The April issue of Smithsonian magazine featured a piece entitled “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” on the Whitney Plantation as “a rebuke – and an antidote to our sanitized history of slavery.” I came across this piece online, and I was drawn to the provocative headline as well as the setting, a town less than an hour from New Orleans, where I had recently moved to take a teaching job. The phrase “America’s Auschwitz” was used by now-mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu in 2008, when he visited the site and spoke to the museum’s creators.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that phrase. On one hand, it was hard for me to compare anything to Auschwitz, where I visited with my grandmother, a Birkenau survivor, a few summers ago. As we stood in the half-ruins of the crematoria and looked out over miles of destroyed barracks and barbed wire fencing, I felt a mixture of emotions I still have trouble describing. But on the other hand, Landrieu’s description was apt: Slavery is our country’s darkest chapter; and 150 years after Emancipation, we still don’t know how to talk about it.
I find little point in comparing the two atrocities, the Holocaust and slavery, to try to figure out which, if either, was “worse.” Landrieu used the term “Auschwitz” to encapsulate the darkest part of a country’s history; in that, he was correct to call slavery our Auschwitz. With that phrase still stuck in my head, I called the museum to buy a ticket. The website recommended booking tours at least one month in advance, but the woman at the front desk told me I’d gotten lucky — it was a Saints game day, and she had two tickets left for a tour that afternoon.
The sugarcane along Louisiana Route 18 grew so high that it hid the levee on the right and the town of Wallace on the left. Only the double tower of the St. John the Baptist parish courthouse visible above the green stalks. The sweet smell of (illegally) burning cane rushed in through the car windows. It was the last weekend in October but the temperature was still in the eighties; my hair was knotted in a sweaty bun and my sunglasses slid down my nose.
Unlike the entrances to the other plantations on historic River Road, a stretch of road that snakes along the Mississippi through the river parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation does not have flags on telephone poles or billboards advertising the site. Instead, one white sign directs the slow stream of rental cars and the occasional tour bus to the museum. The most important sign is one not visible to incoming traffic, but to visitors leaving the parking lot: “Freedom. Education. Family. PASS IT ON.”
The Whitney Plantation is not your typical Deep South plantation. There were no wedding caterers unfolding chairs on a Saturday morning, no costumed guides drawling to tourists about how many brothers and sons were lost in “the War of Northern Aggression,” no overheated visitors sitting on rockers on a grand front porch, sipping gift shop lemonade. Visitors to the Whitney step into the Big House only at the end of the required 90-minute tour, and they enter through the back, as the house slaves did when they carried freshly cooked meals from the stand-alone kitchen into the family dining room, or at the end of a dawn-to-dusk day in the fields, when the master called a few slaves in to entertain guests with live music and dancing.
Instead of beginning the tour in front of imposing white columns at the head of the oak alley (the double rows of live oak trees that leads up to the entrance of a traditional plantation house), the Whitney tour begins outside the Antioch Baptist Church. The tour guide was a white woman in her sixties from New Orleans, and the tour group was racially mixed — tourists from as far away as the Netherlands, a pair of college students, a fellow New Orleans teacher. As the guide gave us a brief history of the plantation (a German farmer immigrating and buying the land in 1721, a family dispute, names changed to sound French, a daughter turning the place into a financial success), a woman in athletic clothing shrieked and danced around as a bee the size of a satsuma buzzed around her head. Our guide wrapped up the history and took us inside to watch a short documentary of the plantation.
In addition to the history of the plantation, the film delved into the background of the museum. It was established by John Cummings, a New Orleans lawyer who bought the plantation in order to make it the nation’s first museum of slavery. All of the testimonies that cover the memorials and walls come from the Federal Writers Project interviews conducted in the 1930s, of former slaves who were children at emancipation. Artist Woodrow Nash made bronze sculptures of some of these former slaves, a series called the “Children of Whitney.” Similar to the beginning of the tour at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, each visitor receives a card featuring a picture of one of the sculptures, and the child’s name. I found my sculpture standing against a pillar in the church. Propped against a window was a photograph of two little black boys sitting next to each other on a pew — one a “Children of Whitney” sculpture, the other a visitor, in a blue shirt and khakis, duck boots dangling halfway to the floor.
There are several memorials at the site. The Wall of Honor is a two-sided stone covered with black plaques showing the names of all 354 Whitney Plantation slaves: One side is for slaves born into captivity; and the other for those brought from Africa in chains. The names of all the 107,000 enslaved people of Louisiana appear on black stone plaques spaced out over part of a field. The Field of Angels is a memorial dedicated to the infants and children who died in St. James the Baptist parish between 1823 and 1863. As I scrolled through hundreds of names, I noticed a jarring difference between these memorials and the ones I was used to — the lack of identifying information. There were no last names, no birth dates, birthplaces, nicknames. Both systems — the Nazis’ numbering and meticulous lists, and the slave owners’ disregard for their property’s identities — dehumanized their victims, albeit in completely different ways. I found half a dozen Sophies in the memorial to the enslaved people of Louisiana.
The guide mentioned that there are plans to open new exhibits. As we walked to the Field of Angels, she gestured to a series of bronze heads on metal sticks, mostly hidden by bushes. She explained that when slaves escaped and were caught, they were killed and their heads were stuck on pikes, to scare other slaves from trying to do the same. The exhibit of the bronzed heads proved too scary for children visiting the museum, so they are deciding how to modify the sculptures and exhibit them at a later date. When she talked about both full-scale slave revolts and small acts of revolt (such as sabotaging crops or stealing scraps), I was reminded of the Holocaust scholarship that focuses on acts of Jewish revolt.
In its tour of the plantation’s renovated buildings, the Whitney focuses not on the Big House, but on the outbuildings: The slave quarters; a holding pen used at the slave markets in New Orleans; and the small buildings in which sugar was processed. There is no focus on the grandeur of the house and the family. Our guide pointed out how flimsy the white wooden columns were, and how the siding of the house was cypress wood painted to look like marble. The houses on River Road differ greatly in size and style (from more modest Creole cottage-style plantation homes like this one to the white monoliths of the “Gone With the Wind” variety), but I got the feeling that even if the Whitney house had been more imposing, it would not have been the focus.
The Children of Whitney are placed throughout the plantation — sitting on the porch of a slave cabin — or, in the most gut-wrenching exhibition, in the master bedroom, at the foot of the bed. A slave woman named Ana was raped by her master and gave birth to a girl, the subject of the sculpture. This was one of the very last stops, before the guide took us out to the oak alley that led to the Mississippi.
As I walked through the house and read names on the plaques, I wondered what it would be like to visit this house if my own ancestors had been enslaved here. I thought about how connected to my family history I felt, and how strongly I sensed the resilience of the Jewish people, my people, as I crossed the train tracks at Birkenau. There is a huge population of Americans that can feel that sense of history by visiting the Whitney, and a need for more museums and sites like it to acknowledge and memorialize those enslaved people who were worked to their deaths or killed or raped there. There is no visible landmark where the largest slave market in the country once stood, in the middle of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
And as important as it is for black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved to be able to see this history acknowledged, these names recorded, it is imperative that white Americans like myself see these atrocities for what they were. I’ve lost track of how many non-Jewish visitors to Auschwitz have told me how moved they were and how much they learned from seeing the site in person. We need to start figuring out how to talk about and deal with our history of slavery, and our first step as white Americans is to educate ourselves. I am not absolved from my identity as a white American by being Jewish or liberal or by teaching at a high-need, mostly black school. I am still part of systemic racism and need to be able to admit that.
The Whitney Plantation challenges the outdated notion that the Old South is something to be romanticized or that the dark parts of our nation’s history can be erased. Its message on River Road is more than a step in the right direction; it’s long past due. The Nazis and defenders of slavery justified their actions by convincing themselves and their contemporaries that Jews and blacks, respectively, were less than human. Auschwitz and the Whitney Plantation not only tell victims’ stories so that they are never forgotten, but they show us what we are capable of.
Sophia Marie Unterman is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.
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