Wallace, Louisiana Somehow it seemed appropriate over the US Independence Day holiday to make a point of going up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to finally see John Cummings’ Whitney Plantation and what he is calling the “Story of Slavery.” The Plantation had earned a long review some months ago in the New York Times Magazine as a unique, if eccentric, museum built to tell the story of slavery from the perspective of the slaves. Cummings, a retired New Orleans lawyer, had bought the property from the Formosa chemical company when they decided not to build a plant on the grounds at the end of the 20th century and had been pulling the pieces together to implement this vision.
Without a doubt, his was a powerful vision and he has produced something laudatory and important. A view of the exhibits and grounds are guided and that helps fill in the gaps of the story. True to the billing, he and his collaborator, a historian from Africa, were everywhere about the grounds, lending passion and authenticity to the enterprise, and absorbing their quota of questions and comments.
And, that’s a good thing, because it sands down some of the rough edges that still exist that put up unnecessary barriers to accessing the story of slavery, which is by definition intense and disturbing already. The website is confusing about the hours and costs, and, sadly, lacks any directions or map. The woman at the counter confirmed that they had been unable to get Google’s navigation tools corrected to bring people directly into the plantation rather than taking people 15 to 30 miles out of the way. It actually couldn’t be easier to find, once you have been there. Take I-10 either from New Orleans or Baton Rouge and get off at the Gramercy exit, then cross the Mississippi River on the Gramercy Bridge, and head south along the River on Highway 18 and you are there within half-a-mile. Easy-peasy! Lord knows how many took a wrong turn, ended up in Thibideaux, and were never heard from again.
Some of the main attractions are monuments to slaves from Louisiana or St. John Parish and children. The long marble slabs get short shrift on the tour, because there are simply too many names, meaning too many slaves, but that’s the point after all. The names, Vietnam Memorial style, are very powerful, though oddly some of the quotes alongside them are sometimes repeated on the same slabs, which seems a bit slipshod for something so significant and substantial. The quotes are not from local or Louisiana slaves but from others, but that’s fine, you are overwhelmed by the reading, when not catching yourself in a repetition. The so-called “Field of Angels” got equal billing for supposedly 2000 children who died in the parish before the age of two, though actually looking at the engravings there were children of all ages, even if most of them were younger, some eight, five, three, seven, and so forth. And, why not, a child dead in slavery is a child dead and dead as a slave. The age is meaningless. I was mystified why enough was not enough in impact rather than understanding the need to gild the lily. Evil is evil, and nothing more need be said.
This is a work in progress. They are getting there and it’s an important place they are going. They need well-wishers, visitors, and support, because this is a story that needs to be told and must be told, and Cummings is to be saluted for the effort. Direct route or the long way around, it’s worth the journey!