It’s 2018. I’m fairly confident in my idea that people aren’t as ignorant to the idea of Slavery and its existence shaping our modern society. I’m equally confident that all of the education we had on the topic was fairly censored and that we have since dismissed it, until things “get real.”
I was so humbled by my time in New Orleans and surrounding areas of Louisiana. California has a funny way of making me forget that my roots go so much deeper than even the Pacific Ocean, which I luckily live 15 minutes away from.
My dad is the youngest of 9, with his family originally being from Alabama. Our family name is Holtz, which is of German origin, so surely or ancestors can be traced back to some of those ships full of commodities (or you know, people) brought over here to be bred and worked.
And yet, I live a privileged life that allows me to forget that part of where I come from more often that I care to admit.
This trip brought us to three plantations in Louisiana, all very different from each other, but each an eerily quiet reminder that it wasn’t really so long ago that our nation became as diverse as it is. We aren’t even that old, in comparison to most nations, in fact. Freedom is a thing that I never had to purchase, or fight for, or run away to.
But these vast plots of land, full of sugarcane fields and grand estates, tell a story of those who looked like me, and the origin of the people I love, and all they endured. These stories are all a part of our stories, and that is pretty powerful.
Oak Alley Plantation
Just as it says, Oak Alley has a beautiful walkway to the front of the main house, lined with massive oak trees. It’s sprawling grounds hold many recreations and restorations of Slave Quarters, gardens, and a most impeccably cared for home.
In fact, most of the tour was centered around the house and various facets of the family that built it, and the generations and purchasers thereafter.
The house itself serves as a museum of sorts, but along the tour there are rooms in the house that serve specifically as exhibits with artifacts from before and after the Civil War, and even artifacts from the last owner in the very bedroom she last slept in.
Oak Alley is unique in that they have cottages on-site available for overnight stays, and a restaurant as well! And the buttermilk pie at this restaurant is a must! They have a gift shop that does fresh-made pralines and houses a host of Southern delights (like Alligator heads and Pralines and Cream liquer)!
One of the best parts of this visit was attending one of their 15 minute “Conversation” sessions by the slave quarters on the property. Charlotte, one of the employees, summed up a “Day in the Life” for 3 slaves in various occupations on the plantation in front of these structures, and her presentation was moving and kept us rapturously engaged. After the topic not being touched on much in the tour of the main house, this was a redemption song…and a darn good one, at that!
I loved the eclectic look of Laura Plantation, and how you can see the original Creole influence in the bright colors and design of the house! Also, they created a museum across a little bridge from the gift shop that has a lot of original letters, artifacts and photos of enslaved people.
Excerpts of their stories and photographs are them are matted and framed all over the walls, as recalled by the 4th generation of the women that ran this place.
For all of it’s turmoil in its’ history, what’s really cool about Laura Plantation, is that when the first owner passed away suddenly, his wife ran the place and made it one of the biggest in the area. She was even smart enough to make it a corporation before passing it along to her children and retiring on the same land in a new home she built herself there, and she died there during the Civil War after refusing to flee with her family. It’s currently in a dilapidated state, and restorations are estimated to be about $2 million!
Even after the Civil War, slaves here continued to work as “paid” laborers with the form of payment being “Company Store” credit, further proving even after a war, shrewd business women make things happen.
Three more generations of women after her kept killing the game, until well after the Civil War. Now, its a memory of those days, and I loved that our enchanting guide, Rose, made sure to focus on some of the lives of the slaves at this plantation, too!
Rose moves as quickly as she talks, but her love for the history of this house and property are evident in the way she tells the stories of these incredible women keeping this place running over 4 generations, and even moreso when she shared stories about the slaves on the property and anecdotes from Laura, the last owner of the family.
It was a super informative tour, with a lot of cool tidbits of history-like learning about a FREE Black man who designed and built the foundation of this house along side enslaved people, making it the long-lasting structure across from the river that it continues to be!
I can’t say enough about Whitney. It truly touched my heart and spirit being there.
Maybe it was because the tour started in an original Antioch Church building that was brought to the property?
Maybe it was being surrounded by these beautiful sculptures commissioned to commemorate the children that grew up on this plantation, and many others?
Or the writer in me that was fascinated to learn that all of the stories and the people honored at this plantation are a direct result of FDR commissioning the Federal Writers Project after The Great Depression. These writers took it upon themselves to document the stories of the formerly enslaved people, and excerpts of those stories are engraved in memorials around the property. It’s haunting and moving to walk along and read the names and origins of these people, and to see the juxtaposition of their stories…some whose Masters were kind and others who lived in fear on a daily basis.
I had to ask myself, “Would I be so casual about not praying daily if I were in a situation where praying would literally mean risking my life?” You bet your butt I prayed a little longer, a little harder, and with more intention that evening.
A lot of the classic dishes New Orleans is known for actually have African origins, and we learned a lot about how foods like Okra were considered sacred, sweet potatoes were originally imported here by slaves, and the meals we enjoy like Jambalaya and Gumbo were a product of making due with rations from the “Big House,” and veggies enslaved people grew independently. Giant sugar kettles are everywhere….a reminder of the primary crop-sugarcane-that fueled a lot of the business in this area.
Whitney still has two original slave cabins, and it was surreal to imagine your whole entire life and family being confined to one (maybe two, if you’re “lucky”) rooms.
We went through a part of the property with a swamp and learned that slaves would immerse themselves in the water before attempting to escape the plantation in an effort to mask their scent from the dogs, and how you could tell someone had tried to escape by markings like brands on their faces or notches taken out of their ears.
It was all very sad, very haunting and yet, it felt like one of the most important experiences I’ll ever have in my life. In fact, I plan to take my future children back someday so they can have the same experience much sooner than we did, and hopefully an even bigger appreciation for this life we live than we have.
It was tremendously moving, and although it was certainly not a travel experience of the luxury or adventure variety, I would still encourage any and everyone to take it upon themselves to explore these, and other plantation tours in the Louisiana area!
Also, a really cool thing about this tour? Our tour guide is a descendant of two of the slaves documented to have lived on this plantation; slaves that were actually fathered by a son of one of the original owners! It’s roots run deep, and it’s pretty beautiful to see her now helping to preserve this history and focus the narrative on a different side of it.
Have you made it to any of the original plantation sites in America? What was your experience? If not, do you plan to go? Sound off in the comments!