Whitney Plantation resides on the River Road about one hours drive from New Orleans. A recent visit there provided much enlightening information about the slave trade, crops grown near New Orleans, and the history of this area. Tours can be scheduled all days of the week except Tuesday. It is unique in that many different types of plantation buildings still exist there, including old slave cabins, a foundry, and the outside kitchen.
A German immigrant started the plantation in the late 1700s. At Habitation Haydel, its original name, he grew indigo. After his death, his youngest son converted the main crop grown to sugar cane, which is still grown there today. Both indigo and sugar cane required intensive labor for profitability.
Although, according to population data, only ten blacks lived in Louisiana in 1712, by the end of the century slavery was the main source of labor. In 1795, there were 19,926 slaves in Louisiana. Under Spanish rule the slave population steadily increased. Although many were imported from Haiti, those from Africa came from what are now the countries of Senegal, Bissau, and Guinea. After the initial importation of slaves, the United States imported few compared to islands in the West Indies and Latin America, e.g. Brazil. The preferred method in the United States to obtain slaves was breeding. Women and men were forced to breed. Their owners specifically chose certain people to produce certain types of progeny just like in breeding livestock. One woman complained of having 16 children by 16 different men.
After leaving the visitor center, the first building on the tour is the church. Inside the church are statues of various children who were the products of the breeding program at the plantation.
The artist created these statues from specific information about the children. The plantation owners maintained detailed inventories of all slaves and their value. This particular plantation often owned as many as 100 slaves.
From this inventory a memorial has been created with the names of the slaves. Included are various statements made by the slaves themselves as recorded in slave narratives.
The above tells the story of a child fathered by his owner and one of the slave women and how his father treated him.
Even pregnant women could not escape beatings.
Because the area around New Orleans receives 60 inches of rain a year, the landscape everywhere is lush. This is one of several pools at the plantation.
These containers cooked the sugar cane. Starting with the largest, the cane was boiled repeatedly until it cooked down and poured into increasingly smaller containers. This was especially dangerous work due to the fires, the heat, and the boiling sugar cane. Sugar cane production was much more dangerous than cotton which was grown farther north in Louisiana. The cane itself was cut with large machetes and the edges of the cane are also sharp. Many people were severely injured. The life expectancy of a sugar cane slave who worked in the fields or cooking the cane was approximately ten years from the time he or she went to work, often as young as ten. Although field slaves had a much harder life in terms of labor, they had less exposure to their owners and their families and therefore, in some ways, more freedom to talk and interact. House slaves were constantly watched and the women especially subject to sexual abuse.
Slave cabins like this one contained four rooms. Like the main plantation house, most buildings were built off the ground. No levees existed then and the largest plantations were often built within sight of the Mississippi River and thus prone to flooding.
This building housed the foundry. Skilled slaves, like blacksmiths, were very valuable and received better treatment, e.g. enough food. When the movie, “Django Unchained” was filmed, part of the movie was filmed here because the adjoining plantation did not have a blacksmith shop. The branding portion was filmed at Whitney Plantation.
The walkway, looking from the front of the main plantation house, is lined with giant oak trees. Before the levees were built, the Mississippi River could be seen from the house.
Originally, there was no first floor due to the flooding. Later, after it will built and used for dining, an office, and a living area, whenever the floods came, the slaves were required to carry everything to the second floor until the water subsided. Then they would clean the first floor of mud and debris and return the furniture there. Whitney Plantation possesses some unique characteristics, e.g. finely painted European style ceilings.
Cooking was not done inside the main house at any of the plantations due to the heat and fire danger. The cook, another skilled and valuable slave, was required to know how to cook various popular cuisines typical of the area, e.g. creole, European–French, Spanish.
The various ferns and mosses growing from the limb of this large oak trees demonstrates the lushness and humidity typical of this area and why it is still used for sugar cane production.
A short distance down the road is Evergreen Plantation where the main portion of “Django Unchained” was filmed. It, too, still produces sugar cane and a family lives here. Tours are available as well.