Tell slavery’s violent story through its architecture

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Tell slavery's violent story through its architecture
The Whitney Plantation

Recently opened to the public, the Whitney Plantation is singularly intent on telling the history of slavery. A Creole-styled mansion erected in the late 18th century by a German immigrant family, Whitney is also on Plantation Alley’s River Road next to its more ornate Greek Revival neighbors Oak Alley and Houmas. The Whitney’s current owner, John Cummings, a white lawyer from New Orleans, and his team of researchers and historians masterminded the plantation’s unique curatorial direction.

They determined that the Whitney would not showcase the genteel antebellum plantation history that has been manufactured by the tourist industry to beguile the busloads that visit the region. This typical Southern fare was made mythical by Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” franchise: the long allée of oak trees, grand sweeping staircase, brilliant chandeliers, silk tufted furnishings, southern belles donning big hoop dresses, dashing confederate officers and dutiful slaves scurrying about to please massa and missus’ every whim. Under Cummings’ direction, the Whitney has honed its historical lens on a violent chapter of American history as told through human trafficking, rape and the endless toil of enslaved Africans.

During the mid-19th century the Whitney’s owners possessed more than 100 slaves who farmed the family’s fields and maintained its household. With the emancipation of slaves in 1863, the architectures of slavery — the slave cabins, markets, auction blocks and slave depots — were repurposed, torn down or left to rot. Instruments of coercion — shackles, branding irons, collars, tags and whips — were also discarded or left behind to rust in the barns.

To rebuild the history of slavery on the Whitney plantation, Cummings spent millions refurbishing it. He also moved slave cabins and outbuildings from other plantations onto the property to restore the full array of functions that had sustained its operations. The recreation of a working plantation is a unique effort to thrust the hidden and often unspoken activities that transpired in back of the big house into the spotlight of the tourists’ gaze. Rather than witness how wealthy Southerners lived among their sumptuous furnishings, visitors walk through the spaces in which the plantation’s enslaved workforce toiled to make that life of ease possible. Comparing the bare-floored slave cabin crowded with two families to the multi-bedroomed mansion becomes a lesson about how racial oppression produced stark inequalities. []

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