Over Presidents’ Day Weekend, I traveled to New Orleans with a group of Haverford students.
One aspect of our experiences there will remain with me forever. The Whitney Plantation sits just an hour drive outside of New Orleans yet rarely gets the same attention of the lights and sounds of “The Big Easy.” Despite this, what the people there had to tell about their history was captivating.
Our time at the plantation started with us rolling out of the bus and scanning the surroundings. Unassuming fields filled with grass and marshes butted up at their edges. What I had not yet grasped was what happened on this land.
After walking in and getting our headsets for the guided tour, we stepped into the first component of our experience. The first room held images and stories about the general history of enslavement in the U.S. along with dashes of the history of the plantation we were standing on. There was some history on revolts and women and children in the slave trade. On the floor was a map of the French Quarter from the early 1800s that noted the locations of different slave markets. This was the same French Quarter we had just stood in and slept in prior to coming here. The same place with the lights, smells, and sounds that intoxicate tourists traveling to New Orleans to have a good time. Those people that walk into hotels to sleep could be resting just yards away from where families were irreparably broken as their loved ones were sold away.
Hanging from the ceiling adjacent to this room hung a canvas consisting of an image of the Louisiana law book from the time of enslavement. The laws talked about how the enslaved would be treated. One at the very bottom hit me and many others there the hardest: it described how people of any age or mental state can transfer or inherit land, but the enslaved could not. This would prevent enslaved families from gaining wealth from business passed down through generations. That law is just one in a line of many examples of gratuitous oppression the enslaved would be forced to confront.
Later in our tour we passed through the German East Coast Slave Revolt Memorial. It described the perils of the largest enslaved revolt in American history and what happened to the uprising’s leaders. After the revolt was suppressed, eighteen of the rebellion’s most prominent figures’ heads were lopped off and placed on pikes lining the most trafficked road leading into New Orleans—the same road we had just driven down to get to where we were.
After this came the Children’s Memorial and the Field of Angels. The Children’s Memorial consisted of the name of every child that died in the nearby St. John the Baptist Church. The church sits adjacent to the plantation and served both as a place of forced worship and pain for the enslaved. 2,200 children were murdered in the Church between the years 1820 and 1860. That number averages out to a child every six-and-a-half days. We saw pictures of these children and a central statue of an angel holding a newborn child.
Any somber emotions we held started to spill out into tears.
The Field of Angels built off these feelings with even more names. 107,000 different individuals’ names were etched on the walls of the memorial: the names of all the enslaved known in the history of the Louisiana slave trade. They were the names given by their masters because the ones handed to them at birth did not sound American enough, which means all we know about these people are the names that they didn’t even want. Neighboring these names were quotes from some of the enslaved that compiled over time. The one that stood out to me was one of a young boy recounting a time when another adolescent enslaved person who had escaped was recaptured in Mobile, Alabama, tied to the back of a horse, and dragged back to his plantation in Louisiana only to be buried alive.
This was not the most horrific story described.
We should never forget the sheer brutality these people endured due to the color of their skin.
We should never forget the sheer brutality these people endured due to the color of their skin. The experience is something that will be etched into the brains of the people on that trip and hopefully will remain with you too. This aspect of our past should not be forgotten, but that is no guarantee. These memories are mere afterthoughts to the tourists and residents of New Orleans, yet the scars of enslavement still remain today. So much has changed since then and will change after today, but we need to be the driving force in both remembering the past and directing the future in a better direction to prevent this magnitude of suffering from ever happening again.