New Orleans Theme 2: Enslaved People

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During our short time in New Orleans, we discovered three persistent fascinating themes.

The second theme is the history and legacy of enslaved people in New Orleans.

New Orleans was, from 1808 until the Civil War, the largest slave market in North America. From a commemorative plaque on Esplanade Avenue:

In 1808, the US Congress abolished the international slave trade, contributing to a significant increase in the domestic slave trade, or the trafficking of human beings within the boundaries of the United States.

During the fifty-seven years that followed, an estimated 2 million men, women, and children were separated from families and forcibly moved by stage traders and owners. The largest numbers were brought from the Upper South to the Lower South via overland and water routes.

New Orleans was the center of this trade, resulting in more than fifty documented sites. More enslaved people were sold here from slave pens, public squares, government buildings, church properties, city taverns, private residences, auction houses, and even ballrooms of luxury hotels than anywhere else in the US. 

Our various tour guides may have all had different areas of focus – food, music, different neighborhoods – but within the first sentences they were invoking the arrival of the first enslaved people, the European / African / Native American racial mixtures of Creole society, the evolution of French-law slavery to American-law slavery, and the disenfranchisement before, during and after the Jim Crow era.  Every aspect of New Orleans flows from its complicated cultural and racial mixtures.

Many of the houses of the French Quarter and the Garden District still retain the distinctive enslaved-people’s separate building. The kitchen building, and therefore the habitations of the enslaved staff, was always separate from the main residence; the kitchens had the unfortunate habit of burning down. These buildings were one-room wide, with a single-pitch roof. Today, in the French Quarter, these ancillary buildings are houses, apartments and shops; but they are tangible testament to New Orleans’ charged history.

Whitney Plantation

We visited the Whitney Plantation, about 45 minutes from New Orleans, because this restored plantation is the first plantation museum to focus on enslaved people in the US. (There are, however, non-plantation museums that present exhibits about slavery in America: Link.) Many other plantations recreate and explain life from the perspective of White owners, but not from the perspective of the people who sustained them — enslaved people.

From the Whitney Plantation web site:

Whitney Plantation is the only plantation museum in the region with an exclusive focus on slavery. Visitors are guided through the grounds while learning about the lives of people forced to cultivate sugar and rice on this plantation from 1752-1865. Sixteen original structures, including the Big House and two slave cabins, remain on site. As a site of memory, Whitney Plantation features several memorials dedicated to the enslaved people who were forced to live and work here and throughout Louisiana.  

A wealthy Louisiana lawyer and real estate developer, John Cummings, bought the property in 2000. He researched extensively the history of the people who had lived on the property — owners and owned. What he learned motivated him to establish the Whitney Plantation to educate visitors about what actually happened on this plantation, and on many many others in Louisiana and the South. In his words:

More than 350 individuals had been enslaved on that land before 1865. That realization began my education on the history of the Atlantic slave trade, from its origins in the 1400s through the lives of the people who worked on the Whitney Plantation. As a lifelong Southerner, I realized that there had been a glaring omission in my education of the nation’s history, and that I was not alone in my ignorance. While everyone knows that slavery existed in America, for many people, the details are sorely lacking. Source.

We learned a lot, and much of it is very hard and emotional. You may find some of this post difficult.

The tour is a guided group walk around the grounds of the plantation. We visited memorials to the people who were enslaved in this place and to those who died in an infamous local rebellion; reconstructed houses and work buildings for the enslaved people; and the house of the plantation owner.

Our guide was enormously articulate, experienced, knowledgeable, and committed. She said that she was among the first guides at the plantation. Often when she responded to a question from our group, she would qualify the response with, “From the research so far…” She was rigorous about relating what is known from evidence about what happened and who lived at this specific plantation. Research and reconstruction continue. The Whitney Plantation is current and evolving.

She introduced the tour with the statement that, “There is blame for everyone. What we see and experience here is difficult.” She stressed that she and the plantation present what they know about what happened; no more. During the walk, more than once she said, “That’s the way it was.” Thinking and feeling about what happened in this place — and in many many other places in the US — before Emancipation is hard, emotional, difficult to absorb. The tone of the tour was even, open, and grounded.

We noticed that she did not talk about the “slaves.” Rather she said “enslaved people.” This distinction is striking. It made me more aware of the actions by humans who enslaved people — humans like any of us. Referring to enslaved people as “slaves” makes them something separate from us today; the label separates us. Understanding and feeling the humanity of the enslaved people is what we need. 

When the project of the restoration of the plantation as a vehicle to communicate about the history of its enslaved people became known, some local White people were resistant. One reason for this resistance was, we were told, shame or anger or other strong emotions because of connections of their families to what had happened at this place in the past. The actions of ancestors are still alive in the lives of their descendants. 

Some of what is known about the enslaved people of this place and similar places throughout the South comes from the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) Slave Narrative project from 1936 – 1938. The FWP sent out-of-work writers in seventeen states to interview ordinary people in order to write down their life stories, including former enslaved people. Since the interviewees were generally in their 80s or older at the time of their interviews, and since they had been children at the time of Emancipation, their memories were of childhood activities. They hadn’t yet experienced directly the cruelty in the lives of their elders. Their innocence still shone through.

John Cummings commissioned Woodrow Nash, an artist working in Ohio, to create life-size ceramic sculptures of enslaved children. (Cummings had met the artist at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.) The collection  is called The Children of the Whitney. Many of these sculptures have been arranged in the Antioch Baptist Church (donated by the town of Paulina, Louisiana and relocated to the plantation grounds). The sculptor captured a quiet innocence in each child. Yet their eyes are empty. 

A couple of the sculptures stand on the porch of one of the reconstructed residences for enslaved people. They are so small.

Our first stops were among the stone memorials. I have to admit that I thought that I wanted to see the reconstructed buildings and places in the plantation. But, these memorials pushed into us the reality of these people, these enslaved people.

The first panel of the Wall of Honor lists names of enslaved people who had come from Africa to this plantation. These are names for which there is documentary evidence. As much as possible, the engravings show their given names from their earlier lives in Africa, and their culture and community of origin. Most of these enslaved people were skilled in something: farming, metal work, blacksmithy, and other artisanal trades. You start to feel the fact of their having been ripped from their homes and forced to this place.

The other side of the Wall of Honor shows names of enslaved people on this plantation who descended from those who had come from Africa, and who were born in the US. After the international slave trade was outlawed in 1808, enslaved people needed to come from within the US. Now enslaved people were not simply imported labor, they were breeders for more enslaved people. Women were expected to have four children by the time they were eighteen. Mothers generally weren’t allowed to keep or know these children. Now each name and anecdote on the memorial screamed that my name was forced on me and that I am just a tool in this place.

We stood in front of an array of sugar cane kettles. In the first half of the 19th century through the start of the Civil War, the production of sugar from cane was the biggest most lucrative business in the country. Louisiana was the second-richest state in per-capita wealth. The entire economy of the US, even in places without enslaved people, was fueled by the work of enslaved people.

Today, these cane kettles are beautiful forms in the grassy field. But they and what they represent were deadly. Enslaved children under ten years old had to gather firewood for the cooking and processing of the cane, or had to lug water out to the cane fields for the enslaved people working there. After ten, the enslaved child had to work in the fields. At harvest times, when the cane plants needed to be cut down promptly to be processed, enslaved people were lined up close together to cut with machetes as much cane as fast as possible. They were forced to cut the cane even at night. Close quarters, forced speed, and even darkness meant that swinging machetes cut people as well as cane. Limbs were cut off and people were killed.

Processing of cane into sugar or molasses started with rollers that crushed the cane, releasing the juice. Exhausted workers could lose concentration, getting an arm caught in the rollers; an axe chopped off the crushed arm. The juice flowed through a sequence of boiling kettles. In each boiling kettle, enslaved people stirred the liquifying cane. The heat was brutal. People were burned by the viscous liquid. If you fell in, you died. Source.

Being an enslaved person in Louisiana and in the world of sugar was the harshest and deadliest possible life. People who were enslaved further north, say in Virginia, who were sold to sugar-cane plantation owners in Louisiana knew that the “transfer” equaled a reduction of life expectancy of 10 years. 

Visitors to Whitney Plantation often ask, “Why didn’t the enslaved people just run away?” The plantation sits amid snake and alligator infested swamps. Running into the surrounding swamp most often meant death from predators or simply starvation. The Mississippi River lies less than a mile away from the plantation boundary. “Wouldn’t that make a great means to escape downriver?” But the Mississippi was the main transportation conduit in the region. Trying to escape on the river was like trying to disappear on an interstate highway.

European and American plantation owners pushed Native Americans, from tribes such as Chocktaw and Chitimacha, off their traditional lands. Many took refuge in the swamps, which they understood much better than both the owners and the enslaved people. Some enslaved people were successful in their flight from the horrors of the sugar plantations, being accepted by the Native Americans hidden in the swamps. Some escaped enslaved people and fugitive Native Americans intermarried.

One reality that our guide worked hard to impress on us was this: Enslaved people were property. Their death or disability was not a human thing, but a loss of property. “Free” people who wanted to improve their lot bought people if they could; owning people was the clearest measure of wealth. Children born to enslaved women were assets, not people. We entered the reconstituted residences for the enslaved people of the plantation. The house for sleeping accommodated about 25 people, including in the cramped attic.

Across the green sits the house of the plantation foreman.

The Big House The family of the plantation owners lived in the Big House. Ambroise Heidel, who established this plantation, along with this mother and siblings, emigrated from Germany to Louisiana in 1721. He became a wealthy landowner engaged in the business of indigo. From 1803 until the Civil War, the sons and grandsons of Heidel, now named Haydel, transitioned the plantation from indigo to sugar.

At this plantation, the Spanish Creole raised-style Big House is not particularly grand, at least not compared to what we see in movies about the antebellum South. The house is only one room deep. At first, the ground level was a barn, a refuge for livestock. Later, the owners converted it into the warming kitchen, pantries, and dining room for their family.

We entered the main house from the plantation side. On the other side, a brick-paved allée leads to the banks of the Mississippi. Goods, enslaved people, and guests came and left the plantation via this connection to the river. Today, oak trees shade a tranquil walkway. A gracious bench sits in the distance. But the reality was so different.

When we looked back at the main house from the allée, we saw the faux-marble panels on the upper level. In the 19th century, the fashion was to evoke aristocratic stone materials. Everyone used faux stone. So, here, out in the Louisiana swamp, in the heart of sugar cane country, underpinned by the labor and lives of enslaved people, the owners and their society painted fake stone veins to fit in and get ahead.

The German Coast Rebellion Our last stop on the plantation, after the end of the tour, was a commemoration of the German Coast rebellion. This rebellion was ill fated and savagely horrible.

Woodrow Nash, the artist who had created the sculptures of enslaved children, was commissioned to create a memorial. Tall fences and hedges create an outdoor room for the memorial, and protect the unprepared from its rawness.

First, the story of the rebellion: On the night of 8 January 1811, more than 500 enslaved people took up arms. They carried cane knives (used to harvest sugar cane), hoes, clubs and some guns as they marched toward New Orleans chanting “Freedom or Death.” They had been inspired and empowered by the recently successful Haitian Revolution, which freed Saint Domingue, as Haiti was known then, from French rule. By 10 January, federal troops pushed back with brutality. Of the rebels who survived, many of the leaders were sentenced to death by firing squad. The authorities cut off their heads, skewered them on pikes, and placed the pikes along a 60-mile stretch of the Mississippi River. All the enslaved people of the region were required to be brought to the river to witness the rebels’ heads on the pikes. Source.

The artist sculpted life-size heads of young men and arrayed them on pikes. You see their youth, their closed eyes, their dismembered heads. How small and vulnerable each head and face was pulls your heart down. Think of the enslaved young men, inspired by the success in Haiti, seeing a possibility of claiming their selves and lives. The gargantuan ruthless suppression. The enraged barbaric act of forcing all enslaved people in the area to witness the heads on pikes along the main river highway. Imagine.

After the tour, we sat for a few minutes on the porch of the reception building. A young Haitian couple from Montreal was talking with our tour leader. After a bit, the discussion started in to include us too. The beautiful poised young Haitian woman explained to us that after the revolution and liberation of Haiti in 1792-1804, France, Europe and America embargoed Haiti, closing it off from the rest of the world. Haiti had been one of the richest places in the Western Hemisphere. It was full of valuable resources, as well as vibrant (European, enslaved-people owning) culture. Hermetically sealed Haiti fell into excruciating poverty, which endures today. How moving it was to look in the eyes of this elegant young woman as she recounted history of her homeland at the Whitney Plantation. Yet another clear demonstration of the generation-spanning wounds of the long era of enslaved people. 

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