I've been lucky enough to have my family visit me here in New Orleans. My first visit was in March from my sister and her boyfriend. I had yet to do a plantation tour so we thought it would be a good idea to go on one together. We decided on the Oak Alley Plantation, as I saw pictures my friends had taken there and it looked pretty spectacular. It certainly was, but not for the right reasons. If you can imagine a tour of a concentration camp where the overwhelming focus was on the lives of the Nazis, you should have an idea of how inappropriate the majority of the plantation tours in the South are. Imagine the reaction if tour guides in Auschwitz wore Nazi uniforms.
The tour guides at Oak Alley Plantation were dressed in traditional clothes, with the intention of looking like slave owners. During the tour, the only information we were given was about the slave owners. The only information we could find about slaves was on placards outside, rather than being included in the guided tour. My family and I definitely felt like this was not sufficient. I'm told that the majority of other plantations in the South are run like this as well. People are even able to get married at plantations, which to me, seems very strange, as these were places where human beings were abused and tortured.
I am now in my last week in New Orleans and my parents and brother have come to visit me - perfect timing so I don't feel so depressed about leaving! We were umming and ahhing about whether to go to a plantation, as my family weren't keen to see one that's run in the same way as Oak Alley. They wanted to see one where the emphasis was on the slaves. After a recommendation from a friend, we decided to check out the Whitney Plantation.
The Whitney Plantation opened just last year to the public. It is the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery. This is unbelievable and abhorrent. My family and I had an incredible experience visiting the plantation and I only wish that I knew about it when my sister and her boyfriend were here. When we arrived at Whitney it was incredible hot and we covered ourselves in sun cream. After about ten minutes the heaven's opened and we were completely drenched. All we could think about was how difficult these weather conditions would have been for the slaves who worked from dawn till dusk.
When we entered the museum there was an image of Ile de Goree in Senegal. This is where many slaves were transported overseas to plantations such as the Whitney. I did my gap year in Senegal and visited Ile de Goree several times, so it was incredible to have seen both sides of this horrific historical journey.
Our tour guide at Whitney was extremely knowledgeable and told us exactly how the conditions were for the slaves. When we arrived we were each given a lanyard with the image of a child slave, information about them, and how old they would have been today. Around the museum there were sculptures of these children created by the artist, Woodrow Nash, which were very moving.
Our tour guide firstly took us around memorial spaces, then the slave's quarters, and lastly the Big House. We entered the Big House through the back door, as the slaves would have done. Our guide informed us that culinary students from Dillard University visited the plantation and cooked in the kitchen there with the same methods the slaves would have done, so they could experience what it would have been like.
On the Louisiana Travel website, they discuss why bonfires are held as a tradition on Christmas Eve along the levees - supposedly lighting the way for Father Christmas. The website states "Some historians believe they are a carry-down of an ancient European tradition where bonfires initially honoured successful harvests and later from Christianity (south Louisiana was originally a French colony, and residents remain predominantly Catholic)." However, our tour guide rolled her eyes at this misconception, claiming that the tradition definitely originated from slavery. Before the time of year when slaves most commonly tried to escape the plantation, plantation owners would have lit their route so that they could have been seen and captured more easily. In addition, the fires would have deterred and intimidated slaves who wanted to escape. This burning across the levees has now transformed into a twisted Christmas tradition.
When slaves were caught after trying to escape, they would be branded on their forehead or cheeks with a fleur de lis - the symbol of New Orleans, and Louisiana. This would mark them as a troublemaker.
The museum is undergoing lots of developments and there are plans to create others like it in the South. I hope to return in a few years and see how it has progressed.