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Whitney Plantation, Near New Orleans, immerses visitors in the lives of slaves

Kerri Westenberg, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Travel News

The highway crossed over the Mississippi River and sliced through flat farmland just west of New Orleans. Smokestacks billowed plumes in the distance. One road sign announced a chemical plant. Another warned of a nearby prison. "Do not pick up hitchhikers," it said.

After turning onto River Road, I passed faded clapboard houses and a ramshackle grocery store, where a trio of men sat in the sweltering shade of the sagging front porch.

It was July 3, and on the radio, WWOZ played Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner." Host Andrew Grafe implored his listeners, "What does it mean to be free? I want you all to think about that."

Freedom was already on my mind.

I was on my way to Whitney Plantation, a museum in Wallace, La., that is unlike any other between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The onetime sugar operation where hundreds of slaves toiled for more than a century was transformed for an uncommon mission: to immerse visitors in the harsh, everyday lives of the enslaved.

In creating the museum, more attention went to making monuments and restoring buildings such as a jail for runaways and a blacksmith shop as fixing up the site's Creole mansion. Sprawling oaks dangling Spanish moss line a walkway that leads to the house's main entrance -- like at other nearby plantations -- but here, visitors enter from the back, the way enslaved cooks once did. No one in a hoop skirt talks brightly about "the servants" during a tour of Whitney Plantation.

Louisiana's heavy summer heat simmered when I parked my car. The dashboard thermometer registered an outside temperature of 101 at 2:50 p.m.

"I was twelve year old when freedom come," the story on my entry ticket began. Inside the visitors center waiting for my guided tour, I was already delving into the world of the enslaved. The ticket bore the name of Pauline Johnson, and included a memory she shared with the Federal Writers' Project in the late 1930s, when she was "about 93."

"Us daddy he work de ground he own on Sunday and sold the things to buy us shoes to put on us feet and clothes. The white folks didn't give us clothes." Just before freedom came, her father fell sick and died.

When our guide called for the 3 p.m. tour, a collection of 25 people -- a nearly even mix of blacks and whites -- gathered in hushed respect, tinged with unease. Many of us were unsure what we would see, and how it would make us feel.

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