The Whitney Plantation Museum: An overview from curator Dr. Ibrahima Seck
The Whitney Plantation Museum is exclusively dedicated to the understanding of the facts of slavery.
It is located in St. John the Baptist Parish, less than an hour west of New Orleans, Louisiana. Ambroise Heidel (1702-1770), the founder of the plantation, emigrated from Germany to Louisiana in 1721. He was one of the thousands of German farmers transported to Louisiana by the French Company of the West Indies. They were mostly established along the Mississippi River, above New Orleans, and their settlements were known early on as the German Coast. Ambroise Heidel became a modest farmer, and began his farm with a single pig for livestock. In 1752, he bought the plantation’s original tract of land and made his fortune planting indigo and rice. His son, Jean Jacques Haydel Sr., converted it to a sugar plantation in the early nineteenth century. The Haydel family continued to run the plantation until the death, in 1860, of Marie Azélie Haydel, the daughter-in-law of Jean Jacques Haydel Sr. Her heirs then sold the property in 1867 to Bradish Johnson of New York, who renamed the property “Whitney”.
John Cummings, the founder of the Whitney Plantation Museum, and his collaborator, Senegalese historian Ibrahima Seck, wanted to ensure that the property would give a voice to those whose stories were not being told and that were at risk of being lost.
The frighteningly real statues of the slave children are the most noticeable encounters on the plantation. They represent children born in slavery and who were interviewed by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. They constantly remind visitors that it wasn’t only adults that lived, worked and died on plantations. Woodrow Nash, an artist based in Akron, Ohio, created these pieces with clay.
The Whitney Plantation Historic District has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1992
Whitney Plantation is also significant because of the number of historic outbuildings which were added to the site over the years, thus providing a unique perspective on the evolution of the Louisiana working plantation.
This is something you can’t find anywhere else on River Road, since very few plantations preserve their early outbuildings. The site includes eleven original historic buildings and a few other structures that were rebuilt to their original design. The Big House is a raised French Creole-style cottage, built of masonry and cypress in the late 18th century. It is one of the earliest and best-preserved Creole plantation houses standing on River Road. This is also one of the very few historic American houses known to have received decorative wall and ceiling paintings on both its exterior and its interior. Before the Civil War, the Whitney Plantation counted 22 slave cabins on its site. Most of them were torn down in the 1970s. Today seven cabins stand on the site: two are original, the others have been acquired from the Myrtle Grove Plantation in Terrebonne Parish. All these structures, whether they be original or recreations, give a material support to the trip into the past provided to the visitors. Each of them helps bring back to life the enslaved who toiled there, whether they be field hands, overseers, indigo makers, sugar masters, blacksmiths, sawyers, carpenters, coopers, horsemen, gardeners, and the domestics who cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed, and who moreover served as spinners, weavers, seamstresses, wet nurses and midwives. Until today, the elaborate ornamentation of the Big House and its fourteen rooms, the adjoining pigeonniers (squab nurseries) and carriage house, convey to all visitors the high level of economic success and cultural sophistication the Haydels had attained thanks to their slaves.
During the 90-minute walking tour, visitors are given a unique perspective of the lives of the enslaved people on a Louisiana plantation, to whom the Whitney plantation gives voice through an indoor museum exhibit and memorial artwork. The Wall of Honor is a memorial dedicated to all the people who were enslaved on the Whitney plantation, and The Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is a memorial to all those enslaved in Louisiana. It is named after the historian of the same name, in recognition of her contribution to the history of slavery in the Americas. Every one of the 107 000 names recorded in the author’s “Louisiana Slave Database” is engraved on 216 granite slabs, mounted on 18 walls. The Field of Angels is a memorial dedicated to the children who died in slavery. The bronze statue, cast by Mississippian Rod Moorhead, stands in the middle of a field and portrays a black angel carrying a baby to Heaven. These three memorials also carry the first-hand testimonies of the children of Whitney. But the most striking memorial is certainly the one dedicated to the 1811 Slave Revolt, the largest rebellion ever to erupt in the US South. Approximately 500 men and women enslaved on the German Coast of Louisiana were involved. Many were killed in action or were reported missing. Dozens were condemned to death, executed, beheaded, and their heads were planted on poles in front of the plantations where they once lived. The ceramic heads depicting the revolutionaries were also made by Woodrow Nash.
In the near future, the Whitney Plantation Museum will be donated to the Whitney Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study of the history of the enslavement of African people in the Western Hemisphere and its effects in the building of new cultures. For the founders, the history of slavery should not only be the history of the deportation and hard labor intended to generate wealth and comfort for the masters. Beyond the painful memories, it is important to dig deep enough to find out how enslaved Africans contributed to the making of new cultures around the Americas.
Ibrahima Seck is a member of the History department of University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD), Senegal. Dr. Seck is now holding the position of Director of research of the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum located in St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana. He is the author of a book on this historic site entitled Bouki fait Gombo: A History of the Slave Community of Habitation Haydel (Whitney Plantation) Louisiana, 1750-1860. [New Orleans: UNO Press, 2014].