As I mentioned last week, we visited the Whitney Plantation during our recent month-long road trip. This museum in southern Louisiana focuses extensively on the experience of enslaved people rather than glorifying the slave-owning “masters.” In this post, I want to share some of what our tour guide shared about the lay of the land—and the water—for the enslaved community at this one of over 46,300 US plantations that were in existence in 1860.
For starters, the land lay close to the Mississippi River. In fact, the slave owners’ plantation house, pictured above, was initially built on stilts because of the frequent flooding. Especially during hurricanes, countless enslaved people were washed away and drowned. The master’s response? Purchase a new batch of slaves. Truly, these enslaved people were seen as valuable but replaceable property, just as we would view a car or computer today.
Yet the master benefitted greatly from the wisdom which enslaved Africans brought from their native lands. Enslaved people built their own homes—and the master’s—using African architectural designs that increased airflow in muggy summers and storage solutions that kept foods cool. Africans knew how to cultivate rice much more efficiently than whites.
Our tour guide was a local young Black criminal justice student whose ancestors were enslaved in the area. She explained to our group of white visitors that being a house slave was not a preferential posting. While enslaved people working in the fields were subject to the harsh climate, they were out of sight of the plantation owners, which was a big advantage. People working in the house were subject to the constant oversight, capricious moods, and sexual predations of the owner and his family.
The land on this particular plantation, which was known as Habitation Haydel prior to the Civil War, initially grew indigo and cotton, but later transitioned to sugar cane. The plantation also grew a secondary crop: more slaves. Known as a “breeding plantation,” one of the Haydels’ goals was to increase the number of enslaved people who could be bought and sold across the South. (In the 1860 census, there were 4 million enslaved people of African descent living in the US.)
I’ll share more about what all this meant for the enslaved people themselves in next week’s post. Meanwhile, I invite you to reflect on what I shared above about the slavery experience and pray for the souls of all those who were sold or born into slavery in the American South.