Lynden Steele / TNS / Zumapress

Tell slavery's violent story through its architecture

Slavery museums shouldn’t just memorialize. They should unearth painful history

April 6, 2015 2:00AM ET

“Local folks don’t want to talk — especially to us white folks,” the manager of Evergreen told me.

This was 12 years ago, while I was touring the large plantation as it was undergoing renovation along the famous Plantation Alley between the southern cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. Evergreen’s rows of cabins are one of the few intact slave quarters remaining in the United States.

My question had been, “Who lived here? Surely there must be local families who grew up around or near here?” I wondered whether local African-Americans who still worked some of the active sugarcane fields would have artifacts and family stories about slavery to share with curious visitors like me.

But the old wounds of slavery and Jim Crow segregation ran wide and deep like the nearby Mississippi River. Tongues tied by decades of racial discord, local folks still didn’t want to talk.

In this landscape of stately restored plantation homes, swathes of sugarcane fields lining the highways, oil refineries belching toxins into the air, water and ground and roughly 16 percent of the population living below the poverty line, how should the history of slavery be told? The recent opening of a slavery museum in Louisiana reminds us that memorializing the enslaved is not enough. It’s by illuminating architectures of violence that we can best speak truth to the brutal and dehumanizing conditions of slavery and its legacy in today’s rising inequalities.

Architectures of slavery

The Whitney Plantation in 2014.
Z28Scrambler / Wikipedia

Recently opened to the public, the Whitney Plantation is singularly intent on telling the history of slavery. A Creole-styled mansion erected in the late 18th century by a German immigrant family, Whitney is also on Plantation Alley’s River Road next to its more ornate Greek Revival neighbors Oak Alley and Houmas. The Whitney’s current owner, John Cummings, a white lawyer from New Orleans, and his team of researchers and historians masterminded the plantation’s unique curatorial direction.

They determined that the Whitney would not showcase the genteel antebellum plantation history that has been manufactured by the tourist industry to beguile the busloads that visit the region. This typical Southern fare was made mythical by Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” franchise: the long allée of oak trees, grand sweeping staircase, brilliant chandeliers, silk tufted furnishings, southern belles donning big hoop dresses, dashing confederate officers and dutiful slaves scurrying about to please massa and missus’ every whim. Under Cummings’ direction, the Whitney has honed its historical lens on a violent chapter of American history as told through human trafficking, rape and the endless toil of enslaved Africans.

During the mid-19th century the Whitney’s owners possessed more than 100 slaves who farmed the family’s fields and maintained its household. With the emancipation of slaves in 1863, the architectures of slavery — the slave cabins, markets, auction blocks and slave depots — were repurposed, torn down or left to rot. Instruments of coercion — shackles, branding irons, collars, tags and whips — were also discarded or left behind to rust in the barns.

In using figures of children to make a painful history accessible, the Whitney may obfuscate the dehumanizing conditions that plantation life entailed.

To rebuild the history of slavery on the Whitney plantation, Cummings spent millions refurbishing it. He also moved slave cabins and outbuildings from other plantations onto the property to restore the full array of functions that had sustained its operations. The recreation of a working plantation is a unique effort to thrust the hidden and often unspoken activities that transpired in back of the big house into the spotlight of the tourists’ gaze. Rather than witness how wealthy Southerners lived among their sumptuous furnishings, visitors walk through the spaces in which the plantation’s enslaved workforce toiled to make that life of ease possible. Comparing the bare-floored slave cabin crowded with two families to the multi-bedroomed mansion becomes a lesson about how racial oppression produced stark inequalities.

Remembering the enslaved

While it appears to be taking an important step to fill in the gaps in the histories of these plantations, the Whitney’s memorial strategy might still fall short, particularly in how they have chosen to remember the enslaved.

On the more successful side is the “Wall of Monuments,” whose plaques identify first names of enslaved men, women and children listed in the plantation’s ledgers, following a tradition of naming the dead starting with World War I memorials throughout the United States and Europe and utilized most famously in artist Maya Lin’s sublime gray stone Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

John Cummings amongst terracotta statues of slave children inside of a church at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, on Jan. 13.
Edmund Fountain / Reuters / Corbis

Another, less successful memorial scatters statues of enslaved children in the aisles and pulpit of an African-American church that has been moved onto the Whitney property. According to the cultural critic Marita Sturken, children or objects of childhood or kitsch (like teddy bears) are used as symbols of comfort and innocence at sites of violence and trauma such as the Oklahoma City National Memorial and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. As a mnemonic device, these representations of children reinforce American innocence and absolve the nation of responsibilities associated with acts of violence.

In using figures of children to attempt to make a painful history accessible, the Whitney may inadvertently initiate the opposite effect by obfuscating the brutal and dehumanizing conditions that plantation life entailed. This process of remembering is at the core of the gut-wrenching mental work that visitors must undertake to learn not only how slavery affected the lives of the enslaved, overseers and owners on the Whitney plantation, but also who benefited from the system of slavery — a vast national and international network that built the wealth of families, companies and institutions and was supported by an array of laws, economic institutions and everyday practices that took hundreds of years to take shape.

Modern-day legacy

The Whitney is not the first plantation to highlight African-American slave history in the region. The River Road African-American Museum opened in 1994 at its initial location on the Tezcuco Plantation before it moved to its current site in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, a town founded by free people of color in 1806. Organized by black Americans — siblings from the Hambrick family who grew up in nearby Gonzales — it was among the first to recognize that white-owned plantations had historically neglected the African and African-American legacy on this soil and sought to rectify that oversight.

But River Road currently faces financial shortfalls and does not yet have a permanent home for its growing collection of artifacts and artworks from rural families in plantation country. The challenge for African-Americans has always been that white Americans have controlled much of the land in the U.S. and thus American architectural heritage, history and preservation reflect those mainstream values.

Against this backdrop, it becomes all the more important that visitors to the Whitney and other such museums — beyond an appreciation of historic vistas — must also comprehend the legacy of slavery in the modern-day economic, social and political inequalities that make Louisiana’s African-American communities some of the poorest in the nation. Perhaps more open dialogues such as those initiated by the Whitney and River Road — along with the Smithsonian National African American Museum of History and Culture set to open soon in Washington D.C. — about this underrepresented chapter in American heritage will prompt locals in the parishes to tell their stories and share their histories.

Mabel O. Wilson is the author of “Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums.” She is a senior fellow at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies and a professor of architecture at Columbia University. She is currently writing a book on slavery and antebellum civic architecture in Washington D.C.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Race & Ethnicity

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter