Magazine article The Christian Century

First U.S. Slavery Museum Memorializes and Educates

Magazine article The Christian Century

First U.S. Slavery Museum Memorializes and Educates

Article excerpt

Unlike other antebellum plantations on the winding River Road along the Mississippi, which are known for their manicured gardens and as locations for weddings, Whitney Plantation, near Wallace, Louisiana, has a different purpose: to tell visitors the story of slavery in the United States.

The museum is the first of its kind in the country. It opened in December 2014 after John Cummings, a real estate magnate and retired New Orleans trial lawyer, spent $8.6 million of his own money redeveloping the 250-acre site.

Cummings purchased the former plantation from a petrochemical company 16 years ago. Researching its history, he found household inventories from former owners that showed that "the second most valuable property here next to the real estate was slaves," he said.

Realizing his ignorance about slavery, Cummings began to research the subject and now has read more than 400 books.

"I'm still reading," he said.

Whitney Plantation was established by Ambroise Heidel, an immigrant from Germany, in the 1750s. The family farmed indigo and later sugar cane with the labor of more than 350 slaves.

The names of those slaves now are engraved on black granite slabs that are part of the plantation's Wall of Honor. Other memorials list the names of some 107,000 slaves who once toiled in the state of Louisiana.

"We have not acknowledged our great sin of slavery as a nation," Cummings said. "We must own it."

The federal government should have built a museum like Whitney Plantation, he said. But it has not "because of the prejudice."

Cummings has visited black churches in neighboring areas, where some of the descendants of those who were enslaved at the plantation live. "I've been able to address their congregations and tell them about what we are doing," he said.

Cummings met historian Ibrahima Seek from Senegal, one of the places from which slaves were kidnapped and taken to the United States, at an event in Louisiana in 2000. Cummings asked Seek to work on the museum project. In 2012, Seek moved to New Orleans to work full time for the museum, where he is director of research.

Today visitors who tour Whitney Plantation encounter memorials, slave cabins, a French Creole-style Big House built in the late 18th century, and a Baptist church donated and moved from the town of Paulina, Louisiana. The Field of Angels, a circular courtyard, is dedicated to the 2,200 slave children who died before their third birthday in St. …

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