I wanted to share my experiences of visiting two Louisiana plantations recently, especially in lieu of the fact that this year marks 50 years since the release of “Slaves”, the controversial and under appreciated 1969 film about slavery. The film itself was made at the Buena Vista Plantation near Stonewall, LA., about 250 miles north of New Orleans near Shreveport. I hope to make a trip to that plantation later this year to document it for my blog.
In the meantime, however, I recently enjoyed a visit to New Orleans and had a great day trip from Grayline Tours which visited two plantation sights. Here’s what I saw.
On the way to Whitney, on “River Road”, we caught a glimpse of the Evergreen Plantation which was used for some scenes in Tarantino’s film “Django Unchained.”
I was very impressed with the narration and poignant documentary memorials at this site. When you arrive they give you a lanyard with a slave’s name and story on the back. You immediately feel connected to the scenes which are about to unfold. Unlike Buena Vista, Whitney Plantation, which is located on what the locals call “River Road” in the lower part of the state, was a sugar cane plantation. Buena Vista, which is located farther north, was a cotton plantation, as depicted in the movie “Slaves.”
At Whitney the sugar cane was harvested generally between October and January, but it was basically a year round ‘factory’, as our guide described it. The sugar cane was also processed on the plantation in a process called ‘The Jamaica Train”. Sugar cane was soaked, then pounded, then finally granulated into it’s final form. All of the working and cutting and harvesting of the sugar cane was done by slaves. The Whitney includes some of the original slave cabins, which housed anywhere form 14-25 people at a time. The slaves were allowed to raise chickens and grow other vegetables to feed themselves. It was a hard life and dangerous in so many ways – including not only overwork, but injury by all the dangerous tools used to harvest the sugar cane.
Besides some very touching statues of slave children, the Whitney includes some amazing memorial walls listing hundreds of peoples names – usually just first names, because that’s all we know about the people who lived here for generations in slavery. There are also brief stories engraved on these memorials as well of the heart-wrenching existence these people endured.
There is also a special monument to a slave uprising in the area, and also another section for the slave children, documenting some of their memories and also their names. There is also dreadful plantation bell which was rung through the day to keep all the slaves in time with their tasks or meals. People on our tour rang it in passing in memory of one of the slaves. Also at Whitney are some converted jail cells from New Orleans which were equal in size to the slave ‘pens’ which used to be located all around New Orleans, where the slave trade was constantly in motion. New Orleans was the capital of the slave trade. You can step into one of these pens and see the places were cuffs and chains were hooked.
Whitney was used as the location of the Academy Award winning film “12 Years a Slave”. It also has an oak tree path in the front of the house. We toured the first and second floor. It was rather modest and small to what you generally thing of a ‘plantation’ house.
My impression of Whitney is that this is a ‘must-see’ for anyone. Just like places like Auschwitz, which is also initially hard to visit, it is a place and an experience which really makes you appreciate and understand the harsh realities of what happened in the context of the time.
Onto the next plantation! Now I had seen Oak Alley many years ago, but they have done a better job now of displaying and explaining the slavery side of the plantation. Of course Oak Alley is known for it’s incredible big house, and the 300 year old oak trees which dominate the path towards the Mississippi. This plantation has been seen in many films, including “Interview with a Vampire.” The front of the house brings to mind the ‘moonlight and magnolias’ of the Old South in all its romance.
However, now the sight does show and document several of the slave stories from this plantation as well. There are several cabins which still stand, and the plaques explain the difference between the ‘house’ slaves and the ‘field hands’, which were the lowest of the slaves. It also tells specific stories of certain slaves, by name, and what happened to them on this plantation. On display are also chains and an especially grotesque-looking collar which would make it impossible for someone to try to escape.
To read the actual accounts of slavery is really the only way to really understand what went on. Accounts vary from person to person. Many masters were brutal while others were more gentle. Some slaves immediately fled the plantations after the Civil War while others lingered behind or stayed, either because of circumstance (wage labor) or merely considered the plantation and the masters family their own home. So many women were raped or brutalized and so many families were torn asunder. Slavery did damage to not only slave but slave-owner as well as the unlimited power these men (and women) had over others truly turned many of them into sadistic brutes. So many stories to tell.
I highly recommend the below books, as well as Frederick Douglass’ personal narrative.
- When I Was A Slave (from the Slave Narration Collection)
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Slaves” is a loose remake of this novel)
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (one of the more harrowing true life accounts you will ever read)
- Celia, A Slave by Melton A McLaurin
I’ll end with a quote from Harriet Jacobs riveting personal account from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Harriet hide in a crawl space above her grandmothers house for 7 years before she made her escape to the North!
DURING the first years of my service in Dr. Flint’s family, I was accustomed to share some indulgences with the children of my mistress. Though this seemed to me no more than right, I was grateful for it, and tried to merit the kindness by the faithful discharge of my duties. But I now entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. The master’s age, my extreme youth, and the fear that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes.
Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue. Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling. He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him—where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection?
No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe. Surely, if you credited one half the truths that are told you concerning the helpless millions suffering in this cruel bondage, you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke. You surely would refuse to do for the master, on your own soil, the mean and cruel work which trained bloodhounds and the lowest class of whites do for him at the south.
Every where the years bring to all enough of sin and sorrow; but in slavery the very dawn of life is darkened by these shadows. Even the little child, who is accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children, will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and such a one among the slaves. Perhaps the child’s own mother is among those hated ones. She listens to violent outbreaks of jealous passion, and cannot help understanding what is the cause. She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will learn to tremble when she hears her master’s footfall. She will be compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely, and shrink from the memory of it. I cannot tell how much I suffered in the presence of these wrongs, nor how I am still pained by the retrospect.
My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings. The other slaves in my master’s house noticed the change. Many of them pitied me; but none dared to ask the cause. They had no need to inquire. They knew too well the guilty practices under that roof; and they were aware that to speak of them was an offense that never went unpunished.
A PERILOUS PASSAGE IN THE SLAVE GIRL’S LIFE.
……I have told you that Dr. Flint’s persecutions and his wife’s jealousy had given rise to some gossip in the neighborhood. Among others, it chanced that a white unmarried gentleman had obtained some knowledge of the circumstances in which I was placed. He knew my grandmother, and often spoke to me in the street. He became interested for me, and asked questions about my master, which I answered in part. He expressed a great deal of sympathy, and a wish to aid me. He constantly sought opportunities to see me, and wrote to me frequently. I was a poor slave girl, only fifteen years old.
So much attention from a superior person was, of course, flattering; for human nature is the same in all. I also felt grateful for his sympathy, and encouraged by his kind words. It seemed to me a great thing to have such a friend. By degrees, a more tender feeling crept into my heart. He was an educated and eloquent gentleman; too eloquent, alas, for the poor slave girl who trusted in him. Of course I saw whither all this was tending. I knew the impassable gulf between us; but to be an object of interest to a man who is not married, and who is not her master, is agreeable to the pride and feelings of a slave, if her miserable situation has left her any pride or sentiment. It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment. A master may treat you as rudely as he pleases, and you dare not speak; moreover, the wrong does not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy. There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible….
THE NEW TIE TO LIFE.
…I had not seen Dr. Flint for five days. I had never seen him since I made the avowal to him. He talked of the disgrace I had brought on myself; how I had sinned against my master, and mortified my old grandmother. He intimated that if I had accepted his proposals, he, as a physician, could have saved me from exposure. He even condescended to pity me. Could he have offered wormwood more bitter? He, whose persecutions had been the cause of my sin!
“Linda,” said he, “though you have been criminal towards me, I feel for you, and I can pardon you if you obey my wishes. Tell me whether the fellow you wanted to marry is the father of your child. If you deceive me, you shall feel the fires of hell.”
I did not feel as proud as I had done. My strongest weapon with him was gone. I was lowered in my own estimation, and had resolved to bear his abuse in silence. But when he spoke contemptuously of the lover who had always treated me honorably; when I remembered that but for him I might have been a virtuous, free, and happy wife, I lost my patience. “I have sinned against God and myself,” I replied; “but not against you.”
He clinched his teeth, and muttered, “Curse you!” He came towards me, with ill-suppressed rage, and exclaimed, “You obstinate girl! I could grind your bones to powder! You have thrown yourself away on some worthless rascal. You are weak-minded, and have been easily persuaded by those who don’t care a straw for you. The future will settle accounts between us. You are blinded now; but hereafter you will be convinced that your master was your best friend. My lenity towards you is a proof of it. I might have punished you in many ways. I might have had you whipped till you fell dead under the lash. But I wanted you to live; I would have bettered your condition. Others cannot do it. You are my slave. Your mistress, disgusted by your conduct, forbids you to return to the house; therefore I leave you here for the present; but I shall see you often. I will call tomorrow.”
He came with frowning brows, that showed a dissatisfied state of mind. After asking about my health, he inquired whether my board was paid, and who visited me. He then went on to say that he had neglected his duty; that as a physician there were certain things that he ought to have explained to me. Then followed talk such as would have made the most shameless blush. He ordered me to stand up before him. I obeyed. “I command you,” said he, “to tell me whether the father of your child is white or black.” I hesitated. “Answer me this instant!” he exclaimed. I did answer. He sprang upon me like a wolf, and grabbed my arm as if he would have broken it. “Do you love him?” said he, in a hissing tone.
“I am thankful that I do not despise him,” I replied.
He raised his hand to strike me; but it fell again. I don’t know what arrested the blow. He sat down, with lips tightly compressed. At last he spoke. “I came here,” said he, “to make you a friendly proposition; but your ingratitude chafes me beyond endurance. You turn aside all my good intentions towards you. I don’t know what it is that keeps me from killing you.” Again he rose, as if he had a mind to strike me.
But he resumed. “On one condition I will forgive your insolence and crime. You must henceforth have no communication of any kind with the father of your child. You must not ask any thing from him, or receive any thing from him. I will take care of you and your child. You had better promise this at once, and not wait till you are deserted by him. This is the last act of mercy I shall show towards you.”
I said something about being unwilling to have my child supported by a man who had cursed it and me also. He rejoined, that a woman who had sunk to my level had no right to expect any thing else. He asked, for the last time, would I accept his kindness? I answered that I would not.
“Very well,” said he; “then take the consequences of your wayward course. Never look to me for help. You are my slave, and shall always be my slave. I will never sell you, that you may depend upon.” ….