Whitney Plantation: A tour of truth appropriate for Juneteenth
EDGAR, La—On June 19, 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were free from the United States institution of slavery. It was a great time of celebration and great trepidation. Thousands of the newly freed people had nowhere to go so they stayed on the plantations or near it, maintained the crops, and kept the plantation operational. Some lived as freed people. Some unknowingly continued living and being treated as slaves. This was the case of more than 300 African Americans living at the Haydel plantation from the late 1860s until 1975. To understand their stories and their brilliance within the confines of slavery and sharecropping, one would need to visit the Whitney Plantation in Edgar, Louisiana.
“Use this time of Juneteenth to reflect on our individual families and their lives following slavery,” said genealogist and historian Antoinette Harrell who has followed family lineages in South Louisiana. According to a series of interviews published by Vice, Harrell has uncovered long-hidden cases of Black people who were still living as slaves a century past the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. She even interviewed a St. Charles, La. family who had been enslaved through the 1960s.
“This is a time of celebration but it is also time to challenge ourselves to know more about our own families, to research and find out what happened to them at freedom, in slavery, and before then,” she said.
This reflection and research has been done for the Haydel family who were the original owners of the Whitney Plantation. (It is now the nation’s sole plantation that tells the story of slavery through the eyes of the enslaved children who lived there.) This reflection is also being done by visitors—like the Semien family from Baton Rouge—who walked the grounds earlier this month.
Here are the children’s thoughts:
I really enjoyed the Whitney Plantation and loved how the guide made Black brilliance and intelligence a main part of the tour. She pointed out many times how knowledgeable the enslaved people were and that they were selected because of their intelligence and strength. Hearing that about my ancestors made me remember that I should always work hard and strive to do my best. It also made me wonder where my family is from. I believe that we are from Senegal or the Senegambia region of Africa like she explained because most of the Africans stolen and brought to Louisiana plantations as slaves were from that area. I also liked learning that these Blacks were actually powerful and brilliant and we saw that they created everything the white people needed and everything the plantation needed to make money with sugar cane. Another big thing that I took away from this experience was if my ancestors didn’t have anything but their intellect and still found a way to be successful, why can’t I strive for excellence with everything, too?
The guide at Whitley Plantation told about the legacy that was stripped from history books until now. We toured through concrete memorials with thousands of names and dates of slave purchases, births, and deaths etched in each. We were told about the horrors of living on the plantation and of slavery and the brutal ways people were treated and punished; and even after slavery was over, how they continued to disenfranchise Blacks to keep their minds, money, and bodies enslaved. Slaves were shackled around their necks and ankles as a way of punishment. Some were being buried alive. She shared how Catholicism and religious leaders were predators who benefited off the institute of slavery here and in France. However, slaves fought back in subtle ways. Breaking tools, pretending to be sick, working slowly, stealing small items or treats, and sneaking off into the bayou were examples of resistance. The guide said the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery New Year’s Day 1863 but the Whitney Plantation was up and running with the same families until 1975! That was only 44 years ago. When the slaves found out they were free, they had nowhere to go so they ended up sharecropping—which was still a form of slavery—until the closing of the plantation.
This experience made me see the relationship between modern behavior and previous practices towards Blacks. The most impactful part was when the guide explained how Blacks were kidnapped for their intellectual skills and physical characteristics. She explained how the Africans’ knowledge was used to make the plantation profitable. In school we are taught this land we are living in is the land of the free, home of the brave even though the truth of the bravest people have been omitted or watered down in textbooks. Whitney Plantation told us the truth in many ways. What sticks with me the most is the fact that the enslaved people were brilliant architects and agriculturalists, great musicians, and amazingly strong. If they could do all that while in bondage, then there is much more that I could do.
- Condoleezza, 13
After discussing with the tour guide the different ways Africans built and worked around the plantation we realized some of the traits presented by the Africans on the plantation are also represented by their descendants today. The tour guide discussed the way that rice growing technique was enhanced by Blacks who never grew rice Africa but knew agriculture so well they could cultivate it in Louisiana better than their owners. She also explained how they were smart architects and carpenters who built the big house at Whitney without nails and placed it where air could circulate in the house based on the location. Some slaves were good at building and construction and were making houses or blacksmithing while others would harvest crops and manage the master’s home. Slaves with special talents—like playing instruments or singing— would work in at the plantation, then the overseers or masters would rent them out for their talent so he could make more money off the slave and his friends be entertained. This tour has stressed the importance of self-confidence and education. It helps us to see where we came from and some of us are shown that we have potential and can complete any task.
- Collin, 14
By Cora Lester
The Drum Managing Editor
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