Have you encountered the term “spaghetti lots” before? It’s a phrase I heard growing up in the North Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It doesn’t refer to an abundance of pasta, but to the shape of land plots along the Rio Grande River (shown above), which runs like a backbone down the center of the state.
A century ago, when a farmer would divide his land amongst his sons (and yes, this was almost always about males back then), he wouldn’t divide a square into four smaller squares. Instead, he would divide the land into four long strips. This allowed each plot to retain access to precious river water for irrigation. When those sons then divided their land amongst their heirs, the same process resulted in even thinner strips, each of which retained access to the river and its irrigation rights. Eventually, local landowner maps resembled strands of spaghetti—hence the name spaghetti lots.
So, why have I shared this bit of childhood trivia with you? It’s because that phrase immediately sprang to mind when I recently viewed a map of plantations along the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana during a visit to the Whitney Plantation. While I didn’t take a picture of that map, you can find one if you scroll down on this site, which is based on the historical map found here (which you can zoom in to see an amazing level of detail; I encourage you to do so).
The concept of spaghetti lots allowed literally thousands of powerful white people to grow cotton and sugarcane along the Mississippi River. (Did you know that white women made up 40 percent of slaveowners? That fact is new to me, but it makes sense that men would give their daughters slaves, which were more “portable” property—and thereby minimize the further division of spaghetti lots along the mighty Mississippi.)
Henry and I toured the Whitney Plantation because members of our antiracism discussion group visited and found the experience very impactful. Rather than glorifying the antebellum South, Whitney focuses exclusively on the experience of enslaved people. Each of those spaghetti lots was the enforced home for dozens of enslaved Africans and African Americans. In fact, we learned that many slaveowners didn’t even live on the plantations. They would dwell in the South’s celebrated cities (with their “modern” conveniences and access to arts, culture, and the halls of power) and come out to the plantation only to oversee the annual sugarcane harvest.
In my next few posts, I’ll share more about our visit and its impact on my understanding of the experience of enslaved people. Meanwhile, I invite you to consider what life would be like for the people who were forced to work in the fields in the sweltering summer heat. Please also pray for the souls of every person who died while enslaved on each skinny plot.