on granite slabs.
Allees Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is a memorial dedicated to all of the 107,000 Africans enslaved in Louisiana from 1719 to 1820. The Field of Angels is a section of the slave memorial dedicated to 2,200 Louisiana slave children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish. Most recently, a memorial comprised of bronze heads has been erected to commemorate the participants of a slave revolt in 1811, those who were captured, tried, found guilty and decapitated – their heads then placed on stakes at the sites of various plantations to warn others not to entertain thoughts of fighting for their freedom.
The most moving part of the plantation, however, are the 40 life-sized statues – in terra cotta and bronze – of the slave children of the plantation. Located in the chapel and in various other buildings, the life-like sculptures are a stark reminder of life on the plantation and the very real children who would grow up to perform the brutal work of the plantation – growing and harvesting the sugar cane, boiling it into the raw sugar product so it could turned into rum or sold to sweeten the coffee of Americans and Europeans.
The bronze heads representing the rebels of 1811 and the children’s statues are the work of Akron artist, Woodrow Nash.