Equity & Diversity Opinion

To Understand Justice, Study Profound Injustice: Slavery

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 04, 2015 6 min read
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Whitney Plantation research director Ibrahima Seck and the Wall of Honor that names the slaves who built and worked the plantation before the Civil War.

An hour’s drive north from the sloppy spring-break drunks on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street lies the recreated plantation world of the anti-bellum South. Millions of visitors have listened as soft-accented guides, some in period costume, provide testimony to what the promotional material calls the South’s Golden Age. The Whitney Plantation is different. Here, John Cummings (below left) has created the first plantation museum devoted exclusively to slavery.

There is no romanticism, no glorification of the Confederacy’s “lost cause”. Expect to be moved, educated, horrified, and perhaps motivated. Cummings, a 77-year-old white trial lawyer has sunk $18-million of his personal fortune turning the derelict plantation into something that is part memorial, part museum, and part performance art. He wants us to be motivated. “We want to get you all involved,” he told a small group of visitors, as he made it clear that he had not rebuilt Whitney to be a monument only to a shameful period in America’s past but a call to answer the modern derivatives of slavery.

Teaching about slavery is tough, and public school teachers who try often face push back from parents. But Whitney Plantation is under no such restrictions; its presentation is calculated to bring honor to the slaves who worked and died there, and to make the rest of us more than a little uncomfortable. “We want people to get some feeling for what it was like for a human being to be owned by another,” said Ibrahima Seck, a Senegalese scholar who is the museum’s director of research and author of the plantation’s history.

His book, Bouki Fait Gombo, documents the history of slavery on the plantation beginning with Ambroise Heidel, who immigrated from Germany in 1721, and the family that owned the land and the slaves. The family prospered, and the number of slaves increased. As a stark reminder of their status as property, 62 of them were sold on March 24, 1840, for $57,000 (about $1.6-million in current dollars). A 1819 inventory includes, two houses, acreage, and 61 slaves.

Seck’s book is both a layering of history and disarmingly subversive. The title tells the story in French. “Bouki fait gombo, lapin mange´ li.” Bouki, the hyena in Senegalese folktales, makes the gumbo, but the rabbit eats it.

Most immediately, the Whitney Plantation is a memorial. By piecing together the shards of history, Seck has given names to the slaves who built Whitney and the scores of other plantations that spread along the banks of the Mississippi north of New Orleans. African names, which were often forbidden to slaves, are united with European names given them by their masters on the wall of honor recalling the 350 slaves who worked the plantation before emancipation.

Sixteen slabs of black granite carry the names of 107,000 Louisiana slaves, a list meticulously compiled by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall who introduced Seck to Cummings 15 years ago. And a circle of smaller markers celebrates the fallen angels, the 2,200 St. John the Baptist parish slave children who died before the age of three and whose names were recorded by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Most all of them went to unmarked graves, and Seck’s research has made them visible.

If Seck (at left) has given these slaves their names back, sculptor Woodrow Nash gave them faces and frames. His statues are all of children in poses—some slouchy, some pouty, some defiant—that any elementary teacher would recognize. Some 50 of them greet visitors in the white wooden church built by freed slaves in 1868 that serves as the gathering place for tours. Each of the visitors has a tag with one child’s likeness along with a quote taken from the Depression era Federal Writers Project, which recorded the memories from the remnant of elderly former slaves.

Mary Harris, 86 when she was interviewed, said, “Sure I remember slavery times. I was a big girl. Turned eleven. I used to pull the fan that kep’ off the flies while the white folks was eatin....” Cummings is building an audio system so that slave stories will follow visitors around as they walk among the slave cabins, the barn, kitchen, blacksmith’s shop and peer through the bars of the slave jail on the way to the Big House and its beautifully preserved Italianate decorations.

Upstairs in the Big House, the statue of Anna stands near the master’s bed. In life, Anna was impregnated by her master Antoine Haydel in 1835, creating two branches of the family: one white and one black. The black Haydels include former New Orleans mayors Ernest and Mark Morial.

Both in his narrative and his book, Seck underscores that the history of slavery is one of continuous resistance. Runaways were so common that the word marronage emerged to describe fleeing toward the swamps, a practice so common that at the time of the American Revolution, maroons controlled the area from south of New Orleans to the mouth of the Mississippi. The French code noir, followed by Spanish and U.S. laws, prescribed harsh penalties for runaways and those who helped them. First offense, branding; second, hamstring cutting; third, death. Where physical resistance was difficult, passive resistance was endemic.

Toward the end of our tour and conversation, Seck pulled back the branches of a tree to reveal two ceramic heads on stainless steel rods, emblematic of the 60 slaves who were beheaded following suppression of what is called the 1811 Slave Rebellion, when a group of lightly armed slaves marched down River Road in front of the plantations. Executed after summary trials, their heads were put on pikes and exhibited along the road and in Jackson Square in New Orleans.

“I don’t think it’s right to call it a rebellion,” Seck said. “They had no arms to speak of and little organization. It was more of a demonstration, but it (the punishment) illustrates how desperate the white community was following the Haitian revolution (1791-1804).”

In its most visually chilling memorial, a full set of heads will be displayed along the banks of a lagoon on the plantation.

Hard to take? Yes. Violence is visceral. But for someone who has spent a lifetime studying how institutions work, the more gripping story lies in slavery’s economic and political superstructure. Slavery was not people mistreating other people. Those schoolteachers who have kids act out master and slave role plays get it wrong.

Slavery was—and economic injustice is—about stacking the legal and governmental deck so that things that seem horrific in the light of history were legal and proper, the source of wealth and apparent gentility. More chilling to me than the heads on pikes were the words of Pope Nicholas V telling the Portuguese that it was permissible as Christians to invade Africa and “to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” This ripened into the church’s doctrine of discovery allowing conquest in the New World.

More chilling to me than the heads on pikes, was the governmentally protected “peculiar institution” that produced most of the United State’s exports in the early 19th Century: the institution built so that a lot of white people could prosper from the permanent subjection of Blacks. American slave codes legally routinized the processing of slaves as property that owners, including Thomas Jefferson, could mortgage. As David Amsden wrote in the New York Times Magazine after visiting the Whitney:

What makes slavery so difficult to think about, from the vantage point of history, is that is was both at odds with America's founding values—freedom, liberty, democracy—and critical to how they flourished. The Declaration of Independence proclaiming that "all men are created equal" was drafted by men who were afforded the time to debate its language because the land that enriched many of them was tended to by slaves. The White House and Capitol were built, in part, by slaves. The economy that was responsible for the nation's swift rise and sustained power, would not have been possible without slavery. But the country's longstanding culture of racism and racial tensions—from the lynchings of the Jim Crow-era South to discriminatory housing practices of the north to the treatment of blacks by police today—is deeply rooted in slavery as well.

I came to the Whitney with a couple straightforward questions: How do you teach children about slavery, and how does its brutal physical bondage connect with the less physical but none the less systematic social and economic injustice we see today?

I left with these questions still germinating. And that, I think, is what John Cummings intends.

Visit the Whitney if you can; it will raise your consciousness.

(If you plan to go, make reservations; tours sell out fast.)

Leanne Bauman Kerchner with Ibrahmia Seck with Woodrow Nash’s statues of slave children. The church where they are gathered was built in 1968 by freed slaves and donated to the plantation by their descendants, moved to its current site, and refurbished. (All photos: CTK)

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