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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

"America got its wealth on the backs of slaves," said my tour guide, T-Chae.

We stood before the black granite "Wall of Honor" inscribed with the names of people enslaved on the plantation.

Susana, Jasmin, Samba, Auguste: the wall lists 101 Africans and 253 men and women who were bought on the domestic slave market after international trade was halted in 1808. Engraved among the names are images of a slave market, a man's back crisscrossed with scars, and harrowing snatches of slaves' stories. A sister was taken many nights to the Big House by her master. An illiterate man would have received 25 lashes had he been found with paper and pencil.

At another stop, the Antioch Baptist Church, sculptures of children scattered among pews give form to the enslaved. Each of the realistic clay works represents a slave depicted on an entry ticket. The church, which was given to the museum by a nearby congregation, had been built by freed slaves who in 1868 started the Anti-yoke Society, from which the name is derived.

At a small plot of sugar cane planted on the grounds, T-Chae explained how slaves were forced into the fields before the sun rose, brandishing machetes to cut down the thick stocks -- and occasionally slicing a leg, instead. She told us how slaves inside the sugar mill stoked fires to boil the cane in large pots, which sometimes spilled thick, scorching liquid onto anyone around. Kettles are lined up in front of a collection of cypress-wood slave cabins.

I entered one of those cabins, dark even in the daylight. During the time of slavery, a dozen or more people would be squeezed into it for rest. With few windows and no insulation, the shack would have been sweltering in summer and frigid on winter nights. As for privacy, that was a luxury slaves didn't know.

Nearby stood a jail for runaways. I stepped inside a small steel cage, felt the force of the summer's heat intensified by metal, and quickly backed out.

At the end of the tour, we were invited to a memorial so grim, it was tucked away; visitors could choose to see the brutal visual, or not. Four rows of clay-sculpture heads on stakes rise before a white picket fence. They are a reminder of the largest slave revolt in the U.S., when 500 enslaved men rose up in 1811, damaged property and killed two white men before they were met by overpowering force. Dozens of the men were beheaded. Their bloodied remains were planted along River Road and in New Orleans' Jackson Square, a warning for all to see.

T-Chae told us about the plantation's history. In 1752, German immigrant Ambroise Heidel purchased the land that would become Whitney Plantation and began growing indigo. His son expanded and transitioned to sugar. Two generations later, by the mid-1800s, more than 100 slaves churned out 407,000 pounds of sugar in one season.

After the Civil War -- when freedom for blacks looked like another form of bondage, sharecropping -- the land passed through many owners, including a New Yorker, who gave the place its current name, and a chemical company with designs to build a rayon factory. When that effort became mired by opposition, white New Orleanian John Cummings bought the 250-acre plantation in 1999. Slowly, as he wiped off the property's cobwebs, he came to understand the depth of the horror and the trading of human life that had animated the place for more than 100 years. Cummings has spent more than $8 million of his own funds creating a plantation museum focused on slavery. The doors opened in 2014.

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