John J. Cummings has created what he has called “America’s First Slavery Museum.” The museum is an anomaly for American plantation museums—it memorializes America’s enslaved in a style reminiscent of Holocaust memorials while also acting as a traditional (although reinterpreted) Southern plantation tour. Jackie Mead explains.
You can read Jackie’s previous article on Lewis Temple and the 19th century whaling industry here.
In 1991, a crumbling former plantation 35 miles outside of New Orleans attracted the attention of a rayon manufacturer, Formosa. Locals commissioned an eight volume study as a way to slow the project until rayon went out of fashion. When the property went up for sale again, it was bought by eccentric trial lawyer John J. Cummings III. Unlike most people, when he is given an eight-volume study on a new purchased property, he reads it.[i]
For the next several years, John J. Cummings would spend eight million dollars of his personal fortune to create what he dubbed “America’s First Slavery Museum.” The museum is an anomaly for American plantation museums—it memorializes America’s enslaved in a style reminiscent of Holocaust memorials while also acting as a traditional (although reinterpreted) Southern plantation tour.
A Museum Anomaly
Plantation museums in the former Antebellum American South have fallen into a comfortable pattern over the years. The lives of the white landholders (and slave owners) were focused on exclusively. Tours were limited to the “Big House” and ignored the various “outbuildings” where slaves lived and worked.[ii]They stood as testaments to the conspicuous consumerism of the pre-Civil War South, a world in which manicured lawns held garden parties with mint juleps, and women in hoop skirts fanned themselves beside elegant picture windows. This myth of the South has made the plantations a popular site to hold weddings and sorority reunions, a trend that museums encourage because of the valuable revenue they bring in.[iii]This view eliminates the people who made such grandeur possible—African American slaves.
Whitney plantation is entirely different. Today, the plantation includes at least twelve historic structures that are open to the public. The home is interpreted entirely from the enslaved point of view, discussing the domestic tasks performed there to support the Haydel family’s domestic needs.[iv]Slave quarters were moved from a nearby planation in order to properly represent the homes of the enslaved. A steel-barred cell in the style used to punish rebellious slaves has also been added to the property.[v]The final historic building exhibited on the plantation is the Antioch Baptist Church. All of these buildings are visited during the 90-minute walking tour included with the visitor ticket.
Memorials to Slavery
Whitney Plantation also includes several memorials, springing directly from the mind of John Cummings. One of these is the Field of Angels, a circular courtyard listing the names of the almost 2,200 slave babies in St John Parish that died before their third birthday in the 40 years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Surrounded by child-sized pink and blue benches, there is a statue of a black angel embracing a tiny baby tenderly in its arms, about to bring the child to heaven.[vi]The bronze was cast by Rod Moorhead, a Louisiana native who has worked on other African-American memorials. David Amsden of the New York Times called the statue “at once chastening and challenging, beautiful and haunting.”[vii]The memorial is meant to bring attention to the exceptionally high mortality rates among slave children, as well as to mourn their passing.
Whitney Plantation’s most recognizable memorial sits within Antioch Baptist Church. John Cummings commissioned well-known African American artist Woodrow Nash to cast forty life-size casts of slave children to stand and sit within the pews of the church. Affectionately called “The Children of Whitney” by the museum staff, they represent the lost childhoods of Whitney’s former residents.[viii]Cummings was inspired to create the exhibit by listening to the interviews of former slaves collected by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. “The best expression I have heard about slavery is: ‘Those who viewed cannot explain, only those who endured should be believed,’ he said to The Australian.[ix]Inspired by these words, Cummings has placed a great emphasis on the interviews collected by the WPA, and intends recordings to be played on a loop in both the church and in the slave cabins at a later date.[x]Many of the former slaves interviewed by the WPA were children at the time of emancipation, and therefore their interviews recall their lives as children and teenagers. The Children of Whitney depict these people as they were—children.[xi]
There are two memorials that feature names carved in stone: The Wall of Honor, which is dedicated to the more than 350 slaves that worked at Whitney Plantation, and the Allées Gwendolyn Mildo Hall Memorial, which is dedicated to the 107,000 slaves in Louisiana complied by its eponymous historian.[xii]Both of them were inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Because of issues with dating the various documents the names were drawn from, names have been placed on the plaques with no order at all, in order to convey the chaos of slavery. Many slaves lack family names, so the walls are dotted with repeating lines of Mary, Bob, Amelia, and Joseph with no way to distinguish individuals.[xiii]In continued dedication to firsthand accounts, Cummings requested that sections from the WPA’s interviews with former slaves be carved onto the memorial in order to give visitors an idea of what these individuals suffered.
Grappling With The Past
John J. Cummings III believes it is important for America to follow the example of countries like Germany and South Africa in dealing with this national trauma. Both nations built museums and memorials to honor their unsavory past as a way of retroactively grappling with it. “In Germany today, there are hundreds of museums and memorials dedicated to the Holocaust, and the Germans are not proud of that history,” said Cummings to TheNew Yorker, “But they have studied it, they have embraced it, and they own it. We haven’t done that in America.”[xiv]
In fact, the opposite has occurred. In an ethnographic study of 138 south-eastern plantation museums, two academics found the African-American presence to be “annihilated.”[xv]This is due to the fact that many of these plantation museums have white administrative staff, curators, and interpreters that cater to the white perspective.[xvi]As a result, museum tours focused almost exclusively on the privileged lives of the white landowners, reducing slaves to nameless laborers identified by the tasks they performed for the white family. Such museums were especially popular during the Civil Right Movement, when white Southerners yearned to remember a “simpler” time.[xvii]
This is no longer the case. In the past twenty years, twenty-four museums in south Louisiana have opened slave exhibits. These exhibits have increased tourism for plantation museums, both private and public, with 1.9 million visitors to historic sites across the state.[xviii]School groups are especially popular visitors.[xix]Museum administrators have cited the growing interest in common people and a desire to show a more integrated version of American history as reasons for adding these kinds of exhibits.[xx]
Whitney Plantation is a new approach to the plantation museum. Instead of offering additions to an already existing tour, Whitney is a plantation tour with slavery-based interpretation combined with a memorial museum. This is a far more effective way to convey the true tragedy of race-based slavery. According to Silke Arnold-de-Simine, a British expert on memory and author of Mediating Memory in the Museum,memorials are intended to make visitors identify with history’s victims. By establishing an environment that encourages visitors to imagine themselves experiencing these atrocities, visitors can empathize with the people of the past. Arnold-de-Simine refers to this as “prosthetic memory.”
This principle is important for memorial museums because they inspire feelings of guilt and grief rather than pride, and must channel those negative feelings into a personal commitment to pluralism and tolerance.[xxi]This is done through a combination of first-person testimonials, visual recreations of the conditions the individuals experienced, and memorials where collective grief can be expressed. All of these techniques were pioneered during the building of Holocaust memorials. This is what allows the plantation to have such a profound emotional effect on visitors. “Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work,” says Laura Rosanne Adderley, a Tulane history professor, “And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically. Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney Plantation has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.”[xxii]Although Whitney Plantation might seem mismatched, this combination of techniques is very effective.
Taking a Risk Pays Off
The plantation received 34,000 visitors in its first year—double the projected turnout. It is a respectable number for a new museum.[xxiii]Whitney Plantation has managed to attract African-American tourists at a rate unprecedented by other Louisiana plantation museums. Roughly half the people present at opening day were black.[xxiv]
Whitney plantation has also seen considerable tourism from school groups, especially secondary schools. The direct and unfiltered depiction of slavery, rarely seen in school curriculums, has a profound effect on students. One visitor left a comment card reading, “I learned more in an hour and a half than I have in any school.”[xxv]
The inability of the American school system to adequately deal with slavery was one of John J. Cummings III’s many reasons for establishing Whitney plantation. “Without knowledge about how slavery worked and how crushing the experience was — not only for those who endured it, but also for their descendants — it’s impossible to lift the weight of the lingering repercussions of that institution. Every generation of Americans since 1865 has been burdened by the hangover of slavery,”[xxvi]he wrote in the Washington Post. Cummings believes that it is only when Americans are properly educated on the abuses and legacy of slavery, that can we hope to move forward.
John J. Cummings III understands how unusual it is for a white former trial lawyer to be the person who establishes America’s first museum dedicated to slavery. In an attempt to explain, he said of his process of research “You start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world — wealth that has benefited me — was created by some half a million black people.”[xxvii]Whitney stands tribute to those black people, but it does far more than that. It memorializes them in a style reminiscent of the Holocaust, and uses the restored landscape and first-person narratives to create feelings of empathy with those who suffered slavery. It seeks to create an emotional response in its visitors so that America can finally remember its wounds openly—because it is only then, according to John. J. Cummings—that American can finally start to heal.
What do you think of Whitney Plantation? Let us know below.
[i]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”
[ii]Julia Rose, “Collective Memories and the Changing Representations of American Slavery,” The Journal of Museum Education29, no. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2004): 27.
[iii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”
[iv]Whitney Plantation, “The Big House and the Outbuildings,” 2015, http://whitneyplantation.com/the-big-house-and-outbuildings.html
[v]Margaret Quilter, “Lest We Forget: Louisiana’s Slavery Museum,” The Australian, February 7, 2015, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/travel/lest-we-forget-louisianas-slavery-museum/story-e6frg8rf-1227210481228
[vi]Quilter, “Lest We Forget.”
[vii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”
[viii]Whitney Plantation, “The Children of Whitney,” http://whitneyplantation.com/the-children-of-the-whitney.html
[ix]Quilter, “Lest We Forget.”
[x]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”
[xi]Whitney Plantation, “The Children of Whitney.”
[xii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”
[xiii]Jared Keller, “Inside America’s Auschwitz: a new museum offers a rebuke—and an antidote—to our sanitized history of slavery,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 4, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/inside-americas-auschwitz-180958647/
[xiv]Kalim Armstrong, “Telling the Story of Slavery,” The New Yorker,February 17, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/telling-the-story-of-slavery
[xv]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 27.
[xvi]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 27.
[xvii]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.”
[xviii]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.”
[xix]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 26.
[xx]Rose, “Collective Memories,” 28.
[xxi]Silke Arnold-de-Simine, “The ‘Moving’ Image: Empathy and Projection in the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool,” Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society4 (Autumn 2012): 24.
[xxii]Asmden, “First Slavery Museum.”
[xxiii]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.”
[xxiv]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”
[xxv]Keller, “America’s Auschwitz.”
[xxvi]Cummings, “35,000 Museums.”
[xxvii]Amsden, “First Slavery Museum.”