HISTORY & LEGACIES

Whitney plantation, the plantation every american should visit, -national geographic.

plantation tour slave perspective

THE WHITNEY INSTITUTE EDUCATES THE PUBLIC ABOUT THE HISTORY AND LEGACIES OF SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES

Whitney Plantation (legal name The Whitney Institute) is a non-profit museum dedicated to the history of the Whitney Plantation, which operated from 1752-1975 and produced indigo, sugar, and rice as its principal cash crops. The museum preserves over a dozen historical structures, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Whitney Plantation Historic District.

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The Magic of the Drums: Ancestral Remembrance

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Plantation tours bypass the ‘big house’ to focus on the enslaved

  • Deep Read ( 10 Min. )
  • By Noah Robertson Staff writer
  • Lindsey McGinnis Correspondent

January 15, 2021

For over a century, the history of American slavery has been insufficiently and inaccurately told, typically privileging the enslavers over the enslaved. But efforts to correct the record are underway on former plantations from Wallace, Louisiana, to Medford, Massachusetts. Some sites no longer include the manor house in their tours, sharing details instead about the lives of the enslaved people.

“We are the stewards of spaces that can offer answers,” says Michelle Lanier, director of the North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties. “There’s a grand healing that I think is attempting to emerge through our nation’s greatest wound.” 

Why We Wrote This

By portraying slavery accurately and inclusively, some former plantations are doing their part to combat racial injustice. They hope letting the past inform the present will help heal “our nation’s greatest wound.”

At the former plantation of President James Monroe in Virginia, descendants of the enslaved are helping to right the record. “The true, deep-down hope is that this could be a roadmap to something bigger that our whole country can get behind,” says Jennifer Stacy, a member of the site’s Council of Descendant Advisors.

Meanwhile, at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Massachusetts, Executive Director Kyera Singleton is working to expand the site’s role in social justice work by helping people learn from the past. “This history of injustice ... will keep happening if we don’t actually confront systemic inequalities and racism in this country,” she says.

Beside the long path to the Wappoo Creek stand symmetrical rows of Southern live oaks, arranged like the pillars of a temple. Down the dirt road below, shaded by the leaves and long beards of Spanish moss, Toby Smith leads her first tour of the morning to the Wappoo’s marshy banks. Then she asks them to look right. 

Miles away, past mud flats, fishing boats, and the Ashley River, sits Charleston, South Carolina. If they drifted on the water for about an hour, they’d hit the city harbor. If they floated past for another three months, she says, they’d arrive on the West Coast of Africa. 

That’s how Ms. Smith says she starts her tours of McLeod Plantation Historic Site, where she’s worked as a guide for the past two years. Her trip to the milky green waters of the Wappoo Creek is a regular pilgrimage, designed to help visitors imagine the journey of enslaved Africans who once stood on the same land. Starting near the water, she says, lets the tour walk in their footsteps. 

For the next hour, Ms. Smith explains in a phone interview, she guides her group through the plantation grounds and lets them ask questions about its 37 acres. They pass the cramped slave quarters and palatial manor house. They pause at the slave cemetery and walk into the fields of sea island cotton, still growing. Inside the cotton gin house, they gaze at small dimples in the walls. Some days, Ms. Smith lets the group know that those are fingerprints left by enslaved children who hand-molded the bricks. 

“We are walking on the blood, sweat, and tears of real human beings,” she often tells visitors. “That has a very profound impact on people. ... Sometimes you don’t have to say anything. It’s just the presence.”

McLeod is among a growing number of sites that recognize the power of that presence. Its vision is to interpret the legacy of slavery, where slavery took place. Behind that, the focus is a recognition that the history of American slavery has been insufficiently and inaccurately told, often privileging the enslavers over the enslaved. Gradually, that’s changing as historians acknowledge that every life on plantations like McLeod mattered.  

Reconstructing the lives of enslaved people is difficult, but from Wallace, Louisiana, to Medford, Massachusetts, many sites on the ground zero of slavery are accepting their role in that effort. Recent calls for racial justice have demanded a reckoning with wrongs that date back centuries. Places like McLeod harbor that history – and with it hope for catharsis.

“We are the stewards of spaces that can offer answers,” says Michelle Lanier, director of the North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties. “There’s a grand healing that I think is attempting to emerge through our nation’s greatest wound.”

plantation tour slave perspective

“Basically we’ve been miseducated”  

For many Americans, that wound has grown more painful with the way it has historically been taught, says Derrick Alridge, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development. 

Dr. Alridge recently chaired Virginia’s Commission on African American History Education, charged with auditing the state’s efforts to teach Black history. Released last August, its 80-page report identifies faults endemic to curricula across the country. 

Long dominant have been so-called master narratives, which teach American history through the lives of U.S. presidents or other “great men.” People of color – and especially African Americans – are often segregated into sections that cover only “messianic figures,” like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Regular Black Americans, including enslaved people, are rarely given space.

“You can’t erase history. You can ignore it, which is something we’ve done for centuries,” says Jody Allen, an assistant professor of history at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “There’s a real understanding that basically we’ve been miseducated in this country.”

Understanding the legacy of slavery, says Professor Alridge, is crucial to addressing its impacts today. Connecting historical dots – from the Black Lives Matter movement to the civil rights movement to abolition – puts the present in context and makes history real, he says. 

At a place like McLeod, where that history is as real as it can get, the stakes for getting it right are high.

Bypassing the “big house”

Just as the historical narrative has traditionally focused on the owning class, plantation museums have orbited the “big house,” says Shawn Halifax, cultural history interpretation coordinator for the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission, which runs McLeod.

Typically, visitors marvel at the opulent homes of slave owners, he says, while enslaved people are treated as footnotes. “The furnishing of these former dwellings oftentimes tends to create a type of nostalgia, which is the very thing that through our interpretation we’re trying to move beyond,” says Mr. Halifax.

At McLeod, the big house is empty, and the tour does not take visitors inside. Interpreters teach about William Wallace McLeod – the plantation’s owner and a Confederate soldier – but they focus on the 100 or so people enslaved on the site, telling their stories and saying their names.

More than 800 miles southwest, Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, takes the same approach. Before the pandemic, the former sugar cane plantation attracted around 100,000 visitors each year, says Executive Director Ashley Rogers.

It, like McLeod, teaches slavery from the perspective of enslaved people and will soon empty its big house. “We’re trying to use this plantation as a vehicle to get people to understand the system of slavery more broadly,” says Ms. Rogers.  

One way they do that is by making sure Whitney’s history speaks to today. Only two of the original 22 slave quarters are still standing, but they aren’t relics. After the Civil War, many of Whitney’s enslaved people had little choice but to keep farming sugar cane and living in their same quarters. Some of their descendants stayed until 1975.

“Our entire point of what we’re trying to do is to teach people about the past so that they understand the present,” says Ms. Rogers. “If history doesn’t have an impact that you can still feel, then it’s just an interesting story.”

Seeing today through the lens of yesterday

Sometimes the past and the present collide.

Jennifer Stacy grew up near Charlottesville, Virginia, about 10 miles from Highland, the plantation of President James Monroe. Her family used to drive past the site on their way into town, and she would read the sign: Home of James Monroe. She knew about slavery, and she knew her grandfather was also a Monroe. Even as a girl, she sensed the two were somehow connected. 

Decades later, Ms. Stacy learned that she’s a descendant of Ned Monroe, an enslaved man at Highland who helped build the University of Virginia. Three years ago, she joined the estate’s newly formed Council of Descendant Advisors , a group of 10 descendants who advise the site on its efforts to tell a fuller story. 

“It’s now shared authority, where the goal is to reinterpret the history there and to get it right,” Ms. Stacy says. “The true, deep-down hope is that this could be a roadmap to something bigger that our whole country can get behind and start doing, because it is who we are.”

Highland, like other plantation sites across the country, is researching the lives of those enslaved on its land – constructing genealogies, reviewing oral histories, and panning streams of centuries-old documents. The task, though, requires swimming against the currents of history. Researchers engaged in this work often face a dearth of primary sources, low funds, and small staffs. 

plantation tour slave perspective

This is especially true in the North.

Records show slavery is central to Northern states’ histories. Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and  other influential figures  in the North who supported abolition owned slaves, and New England colonies played a critical role in the transatlantic slave trade. There were enslaved people in every Rhode Island township, historians say, and local merchants bankrolled more than 500 voyages to West Africa during the Colonial period. All the other colonies combined sent 189. 

But Americans’ postbellum memory associates slavery almost exclusively with former Confederate states. Research on slavery outside the South is thin, and long-held notions of Northern heroism can chill attempts to learn more.

Correcting the record

“There is this great desire for people to want us to have made greater strides, but we are working against 50-plus years of America’s educational system,” says Lavada Nahon, interpreter of African American history for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

While many sites in the North are adopting an approach similar to Whitney’s or McLeod’s, rediscovering an entire state’s role in slavery is a massive effort in historical forensics.

Artifacts have been mislabeled and misinterpreted, and important history has been lost in translation. In New York, this could mean translating early documents from Dutch to English or interpreting confusing terminology – a recent paper published by the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany argues that the “servants” listed in Alexander Hamilton’s cash book were actually enslaved people. Even cursive handwriting can challenge the newer generation of historians. 

“It is not as if we are choosing not to honor our ancestors,” Ms. Nahon says. “It is time-consuming work.”

It’s also work that evolves. Heidi Hill, historic site manager at Schuyler Mansion, says the site has been compiling research on free and enslaved Africans since the 1980s. They’ve long incorporated names, numbers, and the type of work enslaved people did into their tours and other events.  

“But now we’re asking different questions,” says Ms. Hill.   “Who were these people? Where did they come from? Who were their family members? How did they connect?”

plantation tour slave perspective

Piecing together the lives of enslaved people

When communicating with a largely miseducated public, making the historical narrative more inclusive requires a powerful commitment. 

Kyera Singleton heard about the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts, at a conference in 2019. She’d grown up in the Northeast, studied slavery, and still had no idea there were freestanding slave quarters in the North. But while the scholar in her wanted to visit, Ms. Singleton had a familiar fear: that the history would be whitewashed and the trip would be more painful than illuminating. 

Still, she decided to go and soon learned that the site had undergone a dramatic rebranding in 2005, bringing enslaved people into focus.

“Every room that we went in, we talked about the enslaved people,” she says. “It shows that their names matter, their lives matter, their history matters.”

Ms. Singleton was so impressed that she applied to work at the museum, and since April of last year, she has served as executive director. In her new role, Ms. Singleton is eager to uncover how the enslaved people who lived at the site experienced slavery, resisted it, and advocated for their freedom – a challenging mission that includes archaeological and archival research, partnering with universities, and a lot of guesswork. 

“You might not find all of the information that you want,” she admits. “And that’s a part of the cruelty of history in many ways – whose lives were deemed important enough to document versus those whose lives were deemed unimportant.”

The paucity of first-person accounts of slavery has long been an excuse to avoid difficult conversations, says Cordell Reaves, historic preservation programs analyst for New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“That is … a terrible disservice to the general public,” he says. “[Visitors] can be engaged in having a conversation around ongoing research, even if we are not absolutely certain about the outcome.”

Lately, Ms. Singleton has been working to increase the visibility of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, hoping to expand the site’s role in present-day social justice movements by helping communities understand that last year’s assaults against Black people, including by the police, were not unique.

“This history of injustice has been happening long before 2020,” says Ms. Singleton. “It will keep happening if we don’t actually confront systemic inequalities and racism in this country.”

plantation tour slave perspective

Interrupting the cycle of history

The country has chosen not to confront the history before, and the history repeats. Generations come; generations go. The next sometimes forgets the last. 

But places like McLeod remember, says Ms. Smith, the interpreter near Charleston. 

Her tour ends, she says, at the Wisdom Oak, thought to be at least 200 years old. Ms. Smith asks her group to imagine what memories are caught in its branches.

Ms. Smith tells her group that she is a direct descendant of slaves, some of whom may have lived just 20 miles from McLeod. Her great-great-grandmother Idella was taken from modern-day Ghana in the 1840s, after the slave trade was illegal in America. Ms. Smith is alive today because Idella survived that voyage at the age of 8, mourned her losses alone, and started a family, living until 1941. 

This work is “a way for me to keep them alive, share their memories, and also to give them a measure of honor and dignity that they never had in life,” says Ms. Smith.

Then, at the roots of the Wisdom Oak, she tells her group about a visitor to McLeod six years ago. A month before Dylann Roof killed nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he visited McLeod and took pictures of himself there. 

“People physically recoil at the fact that he was on the property,” says Ms. Smith. “But it gives us an opportunity to talk about hatred and why we cannot let hate end the conversation.”

There’s no agenda, no judgment, no attempt to sanitize what went on then or now, she says. It’s just a moment to pause, to acknowledge the pain, and to ask what they’ll do about it. 

Maybe listen – to each other, or the ancient oak above them. 

“Ultimately, we hope that it could be a place always of conversation and healing,” says Ms. Smith, “and people will leave better than when they came.”

Walter Houston Robinson contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the title of Whitney Plantation Executive Director Ashley Rogers and the spelling of Derrick Alridge.

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Go Backpacking

Whitney Plantation: Tour of an American Slavery Museum

By: Author Dave Lee

Posted on Last updated: October 7, 2021

Slave quarters on Whitney Plantation

In planning my third trip to New Orleans , going on a Whitney Plantation tour was high on my to-do list.

I wanted my first southern plantation experience to be more than a photo-op. 

The Whitney Plantation is the first museum dedicated to American slavery. 

The 2,000-acre sugar plantation dates back to 1752 when it was developed by German immigrants Ambroise Haydel and his wife.

According to the plantation's website , it stayed in their family for 115 years, before being “sold to Bradish Johnson, a major businessman and plantation owner with roots in Louisiana and New York.”

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and John Cummings, a successful lawyer from New Orleans, purchases the property as a real estate investment.

Over time, he realizes how little he knows about the history of the slaves who once worked on such properties.

And as he learns more, he decides to invest millions of dollars of his own money into turning the plantation into a museum honoring their experience.

Table of Contents

The Antioch Baptist Church

The children of whitney, the wall of honor, allées gwendolyn midlo hall, the field of angels, the slave quarters, robin's blacksmith shop, the kitchen, the big house, getting to whitney plantation, whitney plantation tour.

The Whitney Plantation opened in December 2014.

Unlike most plantation tours that focus on the large houses of the owners, the Whitney Plantation tour is given from the slaves' perspective. 

Visitors meet their guide in the Welcome Center, which also serves as a tasteful gift shop, primarily offering books on slavery.

The Antioch Baptist Church

The 90-minute walking tour begins with a visit to the Antioch Baptist Church, which was built in 1870 on the eastern side of the Mississippi River.

Slaves would come from nearby plantations to worship there. 

The church was donated and relocated to the Whitney after its community opened a new, larger one in 1999.

Slave children

Walking inside the historic wooden structure, one's attention is drawn to the lifesize sculptures of child slaves.

Their innocence and vacant eyes evoke empathy. 

“ The Children of Whitney , a series of sculptures by Ohio-based artist Woodrow Nash , represent these former slaves as they were at the time of emancipation: children.”

The children bring the space to life in a way I've never experienced in a museum before. We would see more of them as the tour continued.

Slave memorial

Next, we visited The Wall of Honor, which memorializes stories from the 350 slaves who worked on the Whitney Plantation.

Etched into the granite slabs, in their own words, are horrific, heartbreaking accounts of their treatment. 

My words certainly won't do these stories justice, so I took a few photos to share here. 

Webb story

“The most crue master in St. John the Baptist Parish during slavery time was a Mr. Valsin Mermillion. One of his cruelties was to place a disobedient slave, standing, in a box, in which there were nails placed in such a manner that the poor creature was unable to move. He was powerless even to chase the flies or sometimes, ants crawling on some parts of his body.” — Mrs. Webb, Louisiana Slave

Julien

“We jus' have co'n braid and syrup and some times fat bacon, but when I et dat biscuit, she comes in and say, ‘What dat biscuit?' I say, ‘Miss, I et I's so hungry.' Den she grab dat broom and start to beatin' me over de head wid it and callin' me low down nigger and I guess I jes' clean lost my head 'cause I know'd better fan to fight her if I knowed anything ‘tall, but I started to fight her and de driver, he comes in and he grabs me and starts beatin' me wid dat cat-o'-nine tails, and he beats me 'till I fall to de floor nearly dead. He cut my back all to pieces, den dey rub salt in de cuts for mo' punishment, I's only 10 years old.” — Jenny Proctor

Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

Following The Wall of Honor, we had a few minutes to walk through a memorial to the 107,000 Africans enslaved in Louisiana during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The memorial is named after Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a historian, teacher, and author who compiled a database known as “Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820.”

The black granite walls are filled with more names, stories, and images of the enslaved. 

See also: Zanzibar's Prison Island in Tanzania

The Field of Angels

The Field of Angels recognizes the 2,200 slave children born in St. John the Baptist parish between 1823-1863, many of whom died before their second birthday.

Most were buried on the grounds of the plantation; some were buried in the cemetery of a nearby Catholic church.

“Death rates on Louisiana’s cane plantations were relatively high compared to cotton or tobacco plantations. Many of the children honored at this memorial died of diseases, but some of them died under tragic circumstances such as being hit by lightning, drowning, or burning.” — Whitney Plantation website

The striking statue at the center of the memorial is “Coming Home” by Rod Moorehead. It depicts a black angel carrying a baby up to heaven. 

Slave cabin

The Whitney originally had 22 cypress slave cabins.

However, in the 1970s, all but two were destroyed to make more room for larger trucks and more modern harvesting equipment. 

Some of the family owners, who were focused on selling the property rather than preserving it, believed the value would increase as a result.

The rest of the cabins visible on the Whitney Plantation were purchased from the Myrtle Grove Plantation. 

Children of Whitney at a slave cabin

The Children of the Whitney make another appearance on the porch of a slave cabin.

This particular cabin had a wall in the middle, splitting the single building up for use by two or more people.

Each side had a fireplace, a bedroom, and what appeared to be a sitting room.

Slave cell

Constructed in Pennsylvania in 1868, this rusty metal jail was donated to the Whitney by a Louisiana couple. 

The metal box, about the size of a shipping container, would have been used to hold slaves who were caught trying to escape. 

It is similar in design and appearance to what was used during slave auctions, as well.

As the Whitney Plantation tour continued, we passed by Robin's Blacksmith Shop.

According to a plaque, Robin was an enslaved man born in 1791 on the east coast of the U.S.

His job was to provide all the metalwork for the plantation, including “horseshoes, nails, hinges, and curtain rods.”

Slave kitchen

Built in the early 1800s, Whitney's kitchen is the oldest detached kitchen in Louisiana. 

Here, a slave was responsible for cooking all the meals for the plantation owner's family.

Pigeon holes were cut in the roof so that the loft could be used as an additional pigeonnier (a space created for pigeons to nest). 

Whitney Plantation house

Last but not least, we walked from the kitchen to The Big House, where the plantation owners lived.

The house was rebuilt in its current form sometime before 1815, making it a little over 200 years old. 

It's an excellent example of Spanish Creole architecture. 

Front view of The Big House, which is the last stop on the Whitney Plantation tour

Each floor has seven rooms. However, the guided tour only passes through the dining room in the middle of the ground floor.

There's not much to see. I found it the least interesting part of the experience. 

Overall, I found the effort to present plantation life from the slaves' perspective to be a success. 

Walking the grounds where so many indentured men, women, and children toiled without choice, were mercilessly tortured, and sexually abused is a heavy experience. 

The investment in bringing a church, slave cabins, and original artwork to the grounds has paid off.

The Children of the Whitney, especially, give faces to the names and stories. 

Seeing them throughout the tour reminds you what happened there was real, not some abstract history lesson. 

There's no public transportation from New Orleans to the Whitney Plantation, so the easiest thing to do is sign up for a tour, which includes roundtrip bus transportation (from the French Quarter) and admission for a guided tour.

I went in partnership with Gray Line , which sells adult tickets for $69. Children age 6-12 cost $35 each. 

The whole trip takes five hours. To make a full day of it, you can add a second plantation for an additional cost. 

I also visited Oak Alley Plantation, where the focus is on the owners' home and oak trees. It's a beautiful property, and there are some slave cabins to see; however, the impact wasn't the same.

If you have a car and prefer to visit Whitney Plantation independently, it's recommended you buy your tickets in advance. Adult admission is $25; children age 6-18 are $11 each. 

Where to Stay in New Orleans:   The Quisby is centrally located in the Garden District, a 15-minute walk from the French Quarter. Free breakfast, an on-site bar open 24/7, and dorms starting at just $18 are a few of the reasons to stay here. Click here to check availability

My trip to New Orleans was in partnership with New Orleans & Company and The Quisby; this tour was provided compliments of Gray Line. 

Dave is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Go Backpacking and Feastio . He's been to 66 countries and lived in Colombia and Peru. Read the full story of how he became a travel blogger.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

  • G Adventures for small group tours.
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the Whitney Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana

The Whitney Plantation is located on the west bank of the Mississippi on Louisiana’s historic River Road.

Plantations are a dark chapter in American history—here’s why to visit

Louisiana's Whitney Plantation pays homage to the experiences of slaves across the South.

The moment I see her name, I feel a lump in my throat.

“Pauline Johnson” is written on the back of the small card hanging from a lanyard around my neck. It tells me she was a 12-year-old child who had watched her father die in Louisiana just before slavery was abolished in the United States.

Everyone who visits the Whitney Plantation , located on the west bank of the Mississippi less than an hour’s drive from New Orleans on Louisiana’s historic River Road , receives a similar card. Each bears the story of a different slave, derived from interviews with more than 2,300 former slaves conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s.

I am standing next to my own 12-year-old the moment I read Pauline’s story and can’t imagine him having to grow up knowing he was someone else’s property.

The inability to imagine is part of the luxury of this tour.

Visitors have the opportunity—the privilege—of learning about the complex and often grueling history of slavery in the United States from a distance of more than 150 years. The 13th Amendment to the nation’s constitution, which outlawed the practice unequivocally, was ratified in December 1865.

Despite the fact that the Whitney Plantation, a sugar-cane plantation formerly home to more than 350 African slaves, is immaculately groomed, the raw emotion of the place is undeniable.

Travel across sections of the American South and you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid running across one of the large antebellum plantations—some as populous as modern-day suburban housing developments—that once dominated the countryside.

Plantation tours are almost equally ubiquitous. At most properties, the visitor experience includes a guided exploration of the plantation home and grounds led by a living historian clad in period garb.

It typically goes a bit like this: Tour the big house with a docent portraying a privileged occupant, then follow one meant to be a black slave or cook through the fields and kitchens.

A retired (white) trial lawyer named John Cummings took it upon himself to tell the plantation story in a different way.

In 2014, at the age of 77, the New Orleans native opened the doors on a project 15 years in the making. The Whitney Plantation Museum is one of the only historic sites in the country focused solely on the slave experience.

From the outset, our guide Courtney makes it clear to the group, which includes a mixed bag of ages and races, that the goal here is to inform and educate, not to shame or romanticize. Notably, she isn’t wearing a costume.

Contrary to precedent, the tour doesn’t commence in the massive plantation home, where the land (and slave-) owners would have lived. This experience is not about them, Courtney tells us.

Instead we start in the tiny freed-slave-built Antioch Baptist Church , a cool spot to escape the searing heat of a Louisiana summer’s day, to be sure, but also the kind of place where slaves would have found sanctuary and a few moments of rest and peace.

The church isn’t original to the property; it was donated to the plantation in 2001 by a congregation in Paulina, a community located just a few miles away on the opposite side of the Mississippi River.

This kind of deliberate borrowing is part and parcel of the Whitney Plantation Museum experiment, which seeks to provide a unique perspective on the working plantation as it evolved over time in Louisiana in addition to paying homage to the experiences of slaves across the American South.

Many of the outbuildings that now sit on the living history museum’s grounds, including most of the slave cabins—small shacks that would have been shared by up to a dozen workers—have been imported from nearby plantations to help tell that story.

Though some acquisitions have been donated, Cummings has personally invested millions here. Art he has commissioned includes 40 life-size casts of slave children that stand and sit in and among the pews of the church, and a massive bronze angel erected in the garden to memorialize the 2,200 children who died on the plantation and across St. John the Baptist Parish before slavery was abolished in the United States.

Related: intimate photos show the power of the African American Museum

a man and woman embracing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

As we walk through the fields where slaves once collected sugar cane, we come upon Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, an open-air monument honoring the 107,000 people who were held in bondage in Louisiana.

The group is left to read plaque after plaque in silence before Courtney shares more information.

We learn about Louisiana’s Code Noir , a list of state-proposed recommendations—regarding housing, clothing, food, and more—put forth in order to make the slave trade more “humane.” The terms of the code suggest slaves should be given a day off each week (it rarely happened, we are told), guaranteed food (insufficient weekly rations drove many slaves to hunt squirrel, possum, and alligator), and treated with care (abuse was rampant), exposing the shocking gap between prescribed behavior and reality.

We see the tiny outdoor kitchen (the oldest in Louisiana) where the enslaved cook would have prepared meals for the master’s family and the “hot box”—a rusting metal chamber barely wide enough to stand in with arms outstretched where slaves awaiting sale at auction or those being punished would be left to suffer in the hot sun. On the interior walls, Courtney points out small cutouts meant to hold a slave’s chains. Nearby, a list of slaves and the prices for which their lives were bought and sold is posted.

And on it goes.

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By the time we get to the 14-room plantation house, it seems to have grown in size. Courtney shows us the fine china, elaborate drawing rooms, and frescoed ceiling without emotion. Still, I feel my stomach turn. The view of the cabins in the distance only makes it worse.

In addition to the escorted tour, the plantation offers a small self-guided area where visitors can learn about the history of slavery on an international scale, offering vital perspective on an industry that once fueled much of the world’s economy.

It is there that we learn most slaves came from West Central Africa, that Portugal and Brazil were among the largest slave traders, and that 2,500,000 slaves eventually were brought to North America. We are also introduced to the pope, Nicholas V , who authorized the King of Portugal to “capture and subjugate” people who weren’t Christians for the purpose of forced labor “in perpetuity,” a harsh reminder of how morally upright the practice was felt to be.

Courtney is careful with specifics of brutality owing to the children on the tour. My own two boys remain interested but detached as we make our way around the property. They take in the information presented, sometimes offering their thoughts (“That’s not right.”), and move along. But the tour dominates our conversation as we drive away from the plantation, grateful for the chance to talk about the experience in private.

Much like a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau , there is no joy in visiting the Whitney Plantation, or in learning about the atrocities that happened there and on similar properties throughout the South. You won’t leave feeling better about humanity, especially in light of recent racial tensions across the United States. But you will leave informed … and affected.

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An Ethical Guide to Plantation Tours

By Sarah Enelow-Snyder

Middleton Place National Historic Landmark And America's Oldest Landscaped Gardens In Charleston SC.

Wormsloe is often cited as one of Savannah’s top attractions. A quick internet search describes it as a state park, famous for its avenue of oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, under which visitors line up to take pictures and even get married. Tripadvisor reviews call it “breathtaking,” “magical,” and “like a fairy tale.” You'd never know Wormsloe was actually a plantation that ran on the labor of enslaved people.

Many travelers approach plantations, a cornerstone of tourism in the South, as they would parks, museums, or historical sites: a beautiful place to learn something about local history before having a cocktail or going out to dinner. But plantations need to be experienced differently. Black people were enslaved, raped, tortured, and killed for hundreds of years on these lands. They are America’s concentration camps.

Rather than shy away from the painful truth, plantations must expose it. They are a vital educational resource with which to combat modern-day racism.

The institution of slavery “translates into virtually every kind of social and economic racial disparity that you might think of today in terms of education, net worth, health, and mortality,” says Bernard Powers, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and consultant with Middleton Place plantation. “It’s one thing to hear that. It’s another thing to go to a plantation site where you can see where the deed was done, see the implements of oppression, see the chains.”

Plantations are uniquely equipped to offer such an impactful, immersive experience. If such tours no longer existed, Powers says, “we would be far closer to developing an amnesia about what happened in the past, and the way in which the past continues to dog us in the present.” 

Visitors are surprised to hear from Toby Smith, the lead interpretive aide at Charleston ’s McLeod Plantation , that the descendants of people enslaved at McLeod continued to live there, occupying huts without running water, until 1990. “It begins to sink in how very recent this is,” she says. McLeod’s Black visitorship rose after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, though Black and white visitors alike are “looking for answers.”

Some people don't want to hear about slavery when they're “on vacation,” says Brigette Janea Jones, former director of African American studies at Nashville’s Belle Meade plantation. But the experience can be life-changing. 

“For many people, they leave feeling much better than they came, that they faced their fears,” Smith says. However, plantation tours vary tremendously, which poses a problem for travelers as they try to choose which one to visit. Some plantations celebrate the white slave-owning family and the upper-class furnishings of the big house with no mention of the atrocities that occurred there. Others are dedicated to honoring the lives of enslaved people, or are imperfectly working toward that goal.

This quandary also applies to historic houses, colonial attractions, and other slavery-era sites that functioned like plantations, but perhaps don’t look like them at first glance. Savannah’s Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters is one of the oldest examples of urban enslaved people’s housing in the South—but it was only in 2018 that “slave quarters” was added to its official name. Because of that, and its city setting, most visitors don’t view it as a plantation, says Bri Salley, marketing and communications manager for Telfair Museums, whose properties include Owens-Thomas. Visitors come primarily to learn about architecture and decorative arts, but receive an education on slavery too, hearing letters from enslaved people about their experience as cooks and groundskeepers.

With so many different types of plantations out there, with ranging emphasis on the history of enslaved people, we’ve created this guide to help travelers navigate their decision-making process. Here are some considerations for your next trip.

Take plantation tours that center Black voices

Whitney Plantation Louisiana

An exhibit inside the church at Whitney Plantation, in Louisiana

Look for plantations that focus heavily on the lives of enslaved people and tell their first-person stories, but more than that, look for plantations that employ Black historians, tours guides, and administrators. Avoid whitewashed storytelling that aims to make the experience more palatable, like tours that revolve around the slave-owning family and the luxurious furnishings of the big house.

Brigette Janea Jones is a fifth-generation Tennessean whose family was enslaved in Tennessee, and she led a Journey to Jubilee tour during her time at Belle Meade plantation, a tour that focused on the lives of enslaved people. She recited narratives recorded from enslaved people, whom she viewed as her own family, and the experience was very emotional for her. Journey to Jubilee began as an exhibit in 2007, but “grew like wildfire” once the tour launched in 2018, and there was a subsequent push not to have such segregated tours as they had been operating before she launched this program.

Jones says part of the solution was to put more Black artifacts, like portraits of enslaved people, inside the big house to acknowledge their role there, instead of regarding it as a purely white space. “White people can do this work,” says Jones about curating an experience that amplifies Black voices. “But Black people should be doing it.”

Avoid plantations that host weddings

When Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds had their 2012 wedding at Boone Hall Plantation, in South Carolina, activists sounded the alarm on the decision. Since weddings are a reliable source of revenue, many plantations are reluctant to give it up, but the practice is both inappropriate and disrespectful, drawing parallels to throwing a birthday party at Auschwitz. Similarly, avoid plantations that promote honeymoon packages, girls getaways, or other recreational products that detract from a serious discussion of slavery.

For Pia Spinner, a descendant of people enslaved in Virginia and the education research assistant at Virginia’s Menokin plantation, this practice must stop industrywide. “No more plantation weddings,” she says, adding that while weddings did happen on plantations, those of enslaved people were often done in secret and went unrecognized. Menokin does not host weddings.

While the revenue may be tempting, a different business model is possible, says Joy Banner, director of communications at Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans . Whitney is famous for focusing exclusively on Black lives, and it does not host weddings or other events that detract from this mission. “There is opportunity to be honest and still have a sustainable business,” she says.

Look for the living descendants of enslaved people

Plantations should collaborate with the living descendants of people who were enslaved on the property. Descendants should have a say in how their family stories are told, how the property is managed, and how the organization interacts with the surrounding community.

Joy Banner is not just an employee at Whitney Plantation—she’s also a descendant of people enslaved on that very property, and she says that descendants are a crucial part of fulfilling Whitney’s mission. Besides herself, descendants occupy various other positions within the organization, including as interpreters and front desk staff.

“You’re gonna need to contact the descendant community,” says Janea Jones, advising other curators to collect the oral histories of descendants when developing their historic interpretations. In addition to working with Belle Meade in Nashville , Jones also worked with nearby Rippavilla plantation.

At Middleton Place, living descendants have joined the board of trustees and contributed valuably to the plantation’s storytelling, says Jeff Neale, director of preservation and interpretation. For years Middleton hosted separate reunions for Black and white descendants, until the first integrated one in 2006, a turning point says Neale, who joined Middleton in 2009. “From what I was told, people were a little worried, but it turned out to be an incredible experience.”

Whitney Plantation Museum Louisiana USA

Large iron bowls used by enslaved people for boiling and refining sugar cane at Whitney Plantation 

Ask about reparations

It’s ideal, though rare, for a plantation to give reparations to its living descendants, or allow descendants to have a say in how reparations are administered. Some plantations are working toward this, either in the form of direct monetary compensation or bolstering economic activity in the descendant community.

There’s an ongoing discussion at Menokin about compensating descendants, Spinner says. “I truly believe that all sites that want to work with the descendants of the people that they owned and benefitted from should compensate them.” McLeod is also considering compensating descendants, some of whom have visited and given feedback on the experience, says Smith.

“The descendants that contribute to the narrative of a plantation should be compensated,” says Banner of Whitney. “What that compensation looks like should be directed by the descendants.” She says plantations should make some kind of direct payout to descendants, though this has not been instituted at Whitney, and the pandemic put big collaborative projects like this on the back burner.

Direct payouts aside, Whitney has fostered some economic activity for the descendant community. Years ago Banner's sister opened a bakery near Whitney, and after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the business closed. When Whitney opened to the public in 2014 and attracted visitors to the area, the business reopened as Fee-Fo-Lay Café , and it became a place where Whitney visitors could continue their conversations about slavery’s legacy. Descendants starting their own businesses is “the most powerful access that a plantation can give to a descendant community,” Banner says.

Broaden your view of when slavery happened

McLeod Plantation

A view of the big house at McLeod Plantation, in Charleston

The story of slavery is not confined to a 250-year period. Plantation tours should discuss the lives of African people before the transatlantic slave trade, the fact that plantations were built on land taken from Indigenous peoples , and the links between slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, police brutality, and other current events.

For Spinner at Menokin, it’s important to acknowledge the murder and displacement of Native peoples to make way for plantations in the first place. “We do bring up the fact that this is Rappahannock land,” she says, adding that there are ongoing discussions about how to better include the tribe, honor its legacy, and have members use the land—to hold ceremonies, for example.

“Our Native American brothers and sisters were here first,” says Smith of McLeod. On her tours, she also traces enslaved people back to their lives on the African continent. She takes visitors down to Wappoo Creek and goes backward in time, by river to the Port of Charleston, by ocean back to Africa, and that opens up a discussion about the diversity of languages and cultures there. This topic is particularly personal for Smith. When her great-great grandmother was a young girl, she was taken away from her family in what is now Ghana, and brought to the United States. Smith says she mourned this familial loss. “Tell the story of who they were before they were captured,” she says. “America only knows Black people as captured.”

Last but not least, it’s crucial to connect the past to the present. Plantations should explain how slavery gave way to rampant lynchings during the Jim Crow era, alongside which police brutality flourished, long before the Black Lives Matter movement of today. During this time, countless George Floyds were killed, many of whose deaths did not spark nationwide protests.

Honest storytelling is fundamental to this entire effort, says Banner of Whitney. “If we are true to what the plantation was about, the difficulty of the labor that was involved, the system of slavery that kept people in prison on this land, rather than treating it like it’s this beautiful southern resort that was just magical for everybody, then we will be able to contribute a huge amount of progress toward racial healing.”

For more information

Whitney Plantation: 5099 Louisiana Highway 18, Edgard, LA 70049; whitneyplantation.org McLeod Plantation: 325 Country Club Drive, Charleston, SC 29412; https://ccprc.com/1447/McLeod-Plantation-Historic-Site Menokin Plantation: 4037 Menokin Road, Warsaw, Virginia 22572; menokin.org

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plantation tour slave perspective

Facing America’s traumatic history head-on through tourism

D ARROW, La. — The grand old homes that sit along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — an area called Plantation Country — are filled with tales that stretch back hundreds of years. But the history and the stories that are shared vary wildly depending on which plantation you visit.

At Houmas House , an 1829 Greek Revival mansion flanked by manicured gardens, a tour guide walked visitors through the high-ceilinged rooms on a recent gray afternoon. The house was brimming with pricey antiques and cases of shiny bric-a-brac. The guide stopped to show tourists a room where Bette Davis slept during the filming of 1964′s “Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and pointed to the lawn featured in a scene from 2018′s “Green Book.”

What the guide did not talk about were the more than 800 enslaved people at Houmas House who were forced to work in Louisiana’s dangerous sugar trade. At one point, Houmas had more enslaved people than any other plantation in Louisiana.

“This tour isn’t about that,” the guide said when asked about the plantation’s enslaved population. Instead, he dispensed more than an hour of “Gone with the Wind”-style revisionist feel-good history about plantation life filtered through a lens of moonlight and magnolias.

But increasingly, those romanticized narratives of a genteel antebellum South are being stripped away. Plantations along the serpentine River Road in Louisiana and throughout the South are increasingly sharing what life was like for enslaved individuals. Some plantations have only just begun incorporating those brutal and traumatic histories into their tours. Others, like the Whitney Plantation , have taken the lead by showing plantation life from the perspective of those who were enslaved.

The 234-year-old Whitney Plantation is located in Louisiana’s Plantation Country, but despite its proximity to other plantations, its mission is worlds apart from its neighbors. There’s no air of sentimentality or mint juleps. The nonprofit Whitney offers a clear-eyed view of what life was like for its 350 enslaved inhabitants. The 14-room “big house,” as it’s called on plantations, has been stripped of its ornate furnishings. Unlike most plantation tours that focus on the main house, the emphasis at the Whitney is the world outside of those walls.

It’s an emotional experience. Tour guides give visitors an unflinching description of what life was like, from the heat of the outdoor kitchen to the cramped, rough-hewn cypress cabins that would have housed up to a dozen workers each. The emotion carries over into the art, which includes life-size sculptures of the children who were enslaved here, a wall of more than 100,000 names of the enslaved who lived in Louisiana, along with a more visceral and jarring art installation that pays tribute to those killed in the 1811 Slave Revolt .

Absorbing the information and hearing about the brutality can be overwhelming. But, as the executive director of the Whitney points out, it’s a large part of US history that many of us were never taught or couldn’t fully grasp from textbooks.

“I think people should visit plantations,” said Ashley Rogers, executive director of the Whitney. “And I think the reason you should visit plantations is because you need to understand our history. Our nation became powerful in part, in significant part, because of the forced labor of Africans and African descent people that we put to work on and off plantations. Slavery is not just plantations, slavery was everywhere. It was the fuel of our early economy, our early republic. So there’s no way to understand the United States today without understanding a plantation. Period.”

The Whitney Plantation is unique in that it never operated as a place for tourists before its current incarnation. It was purchased by New Orleans attorney John Cummings in 1999 after it had fallen into disrepair. He spent $8 million and 15 years creating Louisiana’s only slave museum. It’s now a nationally heralded example of an ethical way to show plantation life.

“I do think that we’ve influenced other sites,” Rogers said. “There are more plantations that are telling the story differently, from both sides. But our focus is different. Our mandate is really helping people understand the slave trade, helping people understand slavery, and how the story of what happened here fits into the wider story of our country.”

About 30 minutes from the Whitney, guides at Laura Plantation spend equal time talking about the Creole families that owned the plantation and the people who were enslaved there. On an overcast morning earlier this month, a guide leading the tour at Laura didn’t shy away from talking about the physical and psychological abuse that was part of daily life.

By the end of the hourlong tour, one woman was fighting back tears.

If all of this sounds overwhelming — and it is — keep in mind that many tours also touch on the resilience of generations of enslaved people.

“I think there are amazing stories to learn at these places,” said Braden Paynter, director for methodology and practice at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience . His organization works with historical sites around the world, including several plantations. “There are things that you can learn about the hardships, but also about the incredible capacity of humans to find their way through really hard times and build love and family.”

The grander houses in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South have been slower to adapt. Many of them derive their income from hosting weddings, or from restaurants and lodging. Nottoway Plantation, which bills itself as Nottoway Resort , provides visitors with more information about the trees on the property than it does about the enslaved laborers who built the house. Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie has lodging and a restaurant, but it’s also starting to give a broader view of plantation life, including re-creations of cabins. But the focus remains on the ornate big house and its surrounding trees. Tours at Oak Alley end with a stop at the bar to sip a mint julep served in a commemorative glass.

If you have an interest in visiting plantations, there’s an ethical way to do it. Experts say to start by researching a location online. If a plantation’s website includes a database of the people who were enslaved, along with information about the big house and its occupants, there’s a good chance you’ll hear a broader perspective on plantation life. Websites that include images of tour guides in period garb or focus on weddings and events will likely present a whitewashed version of the history. Paynter advises building extra time into your schedule after visiting a plantation to process and reflect on what you’ve learned.

Two plantations are frequently held up as examples of ethical tourism: the Whitney Plantation and McLeod Plantation in Charleston, S.C. The Charleston County Parks and Recreation Department acquired the McLeod Plantation in 2011 and spent years carefully restoring the estate. Historian Toby Smith , who gives tours of the former cotton plantation, said initially there was resistance from some in the community who were uncomfortable with the way the history of the plantation was being told.

“When you talk of all of the blood that was shed here, it changes the conversation radically,” Smith said. “You are acknowledging the humanity of the hands that were pricked by the thorns, and the hours and the burnt backs that were bent over in the hot sun. You’re talking about the children who were out there as young as 5 or 6. It brings the story forward in a way that it is almost palpable.”

Back in Louisiana, a pair of sisters who live in the River Parishes, where plantations were once plentiful, have launched the Descendants Project . Their mission is to make life better for the descendants of the enslaved families who live in these primarily Black towns. When the plantations closed, more than 200 petrochemical plants and refineries moved in along the river. Pollution from the factories has resulted in another nickname for Plantation Country: Cancer Alley. Sociologists and environmentalists refer to the scenario as environmental racism. According to a study from Tulane University , Louisiana has the second highest rate of new cancer cases in the nation.

The sisters behind the Descendants Project, Jo and Joy Banner , have been fighting further industrialization here. On top of that, they’ve done something quite remarkable. The siblings, who can trace their roots back 300 years and have ancestors who were enslaved at both Laura and Whitney plantations, acquired a plantation earlier this month. The Banner sisters now own Woodland Plantation in LaPlace. It’s the first time that the plantation has been under Black ownership in its 231-year history.

“Woodland Plantation will be a cultural center,” said Joy Banner. “It’s not just a place for tours. it’s a place for education. The idea is that we are connecting Black history. This is a historic Black community. We’re the foundation of everything. Our people built the infrastructure. Look how much our ancestors contributed. This is a way of owning and celebrating our ancestry.”

The “Children of Whitney” statues are located throughout the Whitney Plantation Museum. They were created by artist Woodrow Nash.

Cajun Encounters Tour Company, New Orleans

504.834.1770

Whitney Plantation Tour

Visiting the Whitney Plantation is an eye-opening and immersive experience. This plantation was founded in 1752 and it has become a valuable source of information about the lives of the people who lived, worked, and died here during times of slavery. This five-hour tour not only provides visitors an opportunity to discover more about this part of American history, but it also serves as an insight to those who were affected by slavery. When touring the Whitney Plantation, guests can view original slave cabins, exhibits featuring artifacts including clothing, tools, furniture, and even old sugar cane fields. There is also a chapel onsite that offers spiritual guidance for descendants of slaves still living in the area today. The Whitney Plantation offers visitors an unparalleled glimpse into our nation’s past while providing education and remembrance for those who have been impacted by the dark history of slavery in America.

History of Whitney Plantation

Whitney Plantation holds a rich history that serves to educate the public about the legacies of slavery. The land was purchased by Ambroise Heidel, a German immigrant who had established himself in Louisiana as a modest farmer, in 1752. After time, he had acquired enough wealth through his labor practices to purchase the tract of land that would become Whitney Plantation and enslaved approximately 20 Africans and European servants. After the death of Ambroise Heidel, the plantation changed hands until it eventually came into possession of John Cummings in 1999, who funded its restoration and opened it to the public as a museum on December 7, 2014. Today, visitors are able to gain insight into this dark chapter in history through guided tours, exhibits, and interactive experiences.

Visiting The Plantation

Come explore the Louisiana Whitney Plantation and gain a unique perspective on history! This 5-hour tour brings you through one of the oldest plantation sites in Louisiana and provides insight into the lives of slaves and the troubles they faced. Pick-up starts at 12:30pm, so please allow 30 minutes for arrival. Dress comfortably according to the weather, and make sure to bring along a bottle of water, as well as sunscreen to protect yourself from the Louisiana sun.

This is an educational experience that will stay with you for years to come. Hear about first-hand accounts from those who lived and worked on the plantation, giving you an in-depth look into this important part of American history. As you tour the grounds, you will learn more about what life was like for slaves during that era – their work, their hardships, and their hopes for freedom – as well as how experts are working today to preserve these stories forever.

Call  504.834.1770  or visit our  online booking portal  to book your tour today.

See all New Orleans  plantation tour options  offered by Cajun Encounters.

plantation tour slave perspective

plantation tour slave perspective

Whitney Plantation Tour

5 hours and 25 minutes

A personal look into the lives of owners and enslaved people in antebellum Louisiana.

In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262 year history as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery. Through museum exhibits, memorial artwork, restored buildings, and hundreds of first-person narratives, visitors to Whitney will gain a unique perspective on the enslaved people who lived and worked here.

The early owners of Habitation Haydel, later known as The Whitney Plantation, became wealthy producing indigo before the plantation transitioned to sugar in the early 1800s. Whitney is also significant because of the number of its historic outbuildings which were added to the site over the years, thus providing a unique perspective on the evolution of the Louisiana working plantation.

The Big House is one of the finest surviving examples of Spanish Creole architecture and one of the earliest raised Creole cottages in Louisiana. Although a limited portion of the original tour, the house is undergoing renovations in 2021 and it is not currently open.

The Whitney Plantation Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places. As a site of memory and consciousness, the Whitney Plantation Museum is meant to pay homage to all enslaved people on the plantation itself and to all of those who lived elsewhere in the United States.

Travel past Laura, Oak Alley, Evergreen, Felicity & St. Joseph Plantations, ghosts of the past that front the Mississippi River, where rich crops of sugar cane, cotton, and indigo from these fertile lands once traveled to ports of trade.

Tour starts at 12:00pm and 1:00pm Wednesday - Monday. Tour does not operate on Tuesdays. Please arrive 15 minutes prior to tour time.

What's included?

  • Entry or admission fee
  • Entrance fees
  • Round-trip transportation from the French Quarter
  • Food and drinks
  • Gratuities (optional)
  • Hotel pickup and drop-off (must meet at 400 Toulouse Street)

Please note

  • Confirmation will be received at time of booking
  • Check-in is 15 minutes prior to start time.
  • They Whitney Plantation is a self-guided tour. Please make sure to download the Whitney Plantation app on your cell phone, tablet, or iPad to listen to an audio tour.
  • If the guest needs a wheelchair lift equipped bus, then special arrangements need to be made with the supplier. This must be arranged 48 hours prior to tour date. Contact details will be on your voucher.
  • Guests visiting Whitney using a wheelchair will have access to the gift shop, restrooms, and museum. The plantation grounds are accessible; however, there are uneven gravel paths. The main house tour is not accessible to guest traveling in wheelchairs and is not required to be modified as it is a historic home; however, the first floor is accessible. Guests would be able to view the slave quarters, but would not have access to enter.
  • You can present either a paper or an electronic voucher for this activity.

What to bring

  contact info, (504) 569-1401, [email protected], gray line new orleans, 400 toulouse st new orleans, la 70130 usa, useful links, let's connect.

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The 3 best new orleans plantation tours.

Learn about the Big Easy's role in slavery on one of these daytrips.

Best New Orleans Plantation Tours

Slave quarters with large bowls in front of the house

Courtesy of New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours

Whitney Plantation's exhibits are largely devoted to the lives of the enslaved people who worked on the property hundreds of years ago.

Known for its Creole cuisine, Mardi Gras festivities and iconic architecture, New Orleans has something to offer every traveler, especially history buffs. The area's antebellum plantations offer a look at the lives of enslaved workers, how local landowners ran their farms using – and profiting off – the labor of the enslaved and how agriculture impacted New Orleans.

Picking the right tour means more than picking a plantation close to your hotel. (Many plantations are located within an hour's drive of the French Quarter .) You'll want to find a tour where first-person accounts depicting the brutal conditions enslaved workers had to endure are the focus. These stories help to provide a more complete picture of plantation life and provide context for why plantation owners were able to afford the luxurious mansions preserved on the property. Additionally, look for plantations that emphasize researching about the lives of enslaved workers, plantations that do not host weddings and those that employ descendants of former slaves.

Not sure where to start? Begin at Evergreen Plantation. This research-focused property is not open to the public, but you can explore its comprehensive website to learn more about the lives of the enslaved men, women and children who were forced to work on the plantation. Visitors can also peruse a slavery database, read biographies of slaves who labored at Evergreen and take a virtual tour.

Taking into account the above criteria – as well as traveler opinion and expert sentiment – U.S. News identified some of the top New Orleans plantation tours.

Gray Line – Whitney Plantation Tour

Price: Adults from $79; kids from $39 Duration: 5.5 hours

Opened to the public in 2014, Whitney Plantation offers a distinct look at the enslaved people who lived and worked at the site more than 200 years ago. This Gray Line tour, which lasts about 5.5 hours, allows access to museum exhibits, artwork and recorded first-person slave narratives. Reviewers say this tour is particularly powerful and important and describe it as a must-do activity. They also appreciate the bus drivers who share more tidbits of information on the drive to Whitney.

Tours depart Wednesday through Monday at noon and 1 p.m. Ticket prices start at $79 for adults and $39 for children 12 and younger. Gray Line offers other plantation tours, ghost tours, swamp tours and more.

View & Book Tickets: Viator | GetYourGuide

Two statues of enslaved children on front porch

New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours – Whitney Plantation & Swamp Kayak Tour Combo

Price: From $195

Duration: 8 hours

Travelers say this daylong tour is a wonderful way to experience two must-do New Orleans attractions. Half the tour is a kayak trip through Manchac Swamp to see cypress trees and local wildlife while learning about the history of the area. The other half is a moving visit to Whitney Plantation, where the experiences of enslaved workers are the main focus. In between the activities, you'll stop for lunch (at your own expense).

Fees start at $195 per person, regardless of age, and tours begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday through Monday. Transportation to and from New Orleans (pickup is near Frenchmen Street) is included. The company says the paddle is suitable for beginner kayakers. It also offers kayak excursions through Honey Island Swamp, among other options.

View & Book Tickets: New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours

Legendary Tours – Laura Plantation Tour

Price: Adults from $79; kids from $45 Duration: 5.5 hours

Named for Laura Lucoul, a Creole member of the family who owned the plantation, Laura Plantation allows visitors not only to explore the lives of enslaved workers on the property, but to also learn more about Louisiana's Creole heritage. During this half-day outing with Legendary Tours, travelers will explore the plantation in depth, view slave quarters, see the great house and much more. Tourgoers commend their drivers and say the guides at Laura Plantation are excellent.

Tours last about 5.5 hours and operate Wednesday to Monday beginning at 10 a.m. (though keep in mind, transportation pickup starts at 8 a.m.) Tickets start at $79 for adults and $45 for children 5 to 12; kids 4 and younger explore for free. Fees include round-trip transportation from select areas of New Orleans. Legendary Tours also offers tours exploring other area plantations.

View & Book Tickets: Legendary Tours

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I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery.

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Share All sharing options for: I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery.

Up until about a year ago, I worked at a historic site in the South that included an old house and a nearby plantation. My job was to lead tours and tell guests about the people who made plantations possible: the slaves.

The site I worked at most frequently had more than 100 enslaved workers associated with it— 27 people serving the household alone, outnumbering the home's three white residents by a factor of nine. Yet many guests who visited the house and took the tour reacted with hostility to hearing a presentation that focused more on the slaves than on the owners.

The first time it happened, I had just finished a tour of the home. People were filing out of their seats, and one man stayed behind to talk to me. He said, "Listen, I just wanted to say that dragging all this slavery stuff up again is bringing down America."

I started to protest, but he interrupted me. "You didn't know. You're young. But America is the greatest country in the world, and these people out there, they'd do anything to make America less great." He was loud and confusing, and I was 22 years old and he seemed like a million feet tall.

Lots of folks who visit historic sites and plantations don't expect to hear too much about slavery while they're there. Their surprise isn't unjustified: Relatively speaking, the move toward inclusive history in museums is fairly recent, and still underway. And as recent debates over Confederate iconography have shown, as a country we're still working through our response to the horrors of slavery, even a century and a half after the end of the Civil War.

Read Margaret Biser’s answers to your questions from her reddit AMA .

The majority of interactions I had with museum guests were positive, and most visitors I encountered weren't as outwardly angry as that man who confronted me early on. (Though some were. One favorite: a 60-ish guy in a black tank top who, annoyed both at having to wait for a tour and at the fact that the next tour focused on slaves, came back at me with, "Yeah, well, Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, so I guess what goes around comes around!")

Still, I'd often meet visitors who had earnest but deep misunderstandings about the nature of American slavery. These folks were usually, but not always, a little older, and almost invariably white. I was often asked if the slaves there got paid, or (less often) whether they had signed up to work there. You could tell from the questions — and, not less importantly, from the body language — that the people asking were genuinely ignorant of this part of the country's history.

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The more overtly negative reactions to hearing about slave history were varied in their levels of subtlety. Sometimes it was as simple as watching a guest's body language go from warm to cold at the mention of slavery in the midst of the historic home tour. I also met guests from all over the country who, by means of suggestive questioning of the "Wouldn't you agree that..." variety, would try to lead me to admit that slavery and slaveholders weren't as bad as they've been made out to be.

On my tours, such moments occurred less frequently if visitors of color were present. Perhaps guests felt more comfortable asking me these questions because I am white, though my African-American coworkers were by no means exempt from such experiences. At any rate, these moments happened often enough that I eventually began writing them down (and, later, tweeting about them ).

Taken together, these are the most common misconceptions about American slavery I encountered during my time interpreting history to the public:

1) People think slaveholders "took care" of their slaves out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than out of economic interest

There is a surprisingly prevalent belief out there that slaves' rations and housing were bestowed upon them out of the master's goodwill, rather than handed down as a necessity for their continued labor — and their master's continued profit.

This view was expressed to me often, usually by people asking if the family was "kind" or "benevolent" to their slaves, but at no point was it better encapsulated than by a youngish mom taking the house tour with her 6-year-old daughter a couple of years ago. I had been showing them the inventory to the building, which sets a value on all the high-ticket items in the home, including silver, books, horses, and, of course, actual human people. (Remember that the technical definition of a slave is not just an unpaid worker, but a person considered property.)

For most guests, this is the most emotionally meaningful moment of the tour. I showed the young mother some of the slaves' names and pointed out which people were related to each other. The mom stiffened up, raised her chin, and asked pinchedly, "Did the slaves here appreciate the care they got from their mistress?"

2) People know that field slavery was bad but think household slavery was pretty all right, if not an outright sweet deal

"These were house slaves, so they must have had a pretty all right life, right?" is a phrase I heard again and again. Folks would ask me if members of the enslaved household staff felt "fortunate" that they "got to" sleep in the house or "got to" serve a politically powerful owner.

Relatedly, many guests seemed to think that the only reason to seek liberation from household slavery was if you were being beaten or abused. A large part of the house tours I gave was narratives of men and women who dared to attempt escape from it, and so many museum visitors asked me, in all earnestness and surprise, why those men and women tried to escape: "They lived in a nice house here, and they weren't being beaten. Do we know why they wanted to leave?" These folks were seeing the evil of slavery primarily as a function of the physical environment and the behavior of individual slaveowners, not as inherent to the system itself.

It is worth mentioning that I never, on any tour, said the slaves weren't being beaten -- these visitors simply assumed it. It is also worth mentioning here that the bulk of wanted ads placed in newspapers for fugitive slaves are for house servants, not field workers. Apparently whatever slavery was like in the big house, people were willing to risk their lives to get away from it.

3) People think slavery and poverty are interchangeable

Sometimes in the course of a conversation, guests I spoke with would remark that while being a field slave was indeed difficult, on the whole it was hardly worse than being a humble farmer living off the land. Folks have not always been taught that slavery was much more than just difficult labor: It was violence, assault, family separation, fear.

One important branch of this phenomenon was guests huffily bringing up every disadvantaged group of white people under the sun — the Irish, the Polish, the Jews, indentured servants, regular servants, poor people, white women, Baptists, Catholics, modern-day wage workers, whomever — and say something like, "Well, you know they had it almost as bad as/just as bad as/much worse than slaves did." Within the context of a tour or other interpretation, this behavior had the effect of temporarily pulling sympathy and focus away from African Americans and putting it on whites.

The most extreme example of this occurred in my very last week of work. A gentleman came in to view our replica slave quarter and, upon learning how crowded it was, said, "Well, I've seen taverns where five or six guys had to share a bed!" — thus adding "tavern-goers" to the list of white people who supposedly had it just as bad as slaves.

4) People don't understand how prejudice influenced slaveholders' actions beyond mere economic interest

I was occasionally asked what motivation slaveholders would have had for beating, starving, or otherwise maltreating enslaved workers. This was often phrased as, "If you think about it economically, they don't work as hard if you don't feed 'em!" (The frequent use of the general "you" in this formulation is significant, because it assumes that the archetypal listener is a potential slaveholder —i.e., that the archetypal listener is white.)

Sometimes this question was asked sincerely; at other times the asker was using it to suggest that stories of abuse, suffering, and exploitation under slavery were just outliers or exaggerations.

What this perspective fails to take into account is the racist beliefs that made cruelty to slaves seem ethically permissible. Slaveowners told each other that black workers were stronger than white ones and thus didn't require as much food or rest. They also told each other that black Americans had a higher pain tolerance — literal thick skin — and that therefore physical punishments could be employed with less restraint.

Such beliefs also helped slaveowners feel confident dismissing complaints from enslaved workers as ungrateful whining.

5) People think "loyalty" is a fair term to apply to people held in bondage

One of the few times I actually felt scared of a guest was during a crowded tour a couple of years ago. I was describing a typical dining room service: the table packed with wealthy and influential couples from the surrounding town, and, in the corners of the room, enslaved waiting men watching and serving but unable to speak. The tour was so crowded that not everyone could fit into the room, and a few tourists were listening from the hallway.

As soon as I finished my sentence about the slaves, an expressionless voice behind me intoned, "Were they loyal?" I turned around, and saw a man resting his arms on either side of the door frame behind me, blocking the exit. He looked like he was about to slap me.

I asked him why he would ask that. "They gave 'em food. Gave 'em a place to live," he said. He was just staring into the room, blank in the eyes.

"I think most people would act ‘loyal' to a person who could shoot them for leaving," I said. He and his adult sons keep their arms crossed as they stared at me for the rest of the tour, and I tried to stay toward the middle of the group.

All the misconceptions discussed here serve to prop up one overarching and incorrect belief: that slavery wasn't really all that bad. And if even slavery was supposedly benign, then how bad can the struggles faced by modern day people of color really be?

Why these misconceptions are so prevalent is a fair question. Sometimes guests were just repeating ideas they'd heard in school or from family. They were only somewhat invested in those ideas personally, and they were open to hearing new perspectives (especially when backed up by historical data).

In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past. After all, for many people, beliefs about one's origins reflect one's beliefs about oneself. We don't want our ancestors to have done bad things because we don't want to think of ourselves as being bad people. These slavery apologists were less invested in defending slavery per se than in defending slave owners , and they weren't defending slaveowners so much as themselves.

Other visitors seemed to find part of their identity in a sense of class victimhood, and they were unwilling to share the sympathy and attention of victimhood with black Americans. As Frank Guan pointed out in the New Republic, explicitness of racism tends to be inversely proportional to social class. Guests who expressed racism most openly to me often appeared to have had recent ancestors who were poor, who were prevented by convention and economics from rising in social status, and who were exploited by the powerful — but who were protected by their whiteness from the extreme oppression visited on African Americans. Regardless of their current wealth level or social status, they still felt that the deck had been stacked against them for generations. Their sense of ancestral victimhood was so personal that the suggestion that any group of people had it worse than their ancestors did was a threat to their sense of self.

And maybe some of these guests were just looking for somewhere to place their anger at their problems, their sense of powerlessness, and their discomfort at social change. They found a scapegoat in black America. I imagine that's what motivated  Charleston shooter Dylann Roof , the  Unite the Right movement , and others — that feeling of being aggrieved, and wanting someone to blame for it.

Regardless of why they were espoused, all the misconceptions discussed here lead to the same result: the assertion that slavery wasn't really all that bad ("as long as you had a godly master," as one guest put it). And if slavery itself was benign —  slavery , a word which in most parlances is a shorthand for unjust hardship and suffering — if even slavery itself was all right, then how bad can the struggles faced by modern-day African Americans really be? Why feel bad for those who complain about racist systems today? The minimization of the unjustness and horror of slavery does more than simply keep the bad feelings of guilt, jealousy, or anger away: It liberates the denier from social responsibility to slaves' descendants.

The question of how to improve this state of affairs is gigantic, and better heads than mine have already said much about it . The tough thing is that racism comes more from the gut than from the mind: You can prove slavery was bad six ways from Sunday, but people can still choose to believe otherwise if they want. Addressing racism isn't just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it's about making people see the humanity in others. We need better education that demonstrates the complexity and dignity of all people; continued efforts from community organizations and faith communities to give justice its due; and better media portraying people of color as people, not caricatures or symbols. Art, public school, faith, entertainment — these are voices that address the subconscious, voices we absorb silently without even noticing. None of these is a complete solution, of course — they are all oblique routes to building compassion.

It's certainly not a bad idea for white Americans to take time to consider the ways in which we may personally have been complicit in oppression, but blame and guilt aren't really the point of telling the histories of enslaved people. The point is to honor those whose tales have not been told.

On the very small scale of leading historic house tours, what helped me combat ahistorical statements was to establish trust and rapport with guests from the get-go. For me, gentleness was key: It created an environment in which people were willing to hear new views and felt less nervous asking questions. For example, guests — especially older folks — used to ask me all the time whether the people who owned the house were "good slaveowners." I would say, "Well, that's an interesting question," and suggest a couple of reasons why even the phrase good slaveowner itself is troubling. They'd nod and look reflective. We were already friends, so they didn't feel attacked by the correction. Then again, maybe they only believed me because they trusted a fellow white person as an unbiased source. And making a personal connection isn't a foolproof way to diffuse racism, as the shooting in Charleston shows: Roof felt so welcomed by the members of Emanuel AME Church that he  considered not killing any of them , yet ultimately he went through with his plan.

An older colleague once reminded me to "talk to people, not at them." It's a small piece of advice. But day by day as I was face to face with strangers, challenging their deeply held beliefs on race, it helped.

Margaret Biser gave educational tours and presentations at a historic site for more than six years. Read more stories of her experiences on Twitter @AfAmHistFail .

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines , and pitch us at [email protected] .

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Travel: The Whitney Plantation outside New…

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Travel: the whitney plantation outside new orleans shows the reality of slavery, unique museum flips the narrative on antebellum south.

plantation tour slave perspective

Most of them spin the same fantasy — allowing visitors to imagine themselves as the master and mistress of the manor, strolling beneath the magnolias in hoop skirts and top hats, and then pulling a cord to summon a slave to bring a mint julep when it’s hot.

Such places are popular wedding venues, where would-be Scarlett O’Hara’s can marry under old oaks, in front of white mansions built with the money from sugar cane, rice and indigo fields worked by enslaved people.

Only one plantation goes out of its way to flip the story entirely.

The

The Whitney Plantation, also along the River Road, tells the same tale — but from the enslaved people’s point of view. And it’s a fascinating one.

Originally founded in 1752, the plantation went through several owners before being purchased in 1998 by John Cummings, a white former trial lawyer and civil rights activist from New Orleans.

He spent $8 million of his own money and 16 years turning it into America’s most important (and maybe only) museum of slavery. It opened in 2014.

Cummings said that he didn’t know what he was going to do with the property when he first bought it from a petrochemical company that had unsuccessfully sought to build a factory there, but after reading accounts of slaves that lived and worked on such plantations, he was inspired to create a museum.

Historian and author Ibrahima Seck came from Senegal to be the plantation’s director of research and help plan the exhibits.

Property records kept track of the purchase and sale of slaves, as well as their disposition after the owners’ deaths.

The Haydel family, German immigrants who founded the plantation and operated it and adjoining ones until 1867, owned 354 slaves over the years, according to the records.

A memorial on the property pays tribute and lists the names of 107,000 people known to have been enslaved in Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Slave Database. The 1860 U.S. Census, taken right before the Civil War, found nearly 4 million enslaved people living in the United States.

Since the African slave trade and its harsh aftermath are such shameful episodes in American history, people might assume that the plantation tour is grim and painful.

It is emotional — tour guides don’t mince words or hide the hard parts — but this important tour of American history is ultimately satisfying and helps fill in the blanks of many people’s curiosity about slavery and how it was practiced on such plantations.

The movies “Django Unchained” and “12 Years A Slave” were filmed at Whitney.

Like all such restored sites, people coming to Whitney Plantation see the elegant manor known as the “Big House,” but in this case they don’t learn about the master and mistress. No hoop skirts are in evidence.

Instead, visitors learn that the house was built of cypress wood, from trees chopped down and planed by slaves.

They hear about the domestic servants who worked there in the house and adjacent tiny kitchen building, perspiring over the hot pots and fires to feed its inhabitants.

As the museum’s excellent audio guide explains, most people would assume that the life of a domestic in a house like this was much easier than a field hand, but it also had its hardships.

Domestic slaves typically lived together in a small building behind the main house. However, they were on call 24 hours a day, and sometimes required to sleep on a pallet outside the owners’ bedrooms. Obviously, this also made it easier for masters to abuse their servants, who were unable to fight back.

On the other hand, field hands worked brutally hard from sunup until sundown, but they typically had their own small cabins to live in with their families, and the few hours remaining after sundown were theirs to enjoy.

Sugar cane plantations like this one were considered the most deadly places to work, with the types of diseases that haunt swamps, venomous snakes and sometimes fatal heat exhaustion in the high temperatures and humidity.

Legally, enslaved people were property — not human beings — so they could be whipped, tortured, mutilated, imprisoned or even killed with impunity, on the whims of masters.

These are the kinds of insights that Whitney visitors learn as they tour around the remaining 40 acres of the plantation.

At the Whitney Plantation slavery museum near New Orleans, LA. Bronze sugar kettle where slaves made molasses from sugar cane. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG)

In addition to the Big House, it includes a gift shop, a church built by ex-slaves, an iron jail, a blacksmith shop, a mule barn, the kitchen, the overseer’s house,the  garden, commemorative sculptures and actual slave cabins decorated with statues of the children who would have lived there.

The variety of artwork around the property lend a poignant air to the stories of the people who worked there.

At the Whitney Plantation slavery museum near New Orleans, LA. This Baptist church built by former slaves shortly after the war was moved to the plantation. Sculptures from the

Huge bronze sugar kettles demonstrate the legacy of sugar production, from sugar cane.

Some of the buildings are original, others were moved here or recreated.

Today, the museum is owned by a nonprofit devoted to educating the public about slavery and its legacy.

At this writing, adult visitors pay $25 to enter, depending on time of day and type of tour. Kids and seniors are cheaper. Both guided tours and self-guided audio tours are available. We did the audio tour, since no guided tours were offered the day we visited. The site is mostly wheelchair accessible on gravel pathways.

In the combined visitor center and gift shop, permanent exhibits describe the history of the international slave trade, worldwide and in Louisiana.

The museum is open daily except Tuesdays. The best way to visit is by rental car or by tour bus from New Orleans. Expect to spend about two hours at the museum.

Learn more: The Whitney Plantation, 5099 Louisiana Highway 18, Edgard, LA 70049. 225-265-3300. WhitneyPlantation.org

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Plantation Tours: Don’t Expect to Hear How Horrible Slavery Really Was

I’m not sure how I picked up the hobby of touring plantations. I think it started with my interest in architecture—picked up from my husband, who works in real estate—and my best friend of 20-plus years, who is an interior designer. Over the years, I’ve adopted their combined interests.

I’ve been to four plantations and an antebellum home with slave quarters over the past few months. That certainly doesn’t make me an expert on slavery or plantations. But it has given me some perspective on the popular article “ I Used to Lead Tours at a Plantation. You Won’t Believe the Questions I Got About Slavery ,” written by Margaret Biser for Vox.

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Biser, who described herself as someone who once “worked at a historic site in the South,” shared her observations of some white people who visited the grounds and the sometimes bizarre questions they asked. I’ve had my own experiences with strange questions on the tours, notably all from black people, and also the bizarre commentary from white—always white, always women—docents.

My first plantation tour took place in March, when I visited Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, S.C. The tour of the big house was OK, though it was smaller than I expected. I appreciated the architecture and interior, though I was never able to separate the opulence from the people who toiled miserably in cotton or tobacco fields. Every time the tour guide made a sweeping gesture alluding to the grandness of a room, I wondered about the enslaved men and women who were forced to work for free to make such luxuries possible.

As the other visitors, all of them white except for a friend accompanying me, oohed and aahed, I wondered if they were picturing themselves heading back in time and imagining what life would have been like then. As a black girl with a great-grandfather born into slavery, I know how I would have lived: enslaved, considered property, doing backbreaking work for no pay, subjected to the demands of Massa and Missy, and living under the threat of violence at any time. Standing in one of the upper bedrooms, I thought, “This visit was a bad idea,” and whispered to my friend, “Never again.”

The slave quarters, distant from the big house, required a separate tour. Of our big-house group of 30 or so, just four of us boarded a trolley that took us down the road to the cabins. The tour guide, a peppy young woman in her early 20s, walked us out to the restored one-room shacks, which she described as "duplexes" because they had attic space that enslaved people slept in.

She told our group that enslaved men and women were treated and fed well on the plantation. In fact, they “were like family” to the owners. She went on to tell the story of a black family who stayed on the plantation beyond the Civil War and into the 1960s because they were loyal and they were so happy there. Then she showed us a cabin with psychedelic wallpaper. My friend and I had exchanged “This is bulls—t” glances throughout the tour, but our eyes locked the longest and rolled the hardest over these details.

Oddly, this perspective on slavery actually made me want to go back on my word and visit more plantations, if for no other reason than to hear who was telling revisionist history and who wasn’t. Was every plantation selling “The slaves were so happy!” stories, or was anyone revealing 12 Years a Slave realness?

Last week I was in New Orleans and stopped by the Hermann-Grima House in the French Quarter. It was the city house of a family that owned a large sugarcane plantation elsewhere in the state. Enslaved men and women were kept in an apartment-style building in the backyard.

The docent, a white woman, of course, was visibly nervous. I was the only black person on the tour. Was she nervous because of me? She alternately referred to the enslaved women and men who worked in the home as “dependencies” and “domestic workers.” When she actually called them “enslaved men and women,” she stumbled over the words as if she weren’t used to the phrase. I wondered if she used that politically correct phrase with all-white groups. No one asked anything like what Biser described in her article. 

After the tour, I double-checked some numbers and dates with her because I knew I would write about my visit. She answered my questions, then added unexpectedly that the current owners of the home don’t really like the docents to talk about slavery, but she’s a historian and thinks it should be mentioned. I thanked her for clarifying.  

On the final day of my trip, I headed an hour out to Old River Road, a 100-mile stretch of two-lane road with plenty of plantations, including the Evergreen Plantation , which was featured in Django Unchained . (A TV show was shooting on location, so it was closed to the public.) A friend from Louisiana recommended that I start with the recently restored Whitney Plantation , which was now a museum dedicated to the history of slavery.

Of our tour group of 20 or so, there were five black people: me, three women and a man, all of whom looked to be in their late 50s to early 60s. By their accents, I assumed they were from the South. Only their questions struck me as bizarre.

We were standing by a monument to enslaved people that included only their first names, ages, any skills and the region in Africa where they were stolen from. The guide had just explained that the only way researchers were able to retrieve this information was by looking at property records.

From one of the black women: “Did the slaves have birth certificates?”

Um, no. Enslaved men and women were not considered people. Maybe she wasn’t paying attention to the docent. I gave her a pass.

Our group moved on to the on-site slave jails. The parish jail was for people actually considered human. The “property” who needed to be locked up for whatever reason were punished or held in a square contraption. There were hooks showing where they could be shackled to the wall.

From one of the black women: “When the slaves were in slave jail, were they allowed out for exercise?”

I was happy that they were on the tour in order to learn. But I was surprised that black people, especially those from the South, knew so little about slavery and seemed to think the treatment of enslaved men and women reflected a modern, humane way of life. Ignorance about slavery is not the sole domain of white people.

Next up was the Laura Plantation , which was owned by a Creole family. The guide pulled no punches in describing the cruelty of slavery. She told us about an enslaved man who was captured after he’d run off and was punished by having the initials of the owner engraved into his forehead.

There was another story about a son of the family who had a child with an enslaved woman, whom he never freed.

The docent told a story about an enslaved woman and her family who stayed on the plantation after the owners fled during the Civil War. The docent was clear that they likely stayed there only because they had nowhere else to go. I appreciated her honesty.

Finally, I made my way to the Oak Alley Plantation . There’s no tour of the slave cabins, but they have been turned into a walkable exhibit that features the devices used to torture enslaved men and women, and small iron shackles that could be used on children. 

All in all, my takeaway from my plantation tours is similar to the conclusion that Biser reached through her own experiences as a docent: A lot of people just don’t know that much about the horrors of slavery. There’s been a failure not just in what white Americans are taught about slavery but in what African Americans learn, too. That’s not by accident.

During some of my visits I found a willful intent to overlook the worst parts of slavery to make it more palatable, which doesn’t serve anyone. If you want to know the real deal, you’ve got to seek out the information, perhaps at a plantation that’s not afraid to confront horrifying truth.

Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty : The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn : The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter .

plantation tour slave perspective

Self – Guided Whitney Museum Plantation

A unique look at slavery

Quick Details

  • Hour Glass Duration: 5.5 HOURS
  • Clock Time: 10:00 A.M. , 8:00 A.M.

About the Whitney Plantation and Slavery Museum

Whitney Plantation is the only plantation museum in Louisiana dedicated to understanding the facts of slavery. As a site dedicated to remembrance, with a focus on the lives of the slaves and their legacies, this plantation allows you to experience the world of an 1830s sugar plantation through the eyes of the enslaved people who lived and worked here.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the site includes the last surviving example of a true French Creole barn, what is believed to be the oldest detached kitchen in Louisiana, and the big house, considered to be the earliest and best-preserved raised Creole cottage in Louisiana, all built by slaves.

With the original structures nestled in a working sugar cane field, you are sure to marvel at the authentic representation presented at Whitney. Through these restored buildings, museum exhibits, memorial artwork, and thousands of first-person slave narratives, Whitney Plantation gives a voice to and respects the memory of the slaves who lived, worked, and died here.

Related Tours

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Laura Creole Plantation

Explore Louisiana’s top travel attraction! The Laura Creole Plantation is full of rich history.

Oak Alley Antebellum Plantation

See the plantation that has been featured in the film  Interview and Beyoncé’s “Déjà Vu” video! This plantation is beautiful and a great place to take pictures.

  • Clock 8:00 A.M.
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Self – Guided Whitney & Oak Alley Antebellum Plantation

Join us for a tour of two of New Orlean’s most interesting plantations. Transportation in a luxury bus is included.

Exposing the Real Story of Slavery: Whitney Plantation

Jun 12, 2019 • Ennis Davis, AICP

Located 46 miles west of New Orleans, Whitney Plantation is a museum and historic district that is devoted to sharing the un-sugarcoated story of slavery.

plantation tour slave perspective

Known as America’s first slavery museum, the Whitney Plantation dates back to 1752, when German immigrant Ambroise Heidel acquired the land, earning great wealth in the cultivation of indigo. Heidel’s youngest son, Jean Jacques Haydel, Sr., transitioned the plantation into a sugar production operation in the early 19th century. At its height, its enslaved workforce produced up to 407,000 pounds of sugar during a single grinding season. Following the Civil War, the Haydel family sold the plantation in 1867 to Brandish Johnson of New York, who then renamed the property after his grandson, Harry Whitney.

plantation tour slave perspective

Between 1880 and 1946, the plantation was owned Pierre Edouard St. Martin, Théophile Perret and later generations of their families. In 1946 it was acquired by Alfred Mason Barnes of New Orleans who sold it to the Formosa Chemicals and Fiber Corporation in 1990. In 1999, troubled by the way plantations have been romanticized by modern generations, New Orleans-based attorney John Cummings purchased the 1,700-acre property with the intentions of restoring it as a museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery. Cummings’ goal was to show slavery from the perspective of the enslaved on a site where 350 enslaved blacks worked and lived. After an $8 million restoration and with the help of Senegalese scholar Ibrahima Seck, Cummings opened the museum’s doors for the first time in December 2014. Since then it has quickly become a popular destination for Southern Louisiana visitors.

plantation tour slave perspective

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Slavery and Plantation Tourism in Louisiana: Deconstructing the Romanticized Narrative of the Plantation Tours

Former slave plantations that are now converted into tourist attractions constitute places of memory inherently associated with the memorialization of slavery in the United States. These plantation-museums are a central element of tourism in the South, as exemplified by the numerous tour-operators organizing visits of these historical sites. Louisiana offers a prime choice for anyone willing to embark on a plantation tour. “River Road,” the region following the course of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is now the hotspot for plantation tourism in Louisiana, attracting busloads of visitors. However, tourism plantations have long constructed their tours around a fantasized vision of the slave South, and many, to this day, still offer an idealized representation of that period. In recent years, others have chosen instead to focus on a more accurate interpretation of slavery that therefore deconstructs the romanticized narrative of plantation tours. In this article, I examine curatorial practices in several plantations to analyze the deconstruction of the main narrative and the more or less defined inclusion of the history of the enslaved.

Les anciennes plantations aujourd’hui reconverties en destinations touristiques apparaissent comme des lieux de mémoire intrinsèquement liés à la représentation de l’esclavage aux États-Unis. Elles font partie intégrante du tourisme dans le Sud, comme en témoignent les nombreuses compagnies touristiques qui en proposent une visite, dans des sites qui ont longtemps élaboré leur muséographie autour d’un imaginaire reposant sur une représentation idéalisée de la société esclavagiste tout en passant sous silence les sombres réalités de l’institution. La Louisiane fait aujourd’hui figure de destination privilégiée pour la visite de ces plantations. La région de River Road, entre La Nouvelle-Orléans et les environs de Bâton-Rouge, y forme aujourd’hui une véritable « route des plantations » touristique qui attire des cars entiers de visiteurs. Cependant, si certaines plantations continuent de proposer aux visiteurs une représentation magnifiée des lieux, d’autres cherchent désormais à déconstruire l’imaginaire mythifié de la plantation du Vieux Sud et ont, depuis quelques années, modifié leurs pratiques muséales pour offrir une mise en mémoire nouvelle de l’esclavage. Par l’examen de pratiques muséales dans diverses plantations, cet article étudie la déconstruction du discours touristique dominant vers une inclusion plus ou moins marquée de l’histoire des esclaves.

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Mots-clés : , keywords: , texte intégral, introduction.

  • 1 Several operators are dedicated only to offering tours of River Road plantations, such as https://w (...)
  • 2 Six million visitors have toured the grounds of Oak Alley Plantation since 1974, according to a sel (...)

1 Tourism in the United States, one of the leading tourist destinations in the world with close to 80 million visitors in 2019, represents an economic powerhouse (Statista, 2020). Visitors are often drawn to a form of tourism that revolves around a series of imaginaries — that is to say destinations commonly associated with certain images, such as the mythicized American West and its numerous stories about great outdoors and the wilderness. The South is also a region loaded with preconceived representations of its history, identified with the period of slavery, plantation homes and the Civil War, and embodied by the plantation tourism industry that operates as a driving force for the local economy 1 . In Louisiana, “River Road” represents the hub of plantation tourism, in a region delineated by the course of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge (“The River Road,” nps.gov), and which used to be the greatest symbol of slave-owning wealth in antebellum Louisiana — it was nicknamed “Millionaires’ Row” because of the abundance of wealthy planters in the area. There, some of the former sugarcane plantations that were not destroyed during the Civil War were turned into historical sites which have become major tourist attractions where tour operators send busloads of visitors mainly from New Orleans 2 . They offer various activities of hospitality and tourism (Bed & Breakfast, wedding venues, restaurants, gift shops) and sometimes operate as outdoor museum sites, designated as “plantation-museums” by Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small in their 2002 groundbreaking study of plantation tourism, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums .

2 Eichstedt and Small defined ‘plantation-museums’ as “sites based on physical structures that were originally used a part of plantation complexes during the period of slavery and which now are organized to provide exhibits and tours of southern history” (Eichstedt and Small, 2002, p. 9). In such places so closely related to the history of enslavement, one could assume that these plantation sites would focus, at least in part, on the history of both slavery and the enslaved, especially when considering that they used to function thanks to slave labor. Instead, many of these plantations offer visitors a mythical representation of the Old South during the antebellum era, which is a glorified and whitewashed version of the period of slavery–to such an extent that the ‘Gone-with-the-Wind’ representation of a plantation has turned into the basic image coming to mind for visitors (Carter et al. , 2014, p. 549). Such a representational strategy is but another addendum to the racist tradition of the Lost Cause ideology that dates back to the post-Civil-War era. This ideology was born from the ashes of the slave-based Southern society and from the white Southerners’ unbearable psychological trauma of Confederate defeat, which came to define the entire white Southern vision of the past: one through which Southerners worshiped an idyllic Old South where benevolent masters lived in harmony with their happy, loyal slaves on a peaceable plantation. Over the decades following the war, Lost Cause rhetoric would find its way into books, newspapers, political discourses, meetings, ceremonies, artifacts… to the point where its ideology turned into a feature of Southern identity, a sort of civil religion that bound together an entire region (Blight, 2002, p. 258).

  • 3 The movement that was initially focused on mass incarceration and police brutality has recently tur (...)
  • 4 The origin of the opening of Whitney Plantation as a slavery museum pre-dated the above-mentioned s (...)

3 Traditional representational patterns, such as focusing on the slave-owning family’s life, were used for decades by the plantation tourism industry, but they are now being debunked by new curatorial practices. The reformist trend in the plantation tourism industry these past few years can be inscribed in a larger societal pressure toward a better recognition of African Americans’ past and present experiences in American society. The possible reasons for this “plantation turn” are manifold, including the greater interest of the public in the history of slavery, which has grown in part due to various factors, including the popular success of critically-acclaimed movies dealing with slavery—such as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) and above all, 12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen (2013), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The growing pressure from social activists, such as the Black Lives Matter movement 3 , from scholars and also parts of the American population calling for a national reckoning on race and slavery in the public space (the debate surrounding the statues of Confederate officials being the most visible example) and in the national narrative may have also contributed to changes in plantation tours. The events and demonstrations that followed George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, after a brutal and deadly police arrest, serve as recent instances of those pressing calls to come to terms with the history of slavery and racism in the United States. This long-standing social pressure have thus led some tourist plantations, but not all, to reconsider their business strategies in order to tap into the soaring curiosity of visitors for the institution of slavery—as is the case at Oak Alley Plantation, for example. These reforming tourist plantations may also have had no choice but to adapt to the arrival in the industry of a new actor that revolutionized the sector. Whitney Plantation indeed serves as the trailblazer and the most conspicuous example for a renewed memorialization of slavery in plantation tourism. Opened in 2015 as the very first slavery museum in the United States, Whitney Plantation Museum offers a more realistic presentation of the history of slavery. It has since then opened a new path for the other plantations in the area to include the history of the enslaved in their tours 4 .

  • 5 From March to May 2019, I visited sixteen plantation-museums from Louisiana’s River Road, each time (...)

4 The focal point of this article is not to focus on the causes of the “plantation turn” or to analyze the economic implications behind such changes. Instead, it emphasizes some of the slave-centric representational strategies and how they allow for a better understanding of slavery in three selected plantations: Oak Alley Plantation, Evergreen Plantation and Whitney Plantation—as opposed to a more white-centric approach illustrated here by the study of Houmas House and Greenwood Plantation. My aim is to assess whether the new museum strategies at some plantation sites serve as clear-cut counter representations to the sanitized version of history offered by traditional plantation tours, or whether they simply illustrate a trend toward reform within an always adapting plantation tourism industry, in which some sites are more reluctant to changes than others. This article is not an exhaustive analysis of all River Road plantations, and it will not encapsulate the plantations described in the article into closed categories. Drawing on personal visits of several of them 5 , however, I do argue that the various, opposing representational patterns observed during the plantation tours are on both ends of the interpretative spectrum regarding the history of antebellum Louisiana. I will first focus on one of the most recurrent, traditional narrative patterns observed in Houmas House and Greenwood Plantation: the white-centric, and therefore whitewashed, vision of plantation history. Such a narrative tool produces a “Gone-with-the-Wind” interpretation of these historical sites, one that transforms plantation-museums into strongholds for Confederate heritage. I will then show that in a landscape of representations of slavery so much imbued with the tropes of the Lost Cause, some plantation sites have worked toward a more inclusive and more accurate interpretation of the antebellum era, by giving a voice to the enslaved in their respective tours, thus striving to debunk the myths portrayed in traditional plantation tours.

The White-centric/Whitewashed Plantation Tour

  • 6 This idea of a “whitewashed” plantation tour was shrewdly introduced in Butler’s pioneering study o (...)

7 Visit of Greenwood Plantation by the author on March 21, 2019.

8 Emphasis added, leaflet collected on a visit of Houmas House in March 2019.

5 The foundational element of a whitewashed plantation tour is its extensive — and sometimes, even exclusive — attention to the experiences of the master’s family, and especially of the slave-owning planter himself 6 . The planter is often presented through the filter of his economic success and/or of his high standing in the southern antebellum society–and later among the Confederate officials. At Greenwood Plantation near St. Francisville, LA, presented as the “best kept secret in the Feliciana Hill Country” and as “a truly magical and majestic place” on its website (greenwoodplantation.com, 2020), the tour guide seems to proudly recall the time when Greenwood Plantation was a massive complex of both sugarcane and cotton production spreading across 12,000 acres 7 . Likewise, at Houmas House in Darrow, LA, advertised as the “Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road” on the plantation’s website and leaflet, the tour highlights the supposedly glorious past of one of the plantation owners, John Burnside, dubbed the ‘Sugar Prince’ by the docent. The process of glorifying the planter’s past extends to the plantation advertisement, in this case a visitor’s leaflet, where one can read sentences such as “the entertaining and educational tour includes stories of the Great Sugar Barons who built Houmas House and the sugar empire.” 8 The message is clear from the onset: the plantation tour will be an entertaining experience for the visitor–never mind that the enslaved who actually built the Big House and made possible the sugar empire disappear from the plantation narrative. The result of such a focus on the wealth and lavish lifestyle of the plantation owners, including beautifully set tables as well as luxurious decorations and clothing, is powerful as it produces an impression of a glorified bygone era. It also diverts the visitors’ attention by lingering on objects and artifacts owned by the master’s family rather than evoking the fact these objects were handled most of the time by the enslaved (when setting the table for the slave-owning family for example). A manipulation of the narrative is at work, as confirmed by scholars Alderman and Campbell who state that “managers and docents frequently use artifacts and objects once owned by plantation owners and other whites to deflect attention away from a discussion of the contribution and struggles of slaves ” (Alderman and Campbell, 2008, p. 340). Such a rhetoric reinforces the idea of a “South that wasn’t there,” to borrow the title of Michael Kreyling’s book, The South That Wasn’t There: Postsouthern Memory and History (2010). A lifestyle in the South which, incidentally, existed only for an elite, as stated by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in Within the Plantation Household : “only the very wealthiest slave-holding households remotely approximated the physical luxury and ease attributed to them in the romantic legend” (Fox-Genovese, 1988, p. 105).

  • 9 According to the tour guide at Greenwood Plantation on March 21, 2019, the expression originated in (...)
  • 10 Based on personal observations from two visits of Houmas House, the tour guide must follow a specif (...)
  • 11 Pineapple being scarce at the time, it was a sign of exterior wealth to be able to procure the frui (...)

6 To produce that ‘romantic legend,’ plantation tour narratives articulate around a series of anecdotes, with the intent to downplay the true nature of plantation life. Among those anecdotes are explanations of some popular expressions such as ‘sleep tight’ or ‘don’t throw away the baby out with the bathwater,’ an effective, deceiving tool that belittles the harsh realities of life on a plantation since it will most likely make the visitor smile 9 . It is actually only one of several narrative devices used by the guides at Houmas House to trivialize the slave past. Others include lingering on trifling details that receive much attention from the docent, who, for example, is asked 10 to begin the tour by telling the visitors about the symbolical meaning of a pineapple fruit in the antebellum South. 11 The anecdotes of plantation tours are often presented as fond reminiscences of the ‘good ol’ days,’ in an attempt to create what Ewa A. Adamkiewicz calls a “commodification of white nostalgia,” that is to say a presentation of history that purposefully displays the landscape of plantations as fairy-tale like spaces, barren of any kind of racial issue. For the white audience, such presentation represents “an escape into constructed memories of a more glamorous, heroic past where slavery plays only a minor role or no role at all” (Adamkiewicz, 2016, p. 16). In this respect, plantation-museums fall into the ‘edutainment’ category of the tourism industry, which corresponds to places where leisure activities and educational purposes merge into a business model that eventually aims to satisfy the visitor-patron, even though it implies sacrificing one aspect of plantation tourism [education] over the other [leisure] (Bright et al. , 2018, p. 15).

12 Personal discussion with Ibrahima Seck on April 17, 2019.

7 In the ‘edutaining’ plantation tours, perhaps the most influential tool of the narrative guidelines is the resort to “symbolic annihilation” of the enslaved presence, defined by Eichstedt and Small as “a powerful rhetorical and representational strategy for obscuring the institution of slavery” (Eichstedt and Small, 2002, p. 106). This narrative artifice materializes itself by either not mentioning at all the enslaved population or by making vague references such as ‘they,’ ‘servants,’ ‘someone’—misleading expressions employed several times by the tour guide at Houmas House on a visit of the plantation in May 2019. This speaks to the enduring unease to engage the history of slavery in plantation tours (Alderman and Modlin, 2008, p. 267). Such apprehension results in the trivialization of slavery when the tour guide does mention the enslaved, but in a way that ridicules the slaves’ experiences by using ahistorical references–for instance, when referring to the ‘whistle walk.’ The ‘whistle walk’ is one of the most recurring myths heard during plantation tours, similarly to the ‘funny’ anecdotes discussed earlier aiming at lightening the mood of the visitors and that will likely make them laugh, but one that is also ludicrous. According to the myth, the master demanded that his slaves whistle while bringing the food to the Big House from the outdoor kitchen, lest they stole from the plates. In a discussion with Ibrahima Seck, Director of Research at Whitney Plantation, Dr. Seck pointed out the nonsensical character of this alleged practice—“the most ridiculous” of all the myths conveyed during plantation tours as he puts it—wisely calling to mind that the slaves were the ones cooking meals and thus had every opportunity to discreetly sample the food it they wanted to 12 . One also cannot help but wonder how a whistle sound could travel all the way from a remote outdoor kitchen to the Big House and still be heard by the master’s family. Such a fabrication in interpreting the history of plantation life encloses the African American enslaved population in a transparent and meaningless role, one that is not even worth mentioning or at least not seriously. Tiya Miles, in her book Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era , sums up shrewdly the impact of such a choice of interpretation:

The people who had mattered in these tours were the slaveholding high-society families, not their chattel slaves. African American bondsmen and bondswomen had been transformed into virtual ghosts, absent and yet eerily present in historical tours as invisible laboring bodies that made their owners’ fortunes shine. (Miles, 2015, p. xxi)

8 One of the consequences is that the visitor learns virtually nothing from the tour regarding the complexity of plantation life during the antebellum era. A series of anecdotes and/or myths does not constitute comprehensive history. Instead, resorting to such practices becomes an explicit effort to preserve a specific representation of slavery, one closely linked to the rhetoric of the Lost Cause and the enduring idea of white supremacy. The Lost Cause was a coherent narrative developed after the Civil War by former Confederate officials and apologists, writers and scholars with the intent to create a “classic image of the antebellum South as a mythical realm of handsome cavaliers, white mansions, benevolent masters, and happy slaves” (Cook, 2017, p. 6). And in many ways, some tourism plantations still constitute contemporary appendages to the Lost Cause tradition.

‘Gone-with-the-Wind Plantations’ as Offspring of the Lost Cause and Strongholds of Confederate Heritage

9 Released in 1939, Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind — the screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel — and its romanticized image of the Old South have had such a profound impact on the American psyche that its vision became ingrained in the public imagination, to the extent that many visitors of plantation sites today come to visit these historical places with preconceived representations of antebellum plantation life. Consequently, tourism plantation owners have tended to adapt the tour narrative to fit the ‘Gone-with-the-Wind mythology’ (Carter, Butler and Alderman, 2014, p. 549). The result is a narrative that upholds the tropes of the Lost Cause tradition, symbolized by the representation of the slave-owning Old South in Gone with the Wind . Tara McPherson in Reconstructing Dixie points out that:

Tara [plantation] is more than just the house in which Scarlett was born. Like the southern colonial homes popular during Mitchell’s lifetime, Tara becomes a symbol of the old ways of the antebellum South, and Mitchell’s mythic imaging of those landscapes works to naturalize the relationship of land-owning southerners to their property. Of course, what such a process erases is both the initial seizure of the land from its original inhabitants and the system of slave labor that allowed Tara to ‘miraculously’ produce cotton in the first place. It also justifies the Civil War on the basis of saving the land, dismissing slavery as an issue in the conflict. (McPherson, 2003, p. 51)

10 One corollary of this fantasized vision is to present the Confederate South as a victim of Northern aggression. In this regard, Confederate officials were the defenders of an allegedly virtuous cause. It is therefore not surprising to hear plantation tour guides proudly present masters as actively involved in the Confederacy’s decisions. At Greenwood Plantation, the tour guide highlights the fact that planter William Ruffin Barrow was one of the signatories of the Louisiana ordinance of Secession in 1861, something presented here as a real accomplishment, in a move to aggrandize once again the lives and actions of the planter elite — what tourism scholars Christine Buzinde and Carla Santos call the “prowess of white gentry” (Buzinde and Santos, 2008, p. 480). Such a narrative device goes hand in hand with the rhetorical tool of Southern victimhood, which is a major Lost Cause trope and operates as an additional artifice to shift the blame on someone else, namely the ‘Yankees,’ and to escape from the guilt of slavery. In Possessing the Past , Lisa Hinrinchsen explains that “the language of victimhood itself can paradoxically form a means of managing and disavowing trauma, shifting the focus from the reality of black racial trauma to claims of equivalent white emotional injury” (Hinrinchsen, 2015, p. 25). Hence, perhaps, such an emphasis on the fantasy of the Old South in plantation tours.

  • 13 It was said for example that if a gentleman happened to see the ankle of a white lady, he had the m (...)

11 To be able to bring the legend to life, the plantation tour guides, in addition to telling a series of romanticized interpretations of history, are indeed in some cases asked to wear period attire—and particularly hoopskirts for the female docents. The female guides thus become the incarnation of the ‘Southern Belle’ stereotype, another trope of the Lost Cause tradition, in which southern women were portrayed as champions of piety and purity, and as delicate creatures to be safeguarded at all costs. At Houmas House, the practice of fetichizing the female guides as the embodiment of the southern lady is reinforced by the use of additional anecdotes about social mores in the South and the sanctified character of the elite white woman. 13 Such a representational choice also speaks to the gendered vision of plantation life, mostly centered on the master and not the mistress, with the incidental idea that she had somehow nothing to do with the horrors of slavery. Catherine Clinton details the stereotypical conception of the plantation mistress: “In antebellum society, […] a woman remained as securely bound to the land as her husband’s other property. […] Every woman was an island, isolated unto herself and locked into place by the stormy and unsettling seas of plantation slavery” (Clinton, 1982, p. 179). Depicting the antebellum southern women in such a way is but another deceptive device allowing the tour guide not to mention the violent role of the master or the mistress. It goes without saying that there is no reference during the tour at Houmas House to any kind of physical or psychological abuse committed against the enslaved by the master or the mistress.

  • 14 After a long ideological battle over the historical significance of former Confederate General Robe (...)

12 For all these reasons, it is not a stretch to state that some plantation sites today serve as strongholds of Confederate heritage—and perhaps even sanctums for Confederate pride. Houmas House is home to several Confederate artifacts, including a small shrine to William Porcher Milles, who designed one of the versions of the Confederate Flag. These artefacts cannot be viewed as simple items to decorate a historical site. Instead, they constitute memorial objects loaded with a specific history and, therefore, serve a specific purpose made clear by Houmas House’s owner, Kevin Kelly. When in April 2018, Kelly offered to bring the statues of Confederate leaders that were taken down in New Orleans 14 to the grounds of Houmas House ( The Advocate , May 26, 201 8), he revealed, behind the representational choices at Houmas House, a political agenda aiming to perpetuate the tropes of the Lost Cause and to celebrate a mythical representation of the South that glorifies the rich white man’s experiences, to “save the splendor of Southern living at its finest,” as one of the plantation’s marketing catchphrases puts it. Incidentally, Kelly’s offer to relocate the Confederate statues was endorsed by Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser, who declared that Houmas House was “an ideal place for the three important monuments to be displayed, and the history and significance of each told” (Nola.com, May 1, 2018). The same Nungesser who was photographed alongside President Donald Trump himself sporting ‘Trump socks’… ( The Hill , May 14, 2019).

13 The mythical representation of the Old South therefore occupies a significant place in the plantation tourism industry. However, in the last few years, some plantation sites have moved towards a path of reforms in their interpretation of slavery and the Old South, with new curatorial trends that try to offer a counter-perspective to the traditional plantation sites.

Debunking the Myth: Giving a Voice to the Enslaved

15 Personal interview with Laura Kilcer on May 23, 2019.

  • 17 Beyond the romanticized representation of the house slave as an “elite” among the enslaved, which d (...)

14 Oak Alley Plantation is one of the plantations that has taken a turn to move away from the nostalgic vision of history. The turn, symbolized by the project “ReDiscover Oak Alley,” launched in 2011, has brought several significant changes to the plantation experience. As one of the most visited sites in River Road, with more than 200,000 visitors per year (Alderman, Butler and Hanna, 2015, p. 5), the fact that it has changed its representational strategies in the past few years bears significance considering its impact on the plantation tourism industry. The most conspicuous transformation in the presentation of the plantation tour is perhaps the guides’ appearance. In a previous visit to Oak Alley Plantation in March 2016, it was very clear to me that the tour was still very much about selling the ‘Gone-with-the-Wind fantasy,’ as the staff were wearing costumes, and more noticeably hoopskirts for the female guides, while selling mint juleps to the visitors. A new visit in March 2019 showed a radical evolution: the guides were clothed in simple polo shirts and regular pants. No more period attire, no more fantasy: the staff was no longer another romanticized attraction of the tour. Such a change was pushed forward by Oak Alley’s former curator, Laura Kilcer, who had joined the plantation staff in 2011 15 . According to her, getting rid of the costumes was clearly a way to “move away from that sort of nostalgic, imaginative past.” It would also encourage the visitors to focus on the narrative and not on the tour guide’s physical appearance. Laura Kilcer had particularly her female staff in mind: “it reduced the amount of objectivization and sexualization for my female guides.” 16 These female guides were not fetish anymore, one that could be flirted with or even groped by some lewd male tourists. But changing the physical presentation of docents to focus on the narrative would mean nothing without changing the narrative itself as well. Whereas in 2016 the tour was all about the experiences of the slave-owning family, master Jacques Roman and his wife Celina, the 2019 tour narrative acknowledged the presence of the enslaved, and, more than that, it gave them a voice. Again, under the impulsion of Laura Kilcer and her staff, the interactions between the master, the mistress and their slaves were put at the center of the narrative. These interactions were embodied by Meanna, a house slave whose story contributed to telling the complexities of plantation life. By insisting on how Meanna’s particular position in the Big House was tantamount to being at the core of the master’s family’s experiences, the curatorial changes brought about at Oak Alley Plantation spotlighted the perspective of not only a house slave–an already particular position 17 –but that of an enslaved woman inside the Big House, in other words someone whose experiences were invisible and were in fact meant to be that way. According to Laura Kilcer, there exists a sort of fascination for the plantation mistress that needed to be counterbalanced by telling the story of another woman: her house slave, who literally lived in the mistress’ shadows, and consequently was highly representative of what it was like to live in the Big House.

  • 18 Most slave cabins simply did not resist age and decay as they were very often poorly built–and were (...)

19 Personal visit of Evergreen Plantation on April 17, 2019, quote from Robin’s tour narrative.

  • 20 Personal interview with Hillary Loeber, Marketing Director at Oak Alley Plantation, on May 13, 2019 (...)

15 Shifting the narrative and the tour’s content towards an emphasis on the enslaved African Americans’ experiences often takes place in the slave cabins, or what is left of them. At Evergreen Plantation, in Edgard, LA, their twenty-two original slave cabins ( cf.  figure 1) have survived, largely unchanged since the period of slavery (evergreenplantation.org, 2020), which is a rarity across the South 18 . For that reason, the slave cabins at Evergreen Plantation are an essential part of the guided tour, the last stop of the visit. And since they are original to the place, so is their location on the plantation grounds, namely at a remote distance from the Big House, where they could actually not be seen by any visitor standing by the river levee: that is to say, at a location from which someone would not be able to see the slave village. The tour at Evergreen Plantation is, therefore, organized in such a way as to bring to the forefront the experiences of the enslaved Africans and African Americans through the visit of the very place where they built a community: the cabins. As a result, before heading to the cabins, Robin, one of the tour guides at Evergreen Plantation, asks the visitors to walk quietly toward the slave village in order to, somehow, contemplate the lives of the enslaved and as a way of “showing homage” to the people who lived there 19 . A similar attitude towards paying tribute to the enslaved population in Louisiana plantations can be found at Whitney Plantation. In a tour largely, if not exclusively, dedicated to the plantation’s slave community, one significant moment is the visit of the outdoor kitchen: a place of crucial importance where the black cooks prepared the meals for the master’s family but also for the entire slave community. At Whitney Plantation, the visit of the kitchen allows the tour guide to insist on the invaluable contribution of the African slaves brought in Louisiana to Southern cuisine. In shaping food culture throughout the slave South and more precisely Louisiana, the enslaved retained their African roots by drawing from the West African foodways to create staple dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice. These recipes now form the foundations of Louisiana Creole cooking, one of the most respected food scenes in the entire United States (Seck, 2014, p. 120-129). The presence of former slave buildings on plantation-museums’ grounds appears to be an essential feature for any slave-centric plantation tour to be complete. In this regard, part of the “ReDiscover Oak Alley” project was the creation of a massive exhibit on the enslaved community, “Slavery at Oak Alley,” through the construction of replicas of slave quarters. The staff at Oak Alley went to great lengths to build slave cabins that would resemble those in which the enslaved used to live, collaborating with scholars and universities and above all visiting the original slave village at… Evergreen Plantation 20 . However, showcasing slave buildings on plantation grounds does not necessarily mean that the tour experience all of a sudden becomes slave-centric: slave buildings on plantation grounds are merely a front if they are not fully integrated in the tour. One can therefore wonder why the slave exhibit is not part of the guided tour and remains an optional visit at the tourists’ discretion–thus showing how delicate the task can be for any plantation staff willing to include slavery in their experience while having to deal with the great array of visitors’ sensibilities.

Figure 1. Slave cabins at Evergreen Plantation

Figure 1. Slave cabins at Evergreen Plantation

Photo: Melaine Harnay

  • 21 John Cummings stepped down as owner of the Whitney Plantation in late 2019. The plantation-museum i (...)
  • 22 “The Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820” database is available at https://www.ibiblio. (...)
  • 23 German Coast Revolt of January 11, 1811 is the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, involving abou (...)

24 Quote from a personal visit of Whitney Plantation on April 14, 2019, with Dr. Seck as a tour guide.

16 The emphasis on giving back an identity to the enslaved, so as to offer more inclusive counter-narratives to the traditional romanticized plantation tours, is at the core of Whitney Plantation’s interpretative choices. As Director of Research Ibrahima Seck puts it plainly: “the goal is to tell the story of slaves” (Ibrahima Seck, April 16, 2016). Hence the entire focus on the memorialization of slaves’ experiences during the tour, an approach that was decided from the onset ever since the opening of Whitney Plantation Museum in 2014. The former owner, John Cummings 21 , sums up the work that is being done at Whitney Plantation, giving it an almost activist perspective: “we try, somehow, here, to define the ‘it’ [slavery] and unless you know what the ‘it’ is, don’t ask the question ‘why can’t they [African Americans] get over it’” (John Cumming s, August 27, 2015). In other words, contrary to traditional plantation sites, Whitney is decidedly advocating a political statement that aims at placing the issue of slavery at the very core of the national discourse about the past, as exemplified by the fact that it was advertised as the very first museum in the United States dedicated to the history of slavery — and still is today. Whitney Plantation thus offers a unique perspective in comparison to other River Road plantation-museums. It features several memorials dedicated to the enslaved on its grounds, including one that pays a special tribute to the enslaved children of Whitney Plantation. In order to commemorate their existence, each visitor receives a lanyard with a small descriptive card about the life of one of these children. Afterwards, the visitor is encouraged to actually find the enslaved child presented on the card directly on the plantation grounds: small statues of enslaved children were indeed commissioned from African American artist Woodrow Nash to produce a memorial to the enslaved children, called ‘The Children of Whitney’ ( cf.  figure 2). As explained on the plantation website, the statues “represent these former slaves as they were at the time of emancipation: children. Whitney presents the stories of these children as told in their own words. The visitors are introduced to the lives of the enslaved workers based on the recollections of those who endured, and who shared the stories of their lives as children in slavery.” (whitneyplantation.org, 202 0). Likewise, the ‘Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’ — named after the influential Louisiana historian who created a database of more than 100,000 slaves who lived in Louisiana from 1719 to 1820 22 –are composed of commemorative plaques on walls with the names of the 107,000 Blacks enslaved in Louisiana compiled by Hall’s database. This insistence on memorializing those whose names and voices were erased and silenced is a singular part of what visitors of Whitney Plantation experience during their visit, an experience that differs greatly from the fantasy-based plantation tours: there is no ‘feel-good’ presentation of history at Whitney Plantation. In other words, the whole range of atrocities that existed during slavery is unmitigatedly presented as part of a sobering experience for the visitor, which includes walking by a graphic, gut-wrenching memorial dedicated to the enslaved victims of the 1811 German Coast revolt 23 ( cf.  figure 3) — which Dr. Seck considers as “the most important station ” of the tour 24 .

Figure 2. “The Children of Whitney” at Whitney Plantation Museum

Figure 2. “The Children of Whitney” at Whitney Plantation Museum

Figure 3. Memorial of the 1811 slave revolt at Whitney Plantation

Figure 3. Memorial of the 1811 slave revolt at Whitney Plantation

  • 25 The photo can be seen at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/11/plantation-weddings- (...)
  • 26 More precisely, according to Carter and Bright, a typical visitor would be around 50-year-old, from (...)

27 Personal discussion with Jane Boddie on April 12, 2019.

28 Personal discussion with Ibrahima Seck on April 17, 2019.

17 Practices in plantation tours are progressively and undeniably evolving towards a more inclusive depiction of the history of the slave South. Nevertheless, it is also obvious that the traditional, sentimentalized vision of the Old South remains widespread in tourist plantations. It appears too that the question of the representation and memorialization of slavery during these tours is heavily loaded politically. In some cases, the content of the visit of a plantation reveals a political agenda that goes beyond the issue of slavery. It is almost as if these romanticized plantation sites have become holy territories for Confederate pride. In 2015, it was discovered that Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who on June 17 perpetrated a mass shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, murdering nine African American churchgoers, had visited several historical plantations and Confederate landmarks of the region. On one of the photographs he took during his “Confederate pilgrimage,” Roof can be spotted posing in front of the Big House at McLeod Plantation 25 . With such a conspicuous display of bigotry, one may easily understand the need for the counternarratives about the history of slavery in plantation tours, such as Whitney’s, to become commonplace. And yet the road toward social awareness seems far ahead and the damage done by these sentimentalized tours severe. Despite the emergence of new interpretive strategies focusing on the African Americans’ experiences, plantation museums remain unattractive tourist destinations for Black people, as if they had internalized the fact that these historical places were still tailored for a white audience. And they are, regrettably, not that far from the reality of plantation-museums: according to a survey conducted by scholars Perry Carter and Candace F. Bright (2016, p. 268), most of the visitors of tourist plantations are well-off white people over 50 26 . Here, tourist plantations face a business conundrum: how can they reconcile the inclusion of the history of slavery and of the enslaved with the diversity of tourists’ expectations? The question implies an extensive study of visitors’ typology and expectations when touring a plantation site. Some scholars have started to discuss this question, by trying to determine who the typical visitors are and how they may very well influence the content of the plantation tour itself (see Bright and Carter, 2016; Alderman and Modlin, 2016). Foreign tourists, especially Europeans, for example, tend to expect a significant discussion on slavery when they visit a plantation, but they also represent only a small portion of the patronage. Conversely, some visitors might just go on a plantation to experience the “fantasy of the Old South living.” In other words, how does a tourist plantation take on the topic of slavery when one part of the visitors might welcome such an inclusion whereas another would feel deeply disgruntled about it? In both cases, the tourist plantation faces the risk of losing attendance and therefore revenues. There is also the question of Black visitors: shouldn’t the plantation-museums now become places designed to welcome particularly African Americans after having neglected their experiences for so long? Jane Boddie, Director of Evergreen Plantation, told me that they were increasingly receiving descendants of slaves willing to learn more about their ancestors 27 –raising another range of questions having to do with the field of tourism, and more precisely “roots/genealogy tourism.” A lot more research is necessary to answer these questionings. The motivations behind representational changes in tourist plantations may be key to understanding the reluctance of many plantation sites to fully engage in a complete incorporation of the history of slavery and of the enslaved as part of their tour experience. Sites adopting the train of reforms simply for new business opportunities and profits are likely to fall short of their laudable intentions to discuss the topic in the first place. On the other hand, activist sites dedicated to promoting exclusively the story of the slaves from the onset, like Whitney Plantation, may encounter other representational issues. Because after all, one might argue that the type of memorialization of slavery found at Whitney Plantation is as politically engaged — some would go as far as saying ideologically tainted — as the white-centric interpretation of most tourist plantations. In a discussion with Director of Research at Whitney, Dr. Seck, reacting to this type of criticism, explained that “we cannot satisfy everyone” and that the real problem “[was] to do nothing.” Quoting John Cummings, former owner of the plantation-museum, he continued: “we may be doing something wrong, but at least we’re doing something…” 28

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1 Several operators are dedicated only to offering tours of River Road plantations, such as https://www.plantationadventure.com/ and https://plantationparade.com/ .

2 Six million visitors have toured the grounds of Oak Alley Plantation since 1974, according to a self-promoting sign at the entrance of the historical site, last visited in May 2019.

3 The movement that was initially focused on mass incarceration and police brutality has recently turned into a greater civil rights movement urging for racial justice as a whole and for better recognition of the critical role of African Americans in the development of the American nation throughout its history–and particularly on the central place of slavery.

4 The origin of the opening of Whitney Plantation as a slavery museum pre-dated the above-mentioned social calls for change since the project began in the early 2000s, not long after Louisiana lawyer John Cummings acquired the plantation grounds in 1999 and decided to invest his own fortune in the creation of a plantation museum dedicated to the history of slavery. For a detailed account of the elaboration of Whitney Plantation Museum, see Ibrahima Seck in Bouki Fait Gombo (2014).

5 From March to May 2019, I visited sixteen plantation-museums from Louisiana’s River Road, each time taking part in a guided tour as a tourist. These tours ranged from half an hour to an hour and a half depending on the plantation site. I paid specific attention to the narrative presented by the guides, as well as to the different museum practices of each site.

6 This idea of a “whitewashed” plantation tour was shrewdly introduced in Butler’s pioneering study of these “whitewashing plantations” in which he analyzed the brochures of over 100 tourist plantations throughout the South (Butler, 2001).

9 According to the tour guide at Greenwood Plantation on March 21, 2019, the expression originated in the fact that people in the antebellum era would not bathe on a regular basis and that, when they did so, the entire family used the same water – the baby being the last to be bathed. One can easily imagine the somewhat relative cleanness of the bathwater after such a process, and the tragic accident which could ensue when getting rid of the murky water…

10 Based on personal observations from two visits of Houmas House, the tour guide must follow a specific script, with close to no leeway to deviate from it. In other words, even though there are several docents in the staff, the tour narrative remains basically the same. This speaks to the relative agency of tour guides in plantation tours. For more on this issue of agency and performance of plantation guides, see Amy Potter (2015). Regarding tour guides as “creators of empathy” and how they unequally appeal to the visitors’ emotions when speaking about the planter class and not the enslaved, see Modlin, Alderman and Gentry (2011).

11 Pineapple being scarce at the time, it was a sign of exterior wealth to be able to procure the fruit. A planter willing to display his wealth would therefore greet his guests with a pineapple offered as a welcoming present.

13 It was said for example that if a gentleman happened to see the ankle of a white lady, he had the moral obligation to marry her. If not, the lady’s family and herself would be disgraced…

14 After a long ideological battle over the historical significance of former Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue and whether it was a symbol of Black oppression or an honorable southern heritage, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who pushed for the removal of the statue since he viewed the monument as a celebration of white supremacy, had Lee’s statue removed on May 19, 2017 ( The Guardian , May 20, 2017).

17 Beyond the romanticized representation of the house slave as an “elite” among the enslaved, which depicted them as supposedly well-fed, well-clad, and well-treated, the house slaves were to be ready to serve their master and mistress at all hours of the day, often at night too, and had to endure their whims and outbursts as well as to meet their unachievable expectations. The result was inevitably violence, harsh treatments, and abuse of all kinds against the house slaves. For their part, female house slaves experienced the double burden of toiling in the Big House and being a woman, therefore potentially bearing the brunt of their master’s sexual urges and assaults. (White, 1999, p. 49-50).

18 Most slave cabins simply did not resist age and decay as they were very often poorly built–and were also not considered worth saving. Some of the cabins were destroyed during the Civil War because they were reminiscences of an inconvenient past. This is why only about 30% of plantation sites nowadays still have slave cabins standing on their grounds (Eichstedt and Small. 2002. p. 99).

20 Personal interview with Hillary Loeber, Marketing Director at Oak Alley Plantation, on May 13, 2019. For a more extensive analysis on this aspect, see Stephen P. Hanna (2015).

21 John Cummings stepped down as owner of the Whitney Plantation in late 2019. The plantation-museum is now run as a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

22 “The Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820” database is available at https://www.ibiblio.org/laslave/ .

23 German Coast Revolt of January 11, 1811 is the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, involving about 200 slaves who marched on several sugarcane plantations towards New Orleans (Follett, The Sugar Masters , 2007, p. 134). The uprising was quickly quelled and the slaves in charge were beheaded. Their heads were impaled on posts displayed in front of their respective former plantations – as a gloomy reminder of what the enslaved could expect from any attempt to rise against their masters (Seck, 2014, p. 112-115).

25 The photo can be seen at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/11/plantation-weddings-are-wrong-why-is-it-so-hard-for-white-americans-to-admit-that .

26 More precisely, according to Carter and Bright, a typical visitor would be around 50-year-old, from a white household earning more than $100k per year, living in another state, and with a college degree.

Table des illustrations

Pour citer cet article, référence électronique.

Melaine Harnay , «  Slavery and Plantation Tourism in Louisiana: Deconstructing the Romanticized Narrative of the Plantation Tours  » ,  Mondes du Tourisme [En ligne], 21 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022 , consulté le 16 mai 2024 . URL  : http://journals.openedition.org/tourisme/4595 ; DOI  : https://doi.org/10.4000/tourisme.4595

Melaine Harnay

Doctorant contractuel à l’ED 625 (MAGIIE) – Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Civilisation américaine melaine.harnay[at]sorbonne-nouvelle.fr

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 . Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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The New York Times

Magazine | the barbaric history of sugar in america, the barbaric history of sugar in america.

By KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD AUG. 14, 2019

How sugar became the “white gold” that fueled slavery — and an industry that continues to exploit black lives to this day.

The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold’ that fueled slavery.

By Khalil Gibran Muhammad AUG. 14, 2019

Domino Sugar’s Chalmette Refinery in Arabi, La., sits on the edge of the mighty Mississippi River, about five miles east by way of the river’s bend from the French Quarter, and less than a mile down from the Lower Ninth Ward, where Hurricane Katrina and the failed levees destroyed so many black lives. It is North America’s largest sugar refinery, making nearly two billion pounds of sugar and sugar products annually. Those ubiquitous four-pound yellow paper bags emblazoned with the company logo are produced here at a rate of 120 bags a minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week during operating season.

The United States makes about nine million tons of sugar annually, ranking it sixth in global production. The United States sugar industry receives as much as $4 billion in annual subsidies in the form of price supports, guaranteed crop loans, tariffs and regulated imports of foreign sugar, which by some estimates is about half the price per pound of domestic sugar. Louisiana’s sugar-cane industry is by itself worth $3 billion, generating an estimated 16,400 jobs.

A vast majority of that domestic sugar stays in this country, with an additional two to three million tons imported each year. Americans consume as much as 77.1 pounds of sugar and related sweeteners per person per year, according to United States Department of Agriculture data. That’s nearly twice the limit the department recommends, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Sugar has been linked in the United States to diabetes, obesity and cancer. If it is killing all of us, it is killing black people faster. Over the last 30 years, the rate of Americans who are obese or overweight grew 27 percent among all adults, to 71 percent from 56 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with African-Americans overrepresented in the national figures. During the same period, diabetes rates overall nearly tripled. Among black non-Hispanic women, they are nearly double those of white non-Hispanic women, and one and a half times higher for black men than white men.

None of this — the extraordinary mass commodification of sugar, its economic might and outsize impact on the American diet and health — was in any way foreordained, or even predictable, when Christopher Columbus made his second voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1493, bringing sugar-cane stalks with him from the Spanish Canary Islands. In Europe at that time, refined sugar was a luxury product, the backbreaking toil and dangerous labor required in its manufacture an insuperable barrier to production in anything approaching bulk. It seems reasonable to imagine that it might have remained so if it weren’t for the establishment of an enormous market in enslaved laborers who had no way to opt out of the treacherous work.

For thousands of years, cane was a heavy and unwieldy crop that had to be cut by hand and immediately ground to release the juice inside, lest it spoil within a day or two. Even before harvest time, rows had to be dug, stalks planted and plentiful wood chopped as fuel for boiling the liquid and reducing it to crystals and molasses. From the earliest traces of cane domestication on the Pacific island of New Guinea 10,000 years ago to its island-hopping advance to ancient India in 350 B.C., sugar was locally consumed and very labor-intensive. It remained little more than an exotic spice, medicinal glaze or sweetener for elite palates.

It was the introduction of sugar slavery in the New World that changed everything. “The true Age of Sugar had begun — and it was doing more to reshape the world than any ruler, empire or war had ever done,” Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos write in their 2010 book, “Sugar Changed the World.” Over the four centuries that followed Columbus’s arrival, on the mainlands of Central and South America in Mexico, Guyana and Brazil as well as on the sugar islands of the West Indies — Cuba, Barbados and Jamaica, among others — countless indigenous lives were destroyed and nearly 11 million Africans were enslaved, just counting those who survived the Middle Passage.

[ To get updates on The 1619 Project, and for more on race from The New York Times, sign up f or our weekly Race/Related newsletter .]

“White gold” drove trade in goods and people, fueled the wealth of European nations and, for the British in particular, shored up the financing of their North American colonies. “There was direct trade among the colonies and between the colonies and Europe, but much of the Atlantic trade was triangular: enslaved people from Africa; sugar from the West Indies and Brazil; money and manufactures from Europe,” writes the Harvard historian Walter Johnson in his 1999 book, “Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market.” “People were traded along the bottom of the triangle; profits would stick at the top.”

Before French Jesuit priests planted the first cane stalk near Baronne Street in New Orleans in 1751, sugar was already a huge moneymaker in British New York. By the 1720s, one of every two ships in the city’s port was either arriving from or heading to the Caribbean, importing sugar and enslaved people and exporting flour, meat and shipbuilding supplies. The trade was so lucrative that Wall Street’s most impressive buildings were Trinity Church at one end, facing the Hudson River, and the five-story sugar warehouses on the other , close to the East River and near the busy slave market. New York’s enslaved population reached 20 percent, prompting the New York General Assembly in 1730 to issue a consolidated slave code, making it “unlawful for above three slaves” to meet on their own, and authorizing “each town” to employ “a common whipper for their slaves.”

In 1795, Étienne de Boré, a New Orleans sugar planter, granulated the first sugar crystals in the Louisiana Territory. With the advent of sugar processing locally, sugar plantations exploded up and down both banks of the Mississippi River. All of this was possible because of the abundantly rich alluvial soil, combined with the technical mastery of seasoned French and Spanish planters from around the cane-growing basin of the Gulf and the Caribbean — and because of the toil of thousands of enslaved people. More French planters and their enslaved expert sugar workers poured into Louisiana as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines led a successful revolution to secure Haiti’s independence from France.

Within five decades, Louisiana planters were producing a quarter of the world’s cane-sugar supply. During her antebellum reign, Queen Sugar bested King Cotton locally, making Louisiana the second-richest state in per capita wealth. According to the historian Richard Follett, the state ranked third in banking capital behind New York and Massachusetts in 1840. The value of enslaved people alone represented tens of millions of dollars in capital that financed investments, loans and businesses. Much of that investment funneled back into the sugar mills, the “most industrialized sector of Southern agriculture,” Follett writes in his 2005 book, “Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World 1820-1860.” No other agricultural region came close to the amount of capital investment in farming by the eve of the Civil War. In 1853, Representative Miles Taylor of Louisiana bragged that his state’s success was “without parallel in the United States, or indeed in the world in any branch of industry.”

The enslaved population soared, quadrupling over a 20-year period to 125,000 souls in the mid-19th century. New Orleans became the Walmart of people-selling. The number of enslaved labor crews doubled on sugar plantations. And in every sugar parish, black people outnumbered whites. These were some of the most skilled laborers, doing some of the most dangerous agricultural and industrial work in the United States.

In the mill, alongside adults, children toiled like factory workers with assembly-line precision and discipline under the constant threat of boiling hot kettles, open furnaces and grinding rollers. “All along the endless carrier are ranged slave children, whose business it is to place the cane upon it, when it is conveyed through the shed into the main building,” wrote Solomon Northup in “Twelve Years a Slave,” his 1853 memoir of being kidnapped and forced into slavery on Louisiana plantations.

To achieve the highest efficiency, as in the round-the-clock Domino refinery today, sugar houses operated night and day. “On cane plantations in sugar time, there is no distinction as to the days of the week,” Northup wrote. Fatigue might mean losing an arm to the grinding rollers or being flayed for failing to keep up. Resistance was often met with sadistic cruelty.

A formerly enslaved black woman named Mrs. Webb described a torture chamber used by her owner, Valsin Marmillion. “One of his cruelties was to place a disobedient slave, standing in a box, in which there were nails placed in such a manner that the poor creature was unable to move,” she told a W.P.A. interviewer in 1940. “He was powerless even to chase the flies, or sometimes ants crawling on some parts of his body.”

Louisiana led the nation in destroying the lives of black people in the name of economic efficiency. The historian Michael Tadman found that Louisiana sugar parishes had a pattern of “deaths exceeding births.” Backbreaking labor and “inadequate net nutrition meant that slaves working on sugar plantations were, compared with other working-age slaves in the United States, far less able to resist the common and life-threatening diseases of dirt and poverty,” wrote Tadman in a 2000 study published in the American Historical Review. Life expectancy was less like that on a cotton plantation and closer to that of a Jamaican cane field, where the most overworked and abused could drop dead after seven years.

The Enslaved Pecan Pioneer

Pecans are the nut of choice when it comes to satisfying America’s sweet tooth, with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season being the pecan’s most popular time, when the nut graces the rich pie named for it. Southerners claim the pecan along with the cornbread and collard greens that distinguish the regional table, and the South looms large in our imaginations as this nut’s mother country.

The presence of pecan pralines in every Southern gift shop from South Carolina to Texas, and our view of the nut as regional fare, masks a crucial chapter in the story of the pecan: It was an enslaved man who made the wide cultivation of this nut possible.

Pecan trees are native to the middle southwestern region of the Mississippi River Valley and the Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico. While the trees can live for a hundred years or more, they do not produce nuts in the first years of life, and the kinds of nuts they produce are wildly variable in size, shape, flavor and ease of shell removal. Indigenous people worked around this variability, harvesting the nuts for hundreds and probably thousands of years, camping near the groves in season, trading the nuts in a network that stretched across the continent, and lending the food the name we have come to know it by: paccan.

Once white Southerners became fans of the nut, they set about trying to standardize its fruit by engineering the perfect pecan tree. Planters tried to cultivate pecan trees for a commercial market beginning at least as early as the 1820s, when a well-known planter from South Carolina named Abner Landrum published detailed descriptions of his attempt in the American Farmer periodical. In the mid-1840s, a planter in Louisiana sent cuttings of a much-prized pecan tree over to his neighbor J.T. Roman, the owner of Oak Alley Plantation. Roman did what many enslavers were accustomed to in that period: He turned the impossible work over to an enslaved person with vast capabilities, a man whose name we know only as Antoine. Antoine undertook the delicate task of grafting the pecan cuttings onto the limbs of different tree species on the plantation grounds. Many specimens thrived, and Antoine fashioned still more trees, selecting for nuts with favorable qualities. It was Antoine who successfully created what would become the country’s first commercially viable pecan varietal.

Decades later, a new owner of Oak Alley, Hubert Bonzano, exhibited nuts from Antoine’s trees at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, the World’s Fair held in Philadelphia and a major showcase for American innovation. As the horticulturalist Lenny Wells has recorded, the exhibited nuts received a commendation from the Yale botanist William H. Brewer, who praised them for their “remarkably large size, tenderness of shell and very special excellence.” Coined “the Centennial,” Antoine’s pecan varietal was then seized upon for commercial production (other varieties have since become the standard).

Was Antoine aware of his creation’s triumph? No one knows. As the historian James McWilliams writes in “The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut” (2013): “History leaves no record as to the former slave gardener’s location — or whether he was even alive — when the nuts from the tree he grafted were praised by the nation’s leading agricultural experts.” The tree never bore the name of the man who had handcrafted it and developed a full-scale orchard on the Oak Alley Plantation before he slipped into the shadow of history.

Most of these stories of brutality, torture and premature death have never been told in classroom textbooks or historical museums. They have been refined and whitewashed in the mills and factories of Southern folklore: the romantic South, the Lost Cause, the popular “moonlight and magnolias” plantation tours so important to Louisiana’s agritourism today.

When I arrived at the Whitney Plantation Museum on a hot day in June, I mentioned to Ashley Rogers, 36, the museum’s executive director, that I had passed the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center about 15 miles back along the way. “You passed a dump and a prison on your way to a plantation,” she said. “These are not coincidences.”

The Whitney, which opened five years ago as the only sugar-slavery museum in the nation, rests squarely in a geography of human detritus. The museum tells of the everyday struggles and resistance of black people who didn’t lose their dignity even when they lost everything else. It sits on the west bank of the Mississippi at the northern edge of the St. John the Baptist Parish, home to dozens of once-thriving sugar plantations; Marmillion’s plantation and torture box were just a few miles down from Whitney.

The museum also sits across the river from the site of the German Coast uprising in 1811, one of the largest revolts of enslaved people in United States history. As many as 500 sugar rebels joined a liberation army heading toward New Orleans, only to be cut down by federal troops and local militia; no record of their actual plans survives. About a hundred were killed in battle or executed later, many with their heads severed and placed on pikes throughout the region. Based on historians’ estimates, the execution tally was nearly twice as high as the number in Nat Turner’s more famous 1831 rebellion. The revolt has been virtually redacted from the historical record. But not at Whitney. And yet tourists, Rogers said, sometimes admit to her, a white woman, that they are warned by hotel concierges and tour operators that Whitney is the one misrepresenting the past. “You are meant to empathize with the owners as their guests,” Rogers told me in her office. In Louisiana’s plantation tourism, she said, “the currency has been the distortion of the past.”

The landscape bears witness and corroborates Whitney’s version of history. Although the Coleman jail opened in 2001 and is named for an African-American sheriff’s deputy who died in the line of duty, Rogers connects it to a longer history of coerced labor, land theft and racial control after slavery. Sugar cane grows on farms all around the jail, but at the nearby Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola, prisoners grow it. Angola is the largest maximum-security prison by land mass in the nation. It opened in its current location in 1901 and took the name of one of the plantations that had occupied the land. Even today, incarcerated men harvest Angola’s cane, which is turned into syrup and sold on-site.

From slavery to freedom, many black Louisianans found that the crushing work of sugar cane remained mostly the same. Even with Reconstruction delivering civil rights for the first time, white planters continued to dominate landownership. Freedmen and freedwomen had little choice but to live in somebody’s old slave quarters. As new wage earners, they negotiated the best terms they could, signed labor contracts for up to a year and moved frequently from one plantation to another in search of a life whose daily rhythms beat differently than before. And yet, even compared with sharecropping on cotton plantations, Rogers said, “sugar plantations did a better job preserving racial hierarchy.” As a rule, the historian John C. Rodrigue writes, “plantation labor overshadowed black people’s lives in the sugar region until well into the 20th century.”

Sometimes black cane workers resisted collectively by striking during planting and harvesting time — threatening to ruin the crop. Wages and working conditions occasionally improved. But other times workers met swift and violent reprisals. After a major labor insurgency in 1887, led by the Knights of Labor, a national union, at least 30 black people — some estimated hundreds — were killed in their homes and on the streets of Thibodaux, La. “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the nigger or the white man, for the next 50 years,” a local white planter’s widow, Mary Pugh, wrote, rejoicing, to her son.

Many African-Americans aspired to own or rent their own sugar-cane farms in the late 19th century, but faced deliberate efforts to limit black farm and land owning. The historian Rebecca Scott found that although “black farmers were occasionally able to buy plots of cane land from bankrupt estates, or otherwise establish themselves as suppliers, the trend was for planters to seek to establish relations with white tenants or sharecroppers who could provide cane for the mill.”

By World War II, many black people began to move not simply from one plantation to another, but from a cane field to a car factory in the North. By then, harvesting machines had begun to take over some, but not all, of the work. With fewer and fewer black workers in the industry, and after efforts in the late 1800s to recruit Chinese, Italian, Irish and German immigrant workers had already failed, labor recruiters in Louisiana and Florida sought workers in other states.

In 1942, the Department of Justice began a major investigation into the recruiting practices of one of the largest sugar producers in the nation, the United States Sugar Corporation, a South Florida company. Black men unfamiliar with the brutal nature of the work were promised seasonal sugar jobs at high wages, only to be forced into debt peonage, immediately accruing the cost of their transportation, lodging and equipment — all for $1.80 a day. One man testified that the conditions were so bad, “It wasn’t no freedom; it was worse than the pen.” Federal investigators agreed. When workers tried to escape, the F.B.I. found, they were captured on the highway or “shot at while trying to hitch rides on the sugar trains.” The company was indicted by a federal grand jury in Tampa for “carrying out a conspiracy to commit slavery,” wrote Alec Wilkinson, in his 1989 book, “Big Sugar: Seasons in the Cane Fields of Florida.” (The indictment was ultimately quashed on procedural grounds.) A congressional investigation in the 1980s found that sugar companies had systematically tried to exploit seasonal West Indian workers to maintain absolute control over them with the constant threat of immediately sending them back to where they came from.

At the Whitney plantation, which operated continuously from 1752 to 1975, its museum staff of 12 is nearly all African-American women. A third of them have immediate relatives who either worked there or were born there in the 1960s and ’70s. These black women show tourists the same slave cabins and the same cane fields their own relatives knew all too well.

Farm laborers, mill workers and refinery employees make up the 16,400 jobs of Louisiana’s sugar-cane industry. But it is the owners of the 11 mills and 391 commercial farms who have the most influence and greatest share of the wealth. And the number of black sugar-cane farmers in Louisiana is most likely in the single digits, based on estimates from people who work in the industry. They are the exceedingly rare exceptions to a system designed to codify black loss.

And yet two of these black farmers, Charles Guidry and Eddie Lewis III, have been featured in a number of prominent news items and marketing materials out of proportion to their representation and economic footprint in the industry. Lewis and Guidry have appeared in separate online videos. The American Sugar Cane League has highlighted the same pair separately in its online newsletter , Sugar News.

Lewis has no illusions about why the marketing focuses on him, he told me; sugar cane is a lucrative business, and to keep it that way, the industry has to work with the government. “You need a few minorities in there, because these mills survive off having minorities involved with the mill to get these huge government loans,” he said. A former financial adviser at Morgan Stanley, Lewis, 36, chose to leave a successful career in finance to take his rightful place as a fifth-generation farmer. “My family was farming in the late 1800s” near the same land, he says, that his enslaved ancestors once worked. Much of the 3,000 acres he now farms comes from relationships with white landowners his father, Eddie Lewis Jr., and his grandfather before him, built and maintained.

Lewis is the minority adviser for the federal Farm Service Agency (F.S.A.) in St. Martin and Lafayette Parish, and also participates in lobbying federal legislators. He says he does it because the stakes are so high. If things don’t change, Lewis told me, “I’m probably one of two or three that’s going to be farming in the next 10 to 15 years. They’re trying to basically extinct us.” As control of the industry consolidates in fewer and fewer hands, Lewis believes black sugar-cane farmers will no longer exist, part of a long-term trend nationally, where the total proportion of all African-American farmers has plummeted since the early 1900s, to less than 2 percent from more than 14 percent, with 90 percent of black farmers’ land lost amid decades of racist actions by government agencies, banks and real estate developers.

“There’s still a few good white men around here,” Lewis told me. “It’s not to say it’s all bad. But this is definitely a community where you still have to say, ‘Yes sir,’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and accept ‘boy’ and different things like that.”

One of the biggest players in that community is M.A. Patout and Son, the largest sugar-cane mill company in Louisiana. Founded in 1825, Patout has been known to boast that it is “the oldest complete family-owned and operated manufacturer of raw sugar in the United States.” It owns three of the 11 remaining sugar-cane mills in Louisiana, processing roughly a third of the cane in the state.

The company is being sued by a former fourth-generation black farmer. As first reported in The Guardian , Wenceslaus Provost Jr. claims the company breached a harvesting contract in an effort to deliberately sabotage his business. Provost, who goes by the first name June, and his wife, Angie, who is also a farmer, lost their home to foreclosure in 2018, after defaulting on F.S.A.-guaranteed crop loans. June Provost has also filed a federal lawsuit against First Guaranty Bank and a bank senior vice president for claims related to lending discrimination, as well as for mail and wire fraud in reporting false information to federal loan officials. The suit names a whistle-blower, a federal loan officer, who, in April 2015, “informed Mr. Provost that he had been systematically discriminated against by First Guaranty Bank,” the lawsuit reads.

(In court filings, M.A. Patout and Son denied that it breached the contract. Representatives for the company did not respond to requests for comment. In court filings, First Guaranty Bank and the senior vice president also denied Provost’s claims. Their representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)

Lewis is himself a litigant in a separate petition against white landowners. He claims they “unilaterally, arbitrarily and without just cause terminated” a seven-year-old agreement to operate his sugar-cane farm on their land, causing him to lose the value of the crop still growing there. Lewis is seeking damages of more than $200,000, based on an independent appraisal he obtained, court records show. The landowners did not respond to requests for comment.

But the new lessee, Ryan Doré, a white farmer, did confirm with me that he is now leasing the land and has offered to pay Lewis what a county agent assessed as the crop’s worth, about $50,000. Doré does not dispute the amount of Lewis’s sugar cane on the 86.16 acres. What he disputes is Lewis’s ability to make the same crop as profitable as he would. Doré, who credits M.A. Patout and Son for getting him started in sugar-cane farming, also told me he is farming some of the land June Provost had farmed.

Lewis and the Provosts say they believe Doré is using his position as an elected F.S.A. committee member to gain an unfair advantage over black farmers with white landowners. “He’s privileged with a lot of information,” Lewis said.

Doré denied he is abusing his F.S.A. position and countered that “the Lewis boy” is trying to “make this a black-white deal.” Doré insisted that “both those guys simply lost their acreage for one reason and one reason only: They are horrible farmers.”

It’s impossible to listen to the stories that Lewis and the Provosts tell and not hear echoes of the policies and practices that have been used since Reconstruction to maintain the racial caste system that sugar slavery helped create. The crop, land and farm theft that they claim harks back to the New Deal era, when Southern F.S.A. committees denied black farmers government funding.

“June and I hope to create a dent in these oppressive tactics for future generations,” Angie Provost told me on the same day this spring that a congressional subcommittee held hearings on reparations. “To this day we are harassed, retaliated against and denied the true DNA of our past.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a Suzanne Young Murray professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and author of “The Condemnation of Blackness.” Tiya Miles is a professor in the history department at Harvard and the author, most recently, of “The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits.”

More on NYTimes.com

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Black History: The Best New Orleans Plantation Tours For Adults & Kids

  • Published on July 13, 2020
  • by The Mom Trotter
  • in North America , Travel , Travel Destinations , USA States

plantation tour slave perspective

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Table of Contents

Although these New Orleans plantations are well manicured and beautiful estates to look, years ago, they housed slaves who worked endlessly and tirelessly day in and day out. So, it was very important for us to go on a New Orleans Plantation tour while in New Orleans.

This wasn’t Aiden’s first time learning about his history. When we visited Ghana , learning about slavery first hand was very important. Aiden was about four years old when I started talking to him about the slavery and the real truth about it.

plantation tour with kids

We visited the Whitney Plantation and it was upsetting, painful and eye opening to see the conditions that slaves lived in, and everything that they had to endure without much of a choice.

kids tour

If you are planning to take your kids on a plantation tour, I highly suggest that you start of by reading a book from this collection with your kids reaching them about slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges and more.

homeschool group activities

Regardless of race, background, ethnicity, it is important to talk to your children about slavery. Talking to your kids about these topics and being open with them will give them a solid foundation and a better understanding of what they will see and learn about at the plantations.

List Of New Orleans Plantations

There are eleven plantations in New Orleans:

  • Whitney Plantation
  • Laura Plantation
  • Oak Alley Plantation
  • Houmas House Plantation
  • San Francisco Plantation
  • Nottoway Plantation
  • Destrehan Plantation
  • Ormond Plantation
  • Malus Beauregard House
  • St. Joseph Plantation
  • Madewood Plantation

Want to know which plantation to visit – then click here to read more about each New Orleans plantation individually.

travel with children of color

If you haven’t talked to your kids about slavery yet, then you absolutely should, and while in New Orleans make sure that you also show them as well.

Visiting The Whitney Plantation With Kids

The doors of this museum were opened for public in 2014 for the very first time in the entire history of the museum and this is the only New Orleans plantation which is based on the views of slaves and everything that they endured.

plan family vacation with kids

The museum at the Whitney Plantation exhibits memorial artwork, plenty of first-person slaves’ narratives, restored buildings, and can give a unique perspective of the enslaved people who lived there.

travel the world with your child

From New Orleans you can drive to the plantations or go with a tour group. We went with a tour group because we didn’t rent a car and it went well.

fun things to do with kids

Reading this below made my heart ache thinking about all the slaves had to endure and how strong and resilient they were.

plantation Tour

Booking A New Orleans Plantation Tour

There are plenty of New Orleans plantation tours so it is important to make sure that you are booking a tour to the specific plantation that you want to see.

All the tours below include pick up from New Orleans, so make sure to inquire where exactly the pick up location is for your tour when you book it.

Do note that you can visit some of these plantations on your own, however an advance purchase ticket is a must. I do however highly recommend a tour especially because you get a more in depth explanation of everything.

Orleans Plantation Tour

  • Whitney Plantation tour – this half day 5 hour tour includes a full visit to one of the most popular plantations. It includes museum exhibits, restored building and offers a first hand experience from a slaves point of view. This is the tour we booked.
  • Swamp boat adventure and plantations full day tour – this nine-hour tour is a full day tour which includes visiting secluded areas of the bayous to witness Cajun living. This tour also includes Oak Alley Plantation and Laura Plantation.
  • Swamp boat ride and southern plantation tour – this is a five and a half hour plantation tour which includes viewing wildlife and a visit to Destrehan Plantation.
  • Double plantation tour – this five-hour tour includes a combined visit to Oak Alley, Laura Plantation or Whitney Plantation. When you book this tour you have the option to choose any two plantations that you’ll like to visit.
  • Plantation brunch and swamp experience tour – this eight and a half hour tour not only includes a visit to Oak Alley and Laura Plantations, but it also includes a delicious Cajun brunch as well.

family vacation ideas

Here is a compiled list of New Orleans Plantation Tours you can choose from.

Have you ever gone on a plantation tour? Or taken your kids on one?

plantation tour slave perspective

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How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South

By: Greg Timmons

Updated: April 2, 2024 | Original: March 6, 2018

Slave family picking cotton in the fields near Savannah, circa 1860s. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

With cash crops of tobacco, cotton and sugar cane, America’s southern states became the economic engine of the burgeoning nation. Their fuel of choice? Human slavery .

If the Confederacy had been a separate nation, it would have ranked as the fourth richest in the world at the start of the Civil War . The slave economy had been very good to American prosperity. By the start of the war, the South was producing 75 percent of the world’s cotton and creating more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River valley than anywhere in the nation. Enslaved workers represented Southern planters’ most significant investment —and the bulk of their wealth.

Enslaved people leaving the fields with baskets of cotton

An Economy Built on Slavery

Building a commercial enterprise out of the wilderness required labor and lots of it. For much of the 1600s, the American colonies operated as agricultural economies, driven largely by indentured servitude. Most workers were poor, unemployed laborers from Europe who, like others, had traveled to North America for a new life. In exchange for their work, they received food and shelter, a rudimentary education and sometimes a trade.

By 1680, the British economy improved and more jobs became available in Britain. During this time, slavery had become a morally, legally and socially acceptable institution in the colonies. As the number of European laborers coming to the colonies dwindled, enslaving Africans became more widely acceptable.

With ideal climate and available land, property owners in the southern colonies began establishing plantation farms for cash crops like rice, tobacco and sugar cane—enterprises that required increasing amounts of labor. To meet the need, wealthy planters turned to traders, who imported ever more human chattel to the colonies, the vast majority from West Africa . As more enslaved Africans were imported and an upsurge in fertility rates expanded the “inventory,” a new industry was born: the slave auction . These open markets where humans were inspected like animals and bought and sold to the highest bidder proved an increasingly lucrative enterprise. By the mid-19th century, a skilled, able-bodied enslaved person could fetch up to $2,000 , although prices varied by the state.

Economic Necessity Trumps Morality

Slave labor had become so entrenched in the Southern economy that nothing—not even the belief that all men were created equal—would dislodge it. When delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, they were split on the moral question of human bondage and man’s inhumanity to man, but not on its economic necessity. At the time, there were nearly 700,000 enslaved people living in the United States, worth many millions in today’s dollars. 

When the topic of slavery arose during the deliberations over calculating political representation in Congress, the southern states of Georgia and the Carolinas demanded that each enslaved person be counted along with whites. The northern states balked, saying it gave southern states an unfair advantage. Their compromise? Delegates agreed that each enslaved person would count as three-fifths of a person. They also agreed that Congress would not block the importation of enslaved people for 20 years following the ratification of the Constitution. In 1807, Congress passed a bill that effectively ended the slave trade on paper starting on January 1, 1808.

Before the American Revolution , tobacco was the colonies’ main cash crop, with exports of the aromatic leaf increasing from 60,000 pounds in 1622 to 1.5 million by 1639. By the end of the century, Britain was importing more than 20 million pounds of tobacco per year. But after the colonies won independence, Britain no longer favored American products and considered tobacco a competitor to crops produced elsewhere in the empire. Always a fickle commodity for growers, tobacco was beset by price fluctuations, weakness to weather changes and an exhausting of the soil’s nutrients. But even as tobacco waned in importance, another cash crop showed promise: cotton.

King Cotton

Picking and cleaning cotton involved a labor-intensive process that slowed production and limited supply. In 1794, inventor Eli Whitney devised a machine that combed the cotton bolls free of their seeds in very short order. Manually, one enslaved person could pick the seeds out of 10 pounds of cotton in a day. The cotton gin , which Whitney patented in 1794, could process 100 pounds in the same time.

There was an irony in all this. Many people believed the cotton gin would reduce the need for enslaved people because the machine could supplant human labor. But in reality, the increased processing capacity accelerated demand. The more cotton processed, the more that could be exported to the mills of Great Britain and New England. And the invention of the cotton gin coincided with other developments that opened up large-scale global trade: Cargo ships were built bigger, better and easier to navigate. Powerful navies protected them against piracy. And newly invented steam engines powered these ships, as well as looms and weaving machines, which increased the capacity to produce cotton cloth.

Depiction of enslaved people on an American plantation operating a cotton gin

With all these factors amping up production and distribution, the South was poised to expand its cotton-based economy. With more land needed for cultivation, the number of plantations expanded in the South and moved west into new territory. Production exploded: Between 1801 and 1835 alone, the U.S. cotton exports grew from 100,000 bales to more than a million, comprising half of all U.S. exports. The upshot: As cotton became the backbone of the Southern economy, slavery drove impressive profits.

The benefits of cotton produced by enslaved workers extended to industries beyond the South. In the North and Great Britain, cotton mills hummed, while the financial and shipping industries also saw gains. Banks in New York and London provided capital to new and expanding plantations for purchasing both land and enslaved workers. As a result, enslaved people became a legal form of property that could be used as collateral in business transactions or to pay off outstanding debt. Enslaved people comprised a sizable portion of a planter’s property holdings, becoming a source of tax revenue for state and local governments. A sort of sales tax was also levied on enslaved worker transactions.

Steadily, a near-feudal society emerged in the South. At the top was the aristocratic landowning elite, who wielded much of the economic and political power. Their plantations spanned upward of a thousand acres, controlling hundreds—and, in some cases, thousands—of enslaved people. A culture of gentility and high-minded codes of honor emerged.

Below the elite class were the small planters who owned a handful of enslaved people. These farmers were self-made and fiercely independent. Small farmers without enslaved workers and landless whites were at the bottom, making up three-quarters of the white population—and dreaming of the day when they, too, might own enslaved people. 

No matter how wide the gap between rich and poor, class tensions among whites were eased by the belief they all belonged to the “superior race.” Many convinced themselves they were actually doing God’s work taking care of what they believed was an inferior people.

Slavery, Wealth and the Confederacy

By the start of the 19th century, slavery and cotton had become essential to the continued growth of America’s economy. However, by 1820, political and economic pressure on the South placed a wedge between the North and South. The Abolitionist movement , which called for an elimination of the institution of slavery, gained influence in Congress. Tariff taxes were passed to help Northern businesses fend off foreign competition but hurt Southern consumers. By the 1850s, many Southerners believed a peaceful secession from the Union was the only path forward.

When considering leaving the Union, Southerners knew the North had an overwhelming advantage over the South in population, industrial output and wealth. Yet, the booming cotton economy most Southerners were optimistic about their future. As one state after another left the Union in 1860 and 1861, many Southerners believed they were doing the right thing to preserve their independence and their property.

To raise funds, Confederate leaders sold bonds for gold coin, which was in circulation at the time. The Confederate currency was inherently weak and became weaker with each printing. In time, the paper money lost 90 percent of its buying power. What gold and silver existed, was taken out of circulation and hoarded by the government and private citizens.

What Happened to the Gold?

By war’s end, the Confederacy had little usable capital to continue the fight. In the conflict’s waning days, it is believed that Confederate officials stashed away millions of dollars’ worth of gold, most in Richmond, Virginia. As the Union Army entered the Confederate capital in 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and millions of dollars of gold escaped to Georgia. What happened after that is disputed, the subject of many myths and legends.

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These 13 Historic Tennessee Plantations Will Send You Back in Time

plantation tour slave perspective

Meghan Kraft

Meghan Kraft loves to travel the world, but she makes her home right here in Nashville, Tennessee. She holds a degree in English, and has worked in the digital marketing realm with companies such as Apartments.com, USA Today and HarperCollins Publishing.

More by this Author

One of the most endearing, pressing artifacts of the south happen to be quite livable – to an extent. Tennessee has preserved a number of plantation homes, boasting gorgeous architecture and dark, dark secrets. Chances are there’s one not too far from you – take a look!

plantation tour slave perspective

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  5. Whitney Plantation, Museum of Slavery and St. Joseph Plantation Tour

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  6. Stories of slaves come to life on Louisiana plantations

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  4. ZANZIBAR Vlog ;STONE TOWN TOUR//SLAVE MARKET #citytour #travel#Zanzibar

  5. Black Slave Ends Up on a Horror Plantation Where People Are Used as Disposables

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COMMENTS

  1. Whitney Plantation

    Whitney Plantation (legal name The Whitney Institute) is a non-profit museum dedicated to the history of the Whitney Plantation, which operated from 1752-1975 and produced indigo, sugar, and rice as its principal cash crops. The museum preserves over a dozen historical structures, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic ...

  2. Louisiana Plantation Tours Interpret the Slave Experience

    Narrated in Creole and subtitled in English, the moving story of Edoard, a slave at Laura Plantation, is best told in his own words. This 2:30-minute video is a must-watch! Laura Plantation is open daily, except on major holidays, with 70-minute guided tours beginning every 40 minutes between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM.

  3. Plantation tours: Correcting the record at slavery's ground zero

    Plantation tours bypass the 'big house' to focus on the enslaved. These cramped slave quarters are part of the 37-acre McLeod Plantation Historic Site in Charleston, South Carolina. The site's ...

  4. Whitney Plantation: Tour of an American Slavery Museum

    The Whitney Plantation opened in December 2014. Unlike most plantation tours that focus on the large houses of the owners, the Whitney Plantation tour is given from the slaves' perspective. Visitors meet their guide in the Welcome Center, which also serves as a tasteful gift shop, primarily offering books on slavery. The Antioch Baptist Church.

  5. Visit the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana

    In addition to the escorted tour, the plantation offers a small self-guided area where visitors can learn about the history of slavery on an international scale, offering vital perspective on an ...

  6. An Ethical Guide to Plantation Tours

    Plantation tours should discuss the lives of African people before the transatlantic slave trade, the fact that plantations were built on land taken from Indigenous peoples, and the links between ...

  7. Facing America's traumatic history head-on through tourism

    Unlike most plantation tours that focus on the main house, the emphasis at the Whitney is the world outside of those walls. ... He spent $8 million and 15 years creating Louisiana's only slave ...

  8. Whitney Plantation

    Visiting The Plantation. Come explore the Louisiana Whitney Plantation and gain a unique perspective on history! This 5-hour tour brings you through one of the oldest plantation sites in Louisiana and provides insight into the lives of slaves and the troubles they faced. Pick-up starts at 12:30pm, so please allow 30 minutes for arrival.

  9. Whitney Plantation Tour

    The plantation grounds are accessible; however, there are uneven gravel paths. The main house tour is not accessible to guest traveling in wheelchairs and is not required to be modified as it is a historic home; however, the first floor is accessible. Guests would be able to view the slave quarters, but would not have access to enter.

  10. The 3 Best New Orleans Plantation Tours

    Legendary Tours - Laura Plantation Tour. Price: Adults from $79; kids from $45. Duration: 5.5 hours. Named for Laura Lucoul, a Creole member of the family who owned the plantation, Laura ...

  11. I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won't believe the ...

    The Old Plantation (Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation), ca. 1785-1795. Attributed to John Rose

  12. New Orleans: Whitney Plantation & Museum Tour

    Begin your self guided tour of the Whitney Plantation, a former sugar plantation that has been converted into a museum and memorial to the slaves who lived and worked there. Learn about the hardships and resilience of those who were enslaved and brought to Louisiana from West and Central Africa. Gain a deeper understanding of the struggles and ...

  13. Travel: The Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans shows the reality of

    The Haydel family, German immigrants who founded the plantation and operated it and adjoining ones until 1867, owned 354 slaves over the years, according to the records.

  14. Plantation Tours: Don't Expect to Hear How Horrible Slavery Really Was

    The slave quarters, distant from the big house, required a separate tour. Of our big-house group of 30 or so, just four of us boarded a trolley that took us down the road to the cabins.

  15. Whitney Museum Plantation

    About the Whitney Plantation and Slavery Museum. Whitney Plantation is the only plantation museum in Louisiana dedicated to understanding the facts of slavery. As a site dedicated to remembrance, with a focus on the lives of the slaves and their legacies, this plantation allows you to experience the world of an 1830s sugar plantation through ...

  16. Whitney Plantation Tour

    In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262 year history as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery. Through museum exhibits, memorial artwork, restored buildings and hundreds of first-person slave narratives, visitors to Whitney will gain a unique perspective on the ...

  17. Exposing the Real Story of Slavery: Whitney Plantation

    The Field of Angels is a memorial at Whitney Plantation that is dedicated to 2,200 known Louisiana slave children who died before their third birth date. The Slave Quarters Whitney Plantation was originally home to 22 slave cabins. Most were razed during the 1970s. Currently, two of the cabins at Whitney today are original to the Haydel property.

  18. Slavery and Plantation Tourism in Louisiana: Deconstructing the

    Former slave plantations that are now converted into tourist attractions constitute places of memory inherently associated with the memorialization of slavery in the United States. These plantation-museums are a central element of tourism in the South, as exemplified by the numerous tour-operators organizing visits of these historical sites.

  19. The Barbaric History of Sugar in America

    The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the 'white gold' that fueled slavery. By Khalil Gibran Muhammad AUG. 14, 2019. Domino Sugar's Chalmette Refinery in Arabi ...

  20. Black History: The Best New Orleans Plantation Tours For Adults & Kids

    Houmas House Plantation. San Francisco Plantation. Nottoway Plantation. Destrehan Plantation. Ormond Plantation. Malus Beauregard House. St. Joseph Plantation. Madewood Plantation. Want to know which plantation to visit - then click here to read more about each New Orleans plantation individually.

  21. 3 Unforgettable New Orleans Plantations to Visit Along the Great River

    Laura Plantation . Laura Plantation Tours. 2247 Hwy 18 (Great River Road), Vacherie, St. James Parish, LA. Guided Tours - 75-80 minute guided tours hourly 10am-4pm (last tour). Originally called l'Habitation Duparc after its 1804 owner Guillaume Duparc, Laura Plantation became the first historic attraction in Louisiana to include stories of slaves as part of a tour.

  22. How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South

    Slavery, Wealth and the Confederacy. By the start of the 19th century, slavery and cotton had become essential to the continued growth of America's economy. However, by 1820, political and ...

  23. 13 Historic Tennessee Plantations

    5. Rippavilla Plantation. Wikipedia. Now a historic museum, you can visit the stunning Rippavilla Plantation on your own to take a chunk out of Tennessee history. 4. The Hermitage. Wikipedia. The former home of President Andrew Jackson is open for tours and is a popular tourist and field trip destination. 3.