We knew rain was in our forecast but it held off long enough for us to tour the Whitney Plantation, the only museum in Louisiana to showcase plantation life from the enslaved perspective. We were ably lead by Ali whose ancestors had worked the fields of the plantation when it was owned by a German immigrant family. Ambroise Heidel, after humble beginnings, purchased the land in 1752 on which he planted indigo, that most precious of dyes which symbolised wealth for many, from the Tuaregs of the Sahara to the nobility of the Elizabethan era. But indigo production requires great acreage and so when Jean Jacques Haydel (notice the name change), son of Ambroise, took over the plantation in the early 1800s he transitioned to sugar. The plantation stayed in the family until after the Civil War when it was bought by Bradish Johnson of New York. It was then it became known as the Whitney Plantation – named for his grandson, Harry Whitney.
But neither indigo nor sugar, whose actual production is remarkably similar, could be grown, harvested and fermented without a large workforce. And that was provided by the enslaved. It is always the casual cruelty that affects me most when I read about, or visit museums, dedicated to slavery. The indifference. Even a seemingly initial kindness turns into a self-serving and uncharitable disregard. A fact highlighted by the soulful statue of a young slave girl standing in Marie Azélie Haydel’s bedroom. Taken in as an infant, dressed in the finest clothes, taught her letters and numbers, she was toyed with until age ten – then the fine life was taken away and she became what she had in essence always been – a slave. Abuse of the most callous kind.
And it is that which the Whitney Plantation brings to life. Through recorded stories of those who remembered being enslaved as children. Stories gathered in the 1930s and 40s by a team led by folklorist John Lomax of the Federal Writers’ Project, and under the auspices of President Roosevelt.
The Whitney Plantation is now owned by John Cummings, a retired trial lawyer from New York who in his own words is “a rich white man”. The estate bought as an investment has instead become his life’s passion – a legacy demanding attention. The Children of Whitney, statues of enslaved children dot the property and are the work of Woodrow Nash, a sculptor from Ohio. The figures are made more haunting by eyeless sockets and bowed heads. It is hard not to be imbued with shame. Then the Field of Angels. Black granite slabs naming the 2,200 slave children who died in Louisiana before their third birthday. Thirty-nine of them on the Whitney Plantation between 1823 an 1863. There is statue in their midst, a bronze sculpted by Rod Moorhead, of a black angel carrying a baby to Heaven. It was impossible not to cry.
By the time we got to the plantation house I couldn’t have cared less about the murals and frescos painted by Italian artist Dominici Canova and commissioned by Marie Azélie Haydel, the widow whose plantation by 1860 was producing up to 407,000 pounds of sugar in one grinding season. Produced on the backs of those bartered through the Domestic Slave Trade.
As we drove through the Whitney Plantation gates the heavens opened and I, that most pragmatic of women, felt they could well be the tears of angels.
We were subdued and, until our mobiles started bleeping warnings of flash floods, only cursory words were spoken. But as rain lashed the windscreen and Laurie’s grip on the steering wheel changed from light to tight a change in mood was called for. And so we sang. Or rather we started numerous songs only to tail off into tum-de-dums as lyrics failed us.
Now I’ve never been to the Isle of Capri in Italy, but I’m pretty sure it looks nothing like the Isle of Capri at Lake Charles, our next rest stop. Granted the gloom of a furious storm did nothing to elevate the scenery, but the hoped for jollity of a casino hotel was equally lacking. Instead droopy-eyed punters sat at dining tables eating forgettable meals. A little levity was found when our waitress attempted to remove a plate whilst Emy was in the act of eating, fork en route to mouth. My words were probably harsh and further conversation with our server was conducted through Laurie, whose charm soothed ruffled feathers.
Morning came to find Laurie looking flummoxed. Guilty.
“I think I must have hit something. That’s a fire alarm,” she said, throwing on clothes and disappearing along the corridor. She didn’t return.
Why, I wondered, as Emy and I followed suit do women always assume we are at fault?
We found Laurie outside in the carpark, not allowed reentry. We mingled with fellow guests – tousled hair, bleary eyes and lack of clothing added to the drizzling drama. I had never realised camis enclosing bosoms could house so many knick knacks – cell phones, cigarettes, lighters, wallets. There appeared to be quite a lot of teeth missing from various mouths.
Words jumbled around us.
“Screaming all night long. Doors banging.”
“Smoke everywhere on the 5th floor.”
“A naked lady – Asian – running up and down the corridor.”
We listened as sirens approached. Slinging my computer case into Bruiser I saw, at the side of the hotel, two fire engines, an ambulance and a police car. A woman covered in a sheet appeared to be receiving oxygen.
“I’m going in for our stuff,” I said, expecting to be stopped by someone in authority. Not smelling anything untoward I went to our room on the ground floor. It was not pretty packing. As I pulled three cases down the corridor people were entering the lobby, only to be shunted out again. Then in again. It was fortunately not a serious fiasco.
Free breakfast, issued for our inconvenience, turned out only to be available from 11am. At 8am and in dire need of coffee we braved the cafeteria. Breakfast was good, or maybe adrenaline had sharpened our appetite.
None of this intrepid trio are gamblers but a quick swing through the casino was a must. Croupiers – the women heavily made up and no longer in the first, second or third flush of youth, and pasty men, paunches straining uniform shirts – spun wheels, flipped cards, or gathered dice in automated boredom. Smoke lingered overhead like a shroud.
The pokies – one armed bandits – flashed their gaudy lights as bills were fed into their greedy mouths and the roll of the machine jolted to a stop and delivered no rewards. Men and women, cigarettes stuck to lips or dripping ash to the floor watched in blind belief that today would be the day.
We each played. Novices that we are, we didn’t realize we were in the high stakes area until I lost $10 on two pulls. Laurie and Emy sensibly moved to the amateurs side of the hall and lost $5 each on five pulls. A mug’s game.
Lake Charles was still drizzling and so with little regret we left and Bruiser took us on our final drive to Houston where …..