As we enter our last week of DukeEngage-New Orleans, I find myself reflecting on all the experiences I’ve had with the amazing people in my program, as well as the excursions our program coordinators have organized for us. For me, the three plantation tours we took were especially impactful, and I found myself thinking about those, as well as our dinner with Covenant House’s founder Jim Kelly, again and again. I feel that, while at New Orleans, it is important to appreciate the rich culture but to remember the difficulties that are interwoven in the city’s detailed narrative.
When we got to Oak Alley I was immediately struck by the idyllic beauty of the light streaming through the oak trees. After getting breakfast at the café and deli located near the front entrance, we walked down one of the long wide paths towards the Gone with the Wind-esque main house where we were then led on a tour that snaked throughout the two floors of the building. Between the tour guide’s many “y’alls” and sweeping gestures that accompanied her period dress, I couldn’t help but wait expectantly for a mention of the slavery that built the plantations from each clay brick to each wooden panel installed in the building. My waiting was not in vain as it may have been in past iterations of the tour (as Dr. Burns would later remark on her surprise at hearing the tour talk about slavery at all), our tour guide pointed us to some small cabins that served as Oak Alley’s dedicated exhibit addressing slavery. To me, Oak Alley’s muted discussion of its history of slavery was much like their policy against tourists ringing the solid iron bell on the property because if it were rung, it could be heard for miles. You wouldn’t have to look at the slavery exhibit specifically for signs of slavery’s presence on the plantation — it built the very porches and balconies that we stood on while admiring the gnarled oak trees.
After the tour of Oak Alley concluded, we headed to Laura, a Creole-owned plantation, that was a short bus ride away. At the very beginning of the tour while we were admiring the colorful exterior of the Laura plantation house, our tour guide remarked that the bell on this plantation had a wasp nest embedded in it so it couldn’t be rung. Much like Oak Alley’s policy against ringing the large iron bell, this inopportune insect infestation served as a foil for how Laura addressed slavery. After learning the complicated family dynamics of the individuals who ran Laura, we learned of the purchasing, selling, and family history of the slaves that harvested the sugar cane after the plantation. Much like the wasp nest inside the bell, the suffering of Laura plantation’s slaves was prominent and auspicious.
As rain clouds began to proliferate on the horizons, we headed to our last tour at the Whitney plantation which focused exclusively on slavery. Our tour guide painted a detailed picture of the lives of slaves on the Whitney and the cruelties they faced in daily work conditions, from how they initially arrived at the plantation from more northern states to how resistance in the form of running away was punished. As we rounded the solemn Wall of Honor where the names of those enslaved at the Whitney are inscribed and the rain began to pick up, I noticed other tourists ringing the bell on the Whitney plantation with an almost reckless zeal. While listening to our tour guide, I couldn’t help but think that allowing guests to freely ring the iron bell served as a metaphor for the mission and powerful message of the Whitney plantation tour. Of all three tours, the Whitney completely focused on the lives of slaves owned by the Haydel family and helped honor the lives of those who lived and died in the brutal conditions on the Whitney plantation (and by extension, other slaves on different plantations along the Mississippi River).
I mentioned at the very beginning of my blog post that I also reflected upon Jim Kelly’s words while touring Oak Alley, Laura, and Whitney. As with all the social issues we as a DukeEngage group have discussed in New Orleans, it is our duty as young individuals given the extraordinary opportunity to come to New Orleans and work for eight weeks to continue to the dialogue on issues such as homelessness, human trafficking as described by Jim Kelly and the history and modern-day impacts of slavery as illustrated in the three plantation tours. For me specifically, I know I will also find ways to discuss the stigma and challenges of HIV/AIDS testing and care for at-risk populations that I have been exposed to as one of the interns working at CrescentCare this summer. My time in New Orleans through DukeEngage has been extraordinarily eye-opening and I know that I’ll always remember my experience of the vibrancy of this city’s culture and its profound history.