“Like elsewhere in the US South, these are childhood memories. These people were enslaved when they were children. That’s why we claim at Whitney Plantation that we tell the story of slavery through the eyes of children.”
Countless of news outlets have reported on how Donald Trump’s victory has triggered the rise of hate crime. The popular expression, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, could not ring more true to Dr. Ibrahima Seck, whose job is to uncover the history of the Whitney Plantation from its beginnings to now.
The IPF spoke to Ibrahima, Director of Research at the Whitney Plantation, to shed light on the importance of the plantation, as well as historical truth.
“The ultimate outcome is to highlight the contribution of Africans to the building of civilisations and generate awareness about the legacies of slavery, which led to racism and its negative impact on Afro-descended people around the world.”
The plantation has recently become part of a non-profit organisation called The Whitney Institute, dedicated to study the history of enslavement of African people in the Western Hemisphere and its implication in the building of new cultures.
Ibrahima said: “The institute strives to foster studies everywhere in the Old World where Africans were enslaved for a better understanding of the dynamics of culture transmission from Africa to the rest of the world.”
Whitney Plantation: A reminder of the past and the present
When it opened in December 2013, The Whitney Plantation became the first and only museum and memorial to slavery in the United States. It is the result of 15 years of planning and now more than $10 million from the pocket of retired New Orleans trial lawyer John Cummings.
It all started when Cummings bought the 250acres as a real estate investment in 1999 and dug into its backstory – he was ashamed to learn America had museums honouring the Holocaust, the Civil War and the genteel culture of plantation owners, but not the sacrifices of African slaves.
Ibrahima met Cummings 16 years ago during a trip to Louisiana with the Mayor of Senegal’s Gorée Island – one of the places in Africa where European companies used to keep slaves – to celebrate the inauguration of the African American Museum of St. Martinville in Southwest Louisiana.The same year, Cummings decided to hire Ibrahima as the historian of The Whitney Plantation, knowing Ibrahima’s background as an expert in slavery issues and his knowledge of French- necessary as most of the old archives in Louisiana are written in French.
“The personal stories of slavery we use at the plantation were collected mostly in New Orleans in 1941 by the Louisiana Writers Project, the local branch of the 1930s Federal Writers Project,” said Ibrahima. “Like elsewhere in the US South, these are childhood memories. These people were enslaved when they were children. That’s why we claim at Whitney that we tell the story of slavery through the eyes of children.”
For this reason, sculptures of children were built by African American artist Woodrow Nash based in Akron, Ohio.
“John Cummings, the Founder, always wanted to ensure that the property would give a voice to the people whose stories were not being told and were at risk of being lost.”
Ibrahima explained that during a 90-minute walking tour, visitors gain a “unique perspective on the lives of the enslaved people on a Louisiana sugar plantation”.
The need to confront African slavery in America
The history of the slave trade is not merely the history of deportation into the Americas of people who could tolerate the tropical climate. More importantly, it is about the transfer of know-how practiced for many centuries on African soil. Beyond generating wealth and comfort for the masters, the agency of the enslaved Africans contributed to the emergence of a unique culture that can no longer be ignored in the construction of American identity.
“Now black people go to a place like Whitney because finally someone is willing to tell them about their ancestors. The majority of the visitors are white and willing to learn about slavery.”
Nearly 6,000 Africans were brought to French Louisiana where they were put to work along with servants and enslaved Native Americans. They were mostly shipped from Senegambia, the Bight of Benin, and Central Africa. Under Spanish rule, Louisiana witnessed a significant economic expansion related to increased imports of African captives. In 1795, the colony was the forced home for nearly 20,000 enslaved individuals, most of them born in Africa.“The enslaved Africans and their descendants cleared the land and planted corn, rice and vegetables. They also raised crops of indigo and the indigotiers [indigo makers] ran indigo processing facilities. Later they grew sugar cane and sugar mills were ran by enslaved sugar masters. They built levees to protect dwellings and crops.
“They also served as sawyers, carpenters, masons, and smiths. They raised horses, oxen, mules, cows, sheep, swine and poultry. They also served as cooks and performed all kinds of duties that made life easy and enjoyable for their masters. The enslaved people responded to the violent system of slavery by running away or by revolting.”
In January 1811, an estimated number of 500 people enslaved in the lower Mississippi River parishes of Louisiana started an uprising that surpassed by its amplitude any other slave revolt in the south of the US.
“The goal of the insurgents was to capture New Orleans; free all the people enslaved there, and probably put the foundations of a black nation or find their way to a free country like Haiti or Mexico. The uprising was apparently well planned but the determination of the insurgents suffered a weak firepower.”
On 10 January 1811, several detachments of the militia attacked the rebels, and the insurrection completely fell apart the next day.
“Many insurgents were killed in the action and many fled into the swamps. Those captured in combat were held in jail awaiting trial. Many were arrested in New Orleans and few others were found later in the woods and taken to court.
“Most of them were executed and decapitated and their heads were posted on poles in front of the plantations where they lived.”
Stay united through lessons of history
During the Civil War, Louisiana contributed more black troops to the Union Army than any other state in the US South.“Beyond the painful memories,” Ibrahima said, “it is important to dig deep enough to find out how deported Africans contributed to the making of new cultures around the Americas, in general, and the United States in particular.”
So far, the museum is very well received by both the black and white communities. Last year, Whitney received about 36,000 visitors after just one year of existence, and the number is expected to have doubled this year.
“More needs to be done and the struggle for social justice can never stop. Especially when someone like Trump gets to power. This is not a defeat for Whitney because the wave of racism that followed the election of Barack Obama is older than Whitney.”