The City of New Orleans is the nation’s slavery museum. Take a walk around the Central Business District, the French Quarter, Congo Square, Marigny/Bywater, the Garden District and Audubon Park. With a few historical city maps or pre-Civil War business directories as a guide, you’ll be able to locate the former sites of the city’s numerous slave markets, slave pens, slave auction houses, slave exchanges, slave trading firms and plantations within the current city limits.
Slavery was big business in New Orleans. It drove much of the South’s economy. New Orleans was the largest slave market in the country in the years leading up to the Civil War. As The Times-Picayune noted in its 175th anniversary look back at area history: “In 1854, the city claimed to have at least 19 slave yards, many of them concentrated in what is now the Central Business District. An estimated 135,000 people were sold in the city between 1804 and 1862.”
Slavery is fact, historical truth. It shaped the city we know today as it did the state and, for that matter, the United States. And yet we Americans tend to avoid the topic. We whitewash the history of slavery, distort reality by viewing it through the lens of current political concerns, and deny the lingering social and economic effects. Slavery isn’t a topic much taught in school. It mostly gets relegated to Black History Month in February, and most adults don’t care to know or learn about it.
So I was intrigued to read that a rich white man, New Orleans lawyer John Cummings, is preparing to open a slavery museum in the ante-bellum plantation he owns up the river in Wallace. I was equally intrigued (and not at all surprised) by the clash of opinions among folks who chose to comment on Mimi Read’s article about Cummings’ plans and the follow- up exchanges on Facebook.
Black and white folks alike — some of them skeptics, some of them cynics — seemed to be mightily opposed to the idea of a slave museum.
Some of the white folk saw it as a threat to their faith in Southern heritage, American tradition, culture and glory. One reader insisted that Cummings had announced that white people are his target audience — doesn’t say that anywhere in the article, but never mind — and that, ergo, the museum is an anti-white exercise in shame and blame.
Others condemned the museum as likely to inspire unwholesome pity for black people. (Mind you, the museum won’t open until next Monday, Dec. 8, so all the comment was somewhat speculative.)
Others warned that the museum had better be “objective” — by which the commenters meant that it needs to make clear that Africans were complicit in the slave trade, not just those beastly white planters.
And from the other side of the racial divide, you get the argument that descendants of the slaves are owed affirmative action and beefed up entitlement programs — ranging from job training to public housing — as compensation for the horrors visited upon their ancestors.
A slavery museum set up by a white man rich enough to own a plantation is just another legacy of slavery itself, an example of continued profiteering off the suffering of black people, some argued. “First their ancestors established their wealth on the blood, sweat, and tears of our Ancestors and free labor; now the descendants want to make $$$ on selling their version of this story to the tourist … ,” one commenter wrote.
A more academic concern expressed by some of the people Read interviewed was that Cummings’s museum, however moving, might turn out to be more of a monument to his somewhat eccentric passion for the topic than a resource that’s historically valid and useful to scholars.
Whitney Plantation will not be the first museum to address slavery and its place in American history. The LSU Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge contains slave-era artifacts, and other plantations along the river — Oak Alley, for example — have refurbished their slave cabins and begun to include somewhat muted reference to the brutal economics that made massa’s “big house” possible.
But as Read notes, Whitney will be the first in the area to make slavery the center of the exhibition.
It’s an ambition that African-Americans have long tried to fulfill, though our attempts to establish slavery museums and make slavery a topic of national discussion have sometimes been stillborn.
In 1915, Carter Godwin Woodson, the Harvard-educated PhD who is sometimes called the “father of black history,” founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History — based in Washington and later renamed the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. Its purpose is “to promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community.”
In 2001, Douglas Wilder, who had been Virginia’s first African-American governor and later was mayor of Richmond, began a drive to start a United States National Slavery Museum. The museum sought bankruptcy protection in 2011 after it was denied a tax exemption on a site in Fredericksburg. Plans are afoot to one day open it in Richmond.
In 2002, Philadelphia opened the Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Museum of Slavery. It houses an extensive collection of authentic slavery artifacts and documents, including plantation records and ledgers, slave purchase receipts, shackles, branding irons and other forms of punishing ironware from the U.S. and Trans-Atlantic slave trade. But you can visit by “appointment only” because of funding and budgeting issues.
Similarly, the River Road African American Museum was established in 1994 on the Tezcuco Plantation but was moved to a small house in Donaldsonville after a fire in 2002 and is struggling to stay open.
Right here in New Orleans, native son and local historian Lloyd Lazard has been lobbying city and state government to build a National Slave Ship Museum on an abandoned Lower Garden District wharf. “The reality of it is the fact that New Orleans was the cradle of the slave trade,” says Lazard. Funding has not come together.
As Woodson wrote in 1933, in his book The Mis-Education of The Negro, “The chief reason why so many give such a little attention to the background of the Negro is the belief that this study is unimportant.” This is still true today.
I took a tour of the Laura Plantation some years ago and came away sad and disappointed, but I’m going to remain an optimist about Cummings’ plans.
Maybe Laura has upgraded its act, but at the time the tour was basically a celebration of the Big House and the splendid social life of the slave-owning family. There was glancing mention of the nameless field workers and enslaved craftsmen who built the place and kept it going, and slaves came up again briefly as we entered the kitchen/cooking area.
Dilapidated slave cabins were mostly boarded up and not part of the tour — as is still true of some River Road plantations that are open to the public — and that’s what disappointed me. I should mention that the tour guide never once referred to the planter whose home we were touring as a “slave owner” or “master.”
A couple of friends and I broke away from the tour and ventured off to the slave cabin area. And that’s where I became overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings of the atrocity committed there. We peeked into the slave shacks, walked into some of them and sat on a porch as countless slaves must have done.
As I took in the surroundings, I tried to fathom what it must have been like for them: their thoughts and feelings, their food, their laughter, their joys, their tears. I found it impossible to imagine the “happy slave” evoked by apologists for the plantation system.
I want to believe Cummings when he says, “It became important to me to have the history of slavery researched and recognized, to convey untold stories of their [the slaves’] humanity.” Through the use of historical empathy, he says he is attempting to provoke moral outrage in all of us.
Maybe it’s an attempt to encourage a more balanced and equitable view of plantation slavery, an understanding of the outlook, feelings and worldview of the slaves. “When you leave here, you’re not going to be the same person who came in,” Cummings told Read. “Education is the takeaway here, including the education of African-Americans, so they can realize how badly the deck was stacked against them.”
If that turns out to be true, I say bravo to John Cummings. When it comes to the topic of slavery, there is more than enough ignorance, mis-education and skewed history in both the black and white communities.
As for the skeptics and cynics, so maybe Cummings is a rich white liberal trying to further the liberal agenda through shame-and-blame tourism. Maybe he’s just a latterday massa profiting off the spirits of dead slaves.
Or maybe, as he seems to think, he embodies the spirit of the martyred abolitionist John Brown, who was killed at Harper’s Ferry trying to liberate slaves and start a revolt. In this case, revolt would be a liberation of minds.
In all honesty, I don’t care to know his personal motivations if the museum is historically accurate and powerfully true. “Everybody has to do something,” Cummings said. “I may be doing some things wrong,” he continued, “but I’m doing something.”
Very well, Mr. Cummings, we will see what you have done come Dec. 8. I look forward to the tour. Best wishes!
Eugene Thomas is a self-employed real estate broker, an attorney, a Sunday night DJ on WWOZ and an ordained Babalawo priest in the Ifa tradition of the Yoruba people.