It was the end of our 4th week in NOLA. 7:45 a.m. The other Duke students and I sleepily boarded onto the van that would take us on our longest weekend expedition to three of Louisiana’s many plantations: Whitney, Oak Alley, and Laura. These three locations, each offering a different lens on the history of slavery and the sugar industry, ended up teaching me more than just Louisiana’s past. It quickly became clear that what happened on those plantations still linger in the New Orleans culture that we’re experiencing every day, whether we knew it or not.
The first site we visited was Whitney Plantation. Out of the three, this plantation tour focused the most on the lives of the enslaved individuals rather than the plantation owners. As the tour guide led us around the property – passing small wooden buildings where they lived and worked, monuments honoring them, and artifacts of the torment that took place there – she talked about what life on the plantation was like. She pointed out the sharpness of the sugarcane leaves that could slice through human skin like a blade and the grueling process of heating and stirring required to make the plantation’s sweet “white gold”. She explained the origination of iconic New Orleans dishes like red beans and rice, gumbo, and jambalaya from the limited sources of protein and questionable edibility of the ingredients given to the enslaved. She described the frightening consequences of disobedience and the horrifying tactics used to discourage rebellion. Walking through the plantation’s lush grounds, filled with flowers and trees with dragonflies flying around us, it became alarming to me how a place with such a dark past could look so beautiful. Just as I was about to take a picture of some of the plantation’s live oaks, the tour guide warned us that before we commented on how beautiful these trees are, we needed to understand that these trees meant something very different to the enslaved people at Whitney and other sites. The live oak was a common tree used for lynching. It was a cautionary symbol meant to induce fear, a reminder of the lethal fate that could await them. The trees suddenly didn’t look so beautiful anymore.
The next stop was Oak Alley Plantation. Here, we saw the other side of life on the plantation in a tour of the Big House, the mansion occupied by the family owning the property. Each room was lavishly decorated, reflecting the wealth that the sugar industry brought to the plantation owners. Again, everything was beautiful, both the Big House and the grounds surrounding it. From the balcony, we had a clear view of the road leading up to the mansion lined by oak trees on either side. I don’t remember this tour mentioning what those trees meant. After reentering the house, the tour guide pointed out a patch of wall with the outer layer removed, revealing the bricks painstakingly constructed by the enslaved workers of the plantation, a reminder that the mansion was built upon their suffering. I admit that the place looked amazing, but the fact that people use this location for weddings made me incredibly uncomfortable. Even though the Big House tour did incorporate the role slavery played on the plantation, this was the tour that focused on the horrors of slavery the least. I later learned that not too long ago, the slave houses they now had on the site weren’t there at all.
The last place we toured was Laura Plantation. Unlike the last two, this site was owned by a Creole family, which means they were born in Louisiana, practiced Roman Catholicism, and spoke French. Before Louisiana became part of the United States, the Creole culture dominated this region with influences from multiple cultural and ethnic groups, and Laura proudly showcases the distinct signs of a Creole household in the plantation owners’ lives. The manor house is painted with vivid shades of red, green, and yellow. As we walked through the rooms and listened to the stories of generations of family members, it was clear that being loyal to the Creole identity was crucial, even to the point of hiding romantic relationships with someone not Roman Catholic or prohibiting an education of the English language. Beyond the Creole culture, the family’s internal conflicts with wealth, social status, and ownership provided an understanding of the motives behind the use of slavery. After leaving the manor, the tour shifted its focus to the enslaved as the tour guide showed us a document listing several of the individuals with their monetary worth and comments on their abilities. The plantation owners’ wealth was in human lives. How many they could sell. How many they could use. How many they could spare. Given the horrific living and working conditions, it was clear they could afford to lose some. Many of the enslaved workers on this plantation were originally trained to pick cotton, so when they had to transition to producing sugar, the tour guide explained that most of the learning was through trial and error, and the hazardous conditions of harvesting and processing sugar cane made many errors potentially fatal. The tour guide then led us into one of the houses in the slave quarters. Like those at other plantations, the houses had two sections, each one used to house one family, no matter how many members there were. Even after the people working on the plantation were no longer enslaved, some families still continued to live in these dreadful conditions in the quarters up until the 1970s. While slavery can sometimes feel like an ancient relic left behind in the past, its shadow remained on this plantation for about 100 years after the Civil War and its effects still persist in Louisiana today.
Despite the plantations’ historical perspective, I found that the tours taught me more about present-day Louisiana than I expected them to. They showed me the importance of context. The rich culture of NOLA, like the foliage-covered boughs of those beautiful oak trees, is often rooted in the enslaved’s determination to survive despite the oppression of slavery. It shocked me that it took me this long to learn that many New Orleans customs introduced to me, like eating red beans and rice on Mondays or the continued tradition of drumming, could be traced back to these plantations. It worries me that like the oak trees or the mansions, people could be mesmerized by the beauty of New Orleans’ vibrant culture without knowing the context behind it. But slavery has also not surprisingly left negative impacts on the city as well. The generations of cruelty and discrimination has left New Orleans with a predominantly African American lower class, despite the fact that before American involvement, financial status was what determined someone’s perceived value rather than race. It’s now clear to me that we can’t fully appreciate this city’s culture or study its current problems unless we study their origins. How that history is preserved and presented to people can greatly influence how we perceive New Orleans now, and I hope that as I continue to learn more in my next three weeks here, I can strive to understand my new discoveries down to their roots.