Touring a former Louisiana slave plantation stirs up some inconvenient truths about present-day America — despite what the tour guides choose to omit.
Two professors of peace studies boarded a tour bus in Louisiana, headed to gauge first-hand two historic French Creole plantations.
Although this may sound like the beginning of an aberrant joke, its a true story. In fact, it’s my story.
My friend and former Yale classmate Alexandra Carroll, professor of religion and peace studies at George Washington University, and I, decided to travel to Louisiana last week to experience just that.
Wanting to learn as much as we could about the history and culture of the region, we were enticed to take a bus outside of the city of New Orleans to the countryside and learn more about the area’s history through touring these two historic plantations.
Both the Laura and Oak Alley Plantations we visited, which have been restored and are heavily visited by tourists and locals alike, were indeed breathtaking. What was more breathtaking, however, was the glossing-over of a significant part of American history that is permanently connected to such places. And that is the history of slavery in America.
At one plantation, we learned that impoverished descendants of slaves had lived in shacks on the property until 1974 – but throughout the tour these people remained nameless and faceless. Had we toured Hiroshima or Nagasaki, I’d certainly expect to have heard something about the atomic bombs that caused so much destruction there. Had we been in Poland at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, I’m sure we’d have learned about the Holocaust.
However, the history of slavery — the stories of the men and women whose lives were spent toiling in bondage to build such opulence as these Louisiana plantations — oddly, almost completely was left out of both tours, which sparked both my interest and ire as to why this was the case.
What I learned
The first plantation we visited was Oak Alley, about an hour outside of New Orleans, nestled alongside the Mississippi River in the community of Vacherie, Louisiana. It is protected as a National Historic Landmark, and is named after its distinguishing feature, an alley or canopied path created by a double row of live oaks that were planted in the early 18th century, long before the present house was built.
The alley runs between the large mansion on the property — which has been featured in a host of Hollywood movies — and the Mississippi River.
Originally called the Bon Séjour (“nice stay”) plantation, it was established to grow sugarcane. The present mansion was built by George Swainy between 1837 and 1839 for Jacques Telesphore Roman, a French Creole sugarcane farmer and businessman, according to the tour guides.
After touring the elegant mansion and learning that the original owners’ spared no expense in building and furnishing it, we were told that at the time the plantation was built there were 500 such millionaires dwelling on plantations in the area. Sugarcane, tobacco and cotton were big business in the old South.
Little was mentioned, however, about the slaves who worked in the fields, growing and harvesting the sugarcane and other crops, making millionaires of the plantation owners in whose homes they toiled. Their stories and fates were nearly glossed over completely.
A guide pointed to some shacks out behind the mansion, and told us that that’s where the plantation’s slaves lived. Their lives, their names, their stories are not shared.
Some mention was made of the slaves’ tasks. For example, inside the mansion the guide explained a curious contraption hanging over the dining table in the marble-floored dining room was a fan. We were told a slave would sit in the corner for hours during dinner parties, with a long, roped cord leading to the fan, keeping the diners cool.
Mention was made, however brief, of Antoine 3 — a field slave who lived on the Oak Alley plantation. He was listed as “Antoine, Creole Negro gardener/expert grafter of pecan trees,” with a value of $1,000 in the inventory of the estate in 1848. Antoine was a master of the techniques of grafting and invented a variety of pecan that could be cracked with one’s bare hands; the shell was so thin it was dubbed the “paper shell” pecan. It later became the Centennial Variety pecan when entered in competition at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where it won a prize.
Beyond the story of Antoine 3, little is revealed about the hundreds of men and women who built and maintained the plantation.
At the Laura Plantation, named for one of its last Creole sugarcane-farming inhabitants, Laura Lacoul Gore, it was a similar story. Tourists were told of the family history, shown the plantation home, and then led to tour several slave living quarters. Four of 65 remain today. They originally were built by Laura’s grandmother, Elsabeth Duparc, who was made president of the plantation in the 19th century.
In 1830, Laura’s grandmother went to New Orleans and bought 30 teenage girls to have them impregnated. Using male “stud” slaves to impregnate the female slaves — believing this would save her money in having to buy new slaves at market — ten years later, she had what she called her “crop of children.”
An elderly African-American woman on the tour asked the guide: “Why don’t we hear about these people? Where are their stories?”
I had wondered the same thing. The guide informed us that there were no records of the slaves thoughts and feelings, and this reminded me of the adage that history is written by the (so-called) victors.
But could there be other reasons as well? We were told that many descendants of the slave families lived on the plantation until 1974 – yes, you read that right: 1974, more than a century after slavery had ended. With no means, no access to education, few skills and fewer prospects for improving their lives in the South, many stayed long after the end of Civil War, and when finally kicked off the land where their families had resided for centuries, made their way into the surrounding areas.
What I didn’t learn
Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.2 percent, and more than 26 percent of Louisiana children live in poverty – the second highest rate in the nation, and the highest in the South, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Ten percent of the babies born in Louisiana are low birth weight. In many cases, low birth weight babies face added difficulties learning and need additional assistance to succeed in school.
Thirty-five percent of children in Louisiana live with parents who do not have full-time, year-round jobs. The Southern average is 29 percent and the nationally recognized Better Homes Fund cited Louisiana as the state where children are the most at risk for homelessness. Thirteen percent of teens age 16-19 in the state do not attend school or work.
I can’t help but think that the legacy of slavery in linked to present-day poverty.
Numerous studies — some of which even asked the provocative question, “What is color of poverty?” — have demonstrated that in the United States, people of color are more likely to be poor.
Putting two and two together
“The United States of America, ‘a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’, began as a slave society. What can rightly be called the “original sin,” slavery has left an indelible imprint on our nation’s soul. A terrible price had to be paid, in a tragic, calamitous civil war, before this new democracy could be rid of that most undemocratic institution,” Dr. Glen C. Loury, Professor of Social Sciences and Economics at Brown University, writes in an article published by the Brookings Institute.
“But for black Americans the end of slavery was just the beginning of our quest for democratic equality; another century would pass before the nation came fully to embrace that goal. Even now millions of Americans recognizably of African descent languish in societal backwaters. What does this say about our civic culture as we enter a new century?” Dr. Loury continues.
Could it be that confronting the history of slavery would also force us to confront the present-day problems of poverty, which disproportionately affect people of color in the United States? Is this a conversation that’s too uncomfortable for us to have?
“The dream that race might someday become an insignificant category in our civic life now seems naively utopian. In cities across the country, and in rural areas of the Old South, the situation of the black underclass and, increasingly, of the black lower working classes is bad and getting worse. No well-informed person denies this, though there is debate over what can and should be done about it. Nor do serious people deny that the crime, drug addiction, family breakdown, unemployment, poor school performance, welfare dependency, and general decay in these communities constitute a blight on our society virtually unrivaled in scale and severity by anything to be found elsewhere in the industrial West,” Loury says.
White-washing or ignoring history won’t get us anywhere. This is one lesson Dr. Carroll and I learned on the tour. And we will both certainly carry this lesson with us back to our respective classrooms.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.