How the Whitney Plantation became a different kind of Confederate monument
In the procession of plantations up and down the River Road, Whitney Plantation stands apart for a single, vital reason: The story it tells is from the viewpoint of slaves. The plantation museum, which was opened in December 2014, was the result of a collaboration between John Cummings, a real estate developer and former New Orleans trial lawyer who had bought the 250-acre site near Wallace, and Ibrahima Seck, a member of the history faculty at Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, in Senegal, who has devoted much of his research to Louisiana. He has become Whitney Plantation’s research director.
As the first U.S. museum dedicated to the history of slavery, Whitney Plantation has attracted widespread media attention. It also benefited from timing: The plantation was opened to the public the same year that “12 Years a Slave,” a wrenching movie about slavery, won three Oscars, including the Best Picture prize, and touched off renewed discussion on this chapter in America’s history.
- Whitney Plantation originally was called Habitation Haydel. The first European to settle there, in 1752, was Ambroise Heidel, a German who had emigrated to the area with his mother and siblings in 1721, according to Seck’s history of the plantation.
- Initially, the plantation’s main crop was indigo. Later, sugar cane became dominant.
- The spelling of the family name was changed to Haydel in the second generation.
- The Haydel family sold the plantation after the Civil War to Bradish Johnson, who named the property after his grandson, Harry Whitney.
- Sybil Haydel Morial, the wife of one New Orleans mayor and the mother of another, is a descendant of a Whitney Plantation slave named Victor, who was the son of a slave named Anna and her owner’s brother.
- The plantation was sold to Formosa Chemicals and Fiber Corp. in 1990, which wanted to build a rayon plant there. But in 1999, after the rayon market sagged, Formosa sold the land to Cummings, who then spent $8 million buying antiques and commissioning art to furnish it.
- Whitney Plantation is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.
- Scenes for Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (2012) were filmed there.
- The names of the 356 people enslaved on the plantation are etched in granite slabs on what is dubbed the Wall of Honor.
Whitney Plantation fills a gap because it goes beyond the mystique of moonlight, crinoline and moss-draped oaks to show what life under slavery was like for people who were powerless to do anything but endure it — unless they wanted to risk their lives trying to escape. By showing cages and chains and the conditions in which slaves lived, Whitney Plantation not only memorializes those lives but it also forces visitors to think about the suffering of people who were bought and sold like sugarcane. “The history of this country is rooted in slavery,” Seck told The Atlantic. “If you don’t understand the source of the problem, how can you solve it?”