“Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on that can tell you what slavery is – ‘tis he who has endured.” – John Little, fugitive slave, 1855
After touring Whitney Plantation, I met with Ashley Rogers. As I approached, Ashley was discussing research of a former slave with another staffer. “We’ve documented that Lucinda Williams had fifteen children by fifteen different men in fifteen years. Apparently, she was hardy and fertile and each year the overseer would pair her with the strongest man in his stock.”
As Director of Operations Ashley oversees daily business, yet she is deep into Whitney’s research as well. Ashley grew up in a family of museum curators, pursued history and museum studies in college, and was assistant director of a small house museum in Colorado when she learned about Whitney Plantation. She knew where she needed to be. “I read my first slave narrative of my own volition at age 10. I found this position open and just came down.” She started working in September of 2014; the museum opened three months later.
“We are the only plantation museum in Louisiana the deals directly with slavery; one of a handful of sites that deal with ‘difficult history.’ Plantation house tours have existed for 40 years; all the others focus on the lives of the masters. We are turning that upside down. A lot of people come here and do another tour: Oak Alley or Laura. I think it’s beneficial for people to see the differences in interpretation.
“Slavery is something that a great number of people have only a fuzzy understanding about. Some guests ask us what created slavery. Others ask how plantations came into existence.” But the story doesn’t have a simple narrative sealed in the past. “12.5 million people were taken from their homes in Africa. After 1807, the international slave trade was abolished. This prompted an increase in domestic slave sales. More slaves were moved to the south where there was greater need.” Ashley and her staff have firm documentation of 354 people who lived at Whitney Plantation, though since the plantation operated with 250 to 300 slaves at any time, the total number must be higher.
During the Civil War, slaves remained at Whitney on their own accord; no one was running the plantation yet there was no place for them to go. The effects of slavery lasted beyond the war, to this day. “Slavery is not as far away as we like to think. There are people walking all around us who have been touched by slavery. We have a local matriarch whose father was a slave.
“Our schooling is that there was slavery and then there wasn’t; there was Civil Rights and then there were no new wants. The descendants of the African Diaspora are still here. Many are still shortchanged as citizens.
“There is a rich history in 20th-century sugar labor; people who worked this area until a few years ago. Anyone who lived on the margins of society worked here.” Ashley has found records of African-American, Hispanic, and illegal immigrant labor used throughout the 20th century in the fields that were originally part of the Whitney Plantation. “It’s also interesting how descendants of slaves continue to work in the sugar industry. One of our tour guides; five generations of her family worked this land.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I hope we will continue to learn from our past and live more thoughtfully and more gently in the future.”
Not only “How will we live tomorrow? ” How will we teach and learn so we will live informed, compassionate lives?