My original plan was to write a blog post comparing and contrasting our visits to Oak Alley Plantation and Whitney Plantation. However, after some reflection, I don’t think that’s going to be possible. Why? Because each offers its own story, its own interpretation, and its own perspective of the past. They are too different to compare and the contrast should be obvious once you’ve finished reading this post. If you are planning on visiting plantations while in New Orleans, I highly recommend you try and visit more than one. Most tour companies we researched offer tours that take visitors to two plantations in one day. They are uncomfortable, but they each add a chapter to the broader story that cannot be forgotten. In saying that, I do highly recommend visiting the Whitney Plantation – you will read why soon.
Instead of comparing/contrasting, I’m going to run through how we spent our time at the different plantations and what’s on offer. If you wanted to drive and not take a tour, you could have a pretty much identical experience to what I’ll write below.
Oak Alley Plantation
If you have ever seen any promotional material for plantations or an iconic image of a plantation, you were probably looking at Oak Alley. When you first drive past, all you can see is an alleyway lined with 300-year old oak trees leading to a small mansion. Oak Alley was originally the Bon Séjour plantation owned by Valcour Aime. In 1836, he exchanged this property for another with his brother-in-law Jacques Télesphore Roman. Under Roman, the mansion was built by enslaved people. It was lived in by various families until 1972 when it opened to the public. Both Oak Alley and Whitney were sugar cane plantations.
There were 220 enslaved people who worked at the plantation during its years of operation. Beneath is a photograph showing just a handful of names that have been discovered in the records and inscribed on one of the walls in the reconstructed cabins (more on that later). In the same cabin there is further information on one of these enslaved people, Antoine. Antoine was an expert gardener and grafted the tree that would become the ‘paper shell’ pecan, aka the pecan we eat today.
After arriving at the plantation we were handed a ticket to tour the ‘big house’ – the name given to the plantation homes. We went straight to the house for a 30 minute tour of the inside. The tour goes into the history of the family, their ownership of enslaved people, and touches on some architecture. The history of slavery is not brushed aside, but it is also not the focus. A highlight during the tour is the artifacts room containing original documents, photographs and objects. In the middle of the room is a display case containing a brass wedding invitation from the family opposite a pair of cast iron shackles. This juxtaposition between the family and the enslaved people is powerful. When the tour finished, we walked through the alley of oaks and toured the two gardens either side of the house.
After a short break, we visited the slavery exhibition which is on display in the reconstructed (not original) cabins. It is a self-guided tour through six cabins with some thematic panels and objects located outside and in between. The content focuses on a range of themes including ‘the expectations of house slaves’, ‘caring for the sick’, ‘field slaves’, and archaeological evidence (everything in inverted commas is the language used by the plantation). The rooms contain furniture that would have been similar to what was available. For example, you can see in the photograph of the Sick House that as well as furniture there are some medical bottles on display.
The panels only delve so far into slavery and feel quite detached. It is also important to note that this exhibition is entirely optional. You could feasibly have someone visit the plantation, not see the exhibition, and therefore not learn about this history. We spent a couple of hours walking through the cabins then listened to a brief talk about slavery on the plantation.
We ran out of time to visit the other sites including the Blacksmith shop and the Civil War Tent. They recommend at least 2 hours for your visit and I would say definitely allow this, if not more.
The Whitney Plantation operated until 1867 and opened as a heritage place and Museum in 2014. It is the only plantation in Louisiana that exclusively focuses on the experience of enslaved people.
As soon as we got off the bus we went straight to the visitor centre to join a tour. The only way to see the plantation is by going on a guided tour that lasts around 1 hour and 45 minutes. The tour begins by walking visitors through three separate memorials. The first is The Wall of Honour, a memorial dedicated to all enslaved people on the Whitney Plantation. It contains the names, origins, age and skills (where known) inscribed on large granite slabs. Next is the Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall Memorial dedicated to the 107, 000 enslaved people in Louisiana. It is named after the creator of the Louisiana Slave Database, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, who researched and recorded the names of enslaved people. This memorial not only includes names, but quotes focusing on experiences, hardships faced, and resilience. The final memorial, The Field of Angels, is the most harrowing. It is dedicated to the 2, 200 enslaved children who died in the St John the Baptist Parish between the 1820s and 1860s. The statue is of an angel carrying a child to heaven.
We were then guided through the cabins. During this portion of the tour we learnt about how sugar cane was harvested, the major risks involved, punishments for enslaved people who tried to escape and their living conditions. Work days often lasted 20 hours in busy periods and 16 hours when things were quiet. Each enslaved person working would receive rations. Any dependents, including children, did not receive these rations. This means their food would need to be supplemented with crops that were often grown outside the cabins. I will include a photograph of some of the original cabins below. Each cabin held two families. The second photograph contains two statues made by artist Woodrow Nash as part of the ‘children of Whitney’ sculptural series.
Right at the end of the tour we saw the ‘big house’. There is some information on the family available including the fact they never really lived in the house. After a brief walk through one room, we went to the back of the house to learn about what happened after emancipation. Essentially, those who were enslaved could be arrested on the street for loitering and sent back to plantations to work for minimum wage.
Final Thoughts & Practical Information
As you can see, each plantation offers a very different experience. I said at the beginning that a visit to the Whitney Plantation is a very wise idea because of its focus on the experience of those enslaved. If you are wanting a truly educational experience rather than a tourist location, it cannot be missed.
We visited both plantations on separate day tours. You can combine them in one tour offered through companies such as Cajun Encounters and Grayline. If you are going to drive there yourself, both have entrance fees and tickets can be purchased from their visitor centres. There are a lot of gravel paths to navigate at Whitney which may be difficult for wheelchairs. Not all historic structures are accessible. Oak Alley is accessible apart from the second floor of the ‘big house’. There are iPads available in the first floor media room that tour the second level of the home for those unable to take the stairs. Both plantations have very comprehensive websites that are worth reading through before your visit.