The sweltering Louisiana countryside north of New Orleans is full of fields of sugarcane, a crop with long, slender leaves so razor-sharp they will slice the skin on your bare arms into ribbons if you walk past them uncovered. If you get too close to a sugarcane field’s edge, you may be stung by fire ants or wasps; if you wade into its depths, you risk being bitten by snakes or eaten by alligators.
These fields, worked by enslaved black people until 1865 (and worked by black people for decades after emancipation under various forms of duress) are anchored with the kind of Big House most Americans might associate with Gone With the Wind or Django Unchained. Many of these plantation houses have become bed-and-breakfasts — luxury tourist destinations that routinely serve as wedding venues, where women in white dresses walk down the aisle in a place with few, if any, nods to the enslaved black people who worked the ground on which they’re getting married.
There is one exception to this erasure of slavery: the Whitney Plantation Museum. Sitting on a tract of land abutting the Mississippi River, the Whitney, which was purchased in 1752 by German immigrant Ambroise Heidel, is the only Louisiana plantation that functions solely as a museum of slavery. A guided walking tour lasts for 90 minutes — and you can walk around for longer on your own, if you can stand the humidity. The Whitney gives visitors the opportunity to learn how the modern American economy — not just the “Old South” — was built by the pornographic, inhumane, and (for owners of enslaved people, like Heidel, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert E. Lee) lucrative enslavement of black people.
I had wanted to visit the Whitney since it opened in 2015. But I didn’t get the chance to do so until Thursday, August 11. I had planned to use the visit as a way to work through the conflict I had been feeling about the kind of education depicting enslavement in film and on TV can provide versus the harm it can create. Specifically, I wanted to consider the controversy surrounding HBO’s planned Confederate series, in which the producers of Game of Thrones imagine an alternative United States history where the Confederacy won the war. I was disturbed that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, the shows’ producers would choose to create “a world where the dreams of Harriet Tubman were destroyed by the ambitions of Robert E. Lee.” I had hoped to consider a few primary questions while I visited the Whitney: Is America knowledgeable enough about the real history of slavery to think about a show that fictionalized it, and presumably inverted it, every week? Or would we be better off rejecting it completely and saying #NoConfederate? But as I left, the museum's relationship to what was about to play out on our streets in the following days suddenly felt more urgent than any Civil War depiction onscreen.
The first stop at the Whitney is the modest Antioch Baptist Church, which was founded nearby as a burial society right after emancipation (and only recently relocated to the grounds). Without “proper” Christian burials, enslaved people were buried far in the woods, slipped into the swamps, or burned in piles. Inside the church are statues of children by the artist Woodrow Nash, which also populate the grounds. The Whitney centers the point of view of children because when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) collected oral histories of slavery during the Great Depression, those who were still alive had all been children at the time of emancipation. (This made me think of Thomas Thrasher, my dad’s grandfather, who was 5 when he was emancipated — which he told my father directly.)
From the moment we reached the Wall of Honor, the first outdoor stop on the tour, I was already sweating through my linen shirt. The wall recognizes 354 people who were enslaved at the Whitney alongside their stories from the WPA (there were many more, but the museum only has records for these). On one side of the wall are the names of people who would have lived and worked when indigo plants were grown on the plantation during “saltwater slavery,” before the importation of enslaved people ended in 1808. On the other side are the names of those who worked sugarcane during the domestic slave trade — a time when 1 million enslaved people were bred and sold within the US, often on plantations like the Whitney, before being sold at auction in New Orleans and sent up the Mississippi River.
There was scant information about these 354 people, and many had just a single name with a year of birth. “Samba” might be listed as being from Senegambia; “Paul” might be listed as having “no country.” I was particularly drawn to a longer story of “Julia” (who was not at the Whitney), who had given birth to 15 children by 15 different fathers. Black women were systematically raped by their owners, either by the owner himself or by way of whatever black “buck” was forced to impregnate her.
While I’ve long considered what the rape of women like Sally Hemings was like, I hadn’t, oddly, considered what this was like for black men. A “buck,” bred to have certain characteristics, was “used as a stud” as a bull would be with cows; he might be forced to impregnate women on the plantation where he lived or maybe sent to spread his seed at another plantation. For his semen, a buck’s master would be paid handsomely by other plantation owners who did not own as desirable or potent a stud.
I was thinking about this when I came across the name of an enslaved man named “Achilles,” born around 1797, who was from “Mandingo Nation” (which wasn’t a nation at all, but a reference to the Mandingo or Mandinka ethnic group of Western Africa, who populated a region in what is now part of Gambia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast). This made me see the origins of the oversexed black “Mandingo” figure anew — and made me think of Michael “Tiger Mandingo” Johnson, who is sitting in a jail cell near St. Louis, about 600 miles up the Mississippi River from the Whitney. Johnson was sentenced to 30 years in prison for transmitting HIV to a white sex partner (his conviction has been overturned, but he’s still in jail awaiting a new trial). But in many ways, Johnson is being prosecuted for inhabiting the very kind of sexual persona black American men were literally bred against their will to have. It has not been difficult for me to understand how enslaved women were raped, but hearing about the “stud” at the Whitney helped me put aside myths of black male lasciviousness to consider the horror of a black man being used as a coerced fertilizing animal.
Our next stop was a memorial garden with many more walls containing the names of some 107,000 enslaved people from the Louisiana Slave Database. Surrounded by palm trees, it is the element of the museum that is most reminiscent of the way names are often memorialized in monuments to soldiers of wars. There, our tour guide told us of the severe punishments for reading (at least 25 lashes with a whip and, possibly, amputation) and trying to escape (a first attempt meant being branded with a fleur-de-lis and having your ears clipped, a second meant having your hamstrings cut so you’d always limp in great pain, and a third meant death). We then passed through the Field of Angels, which commemorates the 2,200 enslaved children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish. The number comes from the Sacramental Records of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, as the Catholic Church forced all children to be baptized during that time. After being encouraged to find a child who shared my birthday, I found two, both born 130 years before me, in 1847: "Cecille," who lived to be 11, and "William," who died at 2.
But perhaps the most viscerally arresting part of the tour is the memorial to the 1811 German Coast uprising, which is depicted in an installation of dozens of life-sized black men’s heads on sticks, in front of sugarcane and a white picket fence. About 500 enslaved people, led by Charles Deslondes, rose up in several parishes, with plans to travel along the Mississippi until they got to New Orleans, where they would take the city and free the black people. They burned plantations along the way, picking up enslaved people and “maroons” (enslaved people who’d run away and were living in the swamp) en route. They never made it all the way to New Orleans, though; after being captured, they were killed — and their decapitated heads were put on sticks along the river to terrify anyone else thinking about revolting.
This was the most remarkable image for me — these heads on sticks — and I thought about how their violent warning, in 1811, would function like lynching postcards a century later, or like videos of black people killed by police who are never brought to account a century after that.
As we passed by the sugarcane — by now, my white shirt was so soaked — our guide explained how much worse the heat would have been for the enslaved, who’d work sunup to sundown in the summer and 16 hours a day in the winter. They were cutting sugarcane, burning it, and boiling it down — all while wearing heavy cotton clothes in the fields (so the sugarcane wouldn’t cut them) and facing off against snakes and alligators. She also mentioned that their outfits were often made in Pennsylvania; while the North may not have had slavery, cotton was picked by enslaved people in the South (including my own ancestors) and shipped to the North to make the clothes of the enslaved. This is just one example of how the whole country grew economically from slavery.
On our way to the Big House, we passed a metal cage where enslaved people would have been kept the night before an auction in New Orleans. There, they’d be better fed, fattened up, and slathered with butter to look like more appealing livestock; there, they’d also hope to not be separated from their family, though this was often in vain.
We then passed the oldest kitchen in Louisiana, before going into the Big House itself. Here, the guide told us how after emancipation, black people were kept trapped by the “Black Codes” (which restricted movement and self-sufficiency), were cheated by sharecropping, and were legally kept enslaved by incarceration through the 13th Amendment.
Other than having air conditioning, the Big House was unremarkable after what the tour guide had shown us — though its quiet, cool orderliness stood in stark comparison to the rest of the plantation. As I left, I felt dizzy and a bit like vomiting — not just from what I’d learned, but from the searing, damp heat and my drenched shirt. How did they do it? How did they thrash around in that heat, year in and out, generation in and out, poorly fed and whipped and in heavy cotton clothes?
I found myself thinking that everyone should go to the Whitney Plantation, yet knowing that very few ever will. I found myself reflecting, again, on Coates’s essay, and the fact that Americans have not rid ourselves of the Confederacy the way Germans were forced to de-Nazify themselves. “It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany,” Coates noted, but the “Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.” Building monuments to the Confederacy didn’t start in 1865. Like the expansion of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century, many monuments rose in the years after the release of the first major American blockbuster feature film, the original Birth of a Nation. (It was also the first film shown at the White House, and President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.)
I didn’t yet know that the depths of America's nostalgia for the Confederacy was about to have an immediate impact — or that it would become urgently lethal and explicitly supported by the president of the United States. Just a few hours after I left the Whitney, a mob of white supremacists gathered at the University of Virginia around a statue of Robert E. Lee, screaming, “White lives matter!”
And the next day, a white man, James Fields, was accused of running over at least 19 people, and charged with second-degree murder in the death of Heather Heyer.
Shortly after, President Trump blamed “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” for the violence. Two days later, Fox News and the Daily Caller removed a video from their websites showing protesters being run over by cars set to “Move Bitch, while President Trump — who’d since denounced white supremacists as if he was being forced — doubled down on his “many sides” argument.
In a press conference last Tuesday, Trump then went even further by defending the “very fine people” who were “there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee” and equating a leader in a war for secession to George Washington, who was also “a slave owner.”
Then, after a group of people took down took down a Confederate statue on video in Durham, North Carolina, some of them were arrested — even though none of the members of the white mob who beat a young black man with poles on video in Virginia have been arrested.
In the same week, on Fox News, Tucker Carlson was eager to make white Americans feel better by reminding them that many people from history have owned humans. Carlson conflated so many eras of enslavement, showing such a lack of knowledge about how multigenerational chattel slavery in America is different, that I feared the country absorbing this misinformation.
But it hardly mattered. In response to Confederate monuments coming down, both through official channels and by way of protesters simply removing them, the president of the United States wrote on Twitter, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” He was worried about “who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” and said “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
After the tour at the Whitney Plantation ended, my white shirt was so soaked with sweat that it was transparent. I was embarrassed by this, and embarrassed to be embarrassed about something so petty after I’d learned of such horrors.
I walked away from the Big House, but not up the avenue with its beautiful, ancient trees which created a canopy of shade to the outer road. Rather, I walked back towards the cabins where the enslaved people lived, stopping in one of the original structures, which now has two of Woodrow Nash’s statues of children on its porch. I thought about my great-grandfather, Thomas Thrasher, who might have been about the size of the kids depicted when he was emancipated. There, I remembered cartoons I've seen over the years of black children being used as “alligator bait," and I understood that they had their roots in the white gaze laughing at the idea of enslaved kids (or their parents) being eaten up, in fields just like these.
I stepped inside the cabin and saw the space where people like my ancestors would have slept. As hot as it was, I remembered the tour guide saying how it got below freezing in the winter, and I found myself wondering how cold it must have been for the cabin’s former inhabitants, sweaty after a hard day of work. I thought about Thomas Thrasher’s grandson — my own father, William Thrasher — and how he grew up sleeping with his brothers in an attic in Ohio after our family went north. Sometimes in the winters they'd wake up under snow that passed through the drafty roof.
The Whitney is the only monument to the Confederacy we should keep intact, because though it is a plantation, it’s been made to allow for a thoughtful reckoning of America’s past.
And even as I left it, I saw an America that — apart from its black citizens and a handful of activists — has not reckoned with its own history in any meaningful way. ●
Steven W. Thrasher was named Journalist of the Year 2012 by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and Newsweek.
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