In a secluded corner of Whitney Plantation, a former Louisiana sugar plantation that provides a window into the lives of slaves throughout the deep South, sits a memorial to the men who died for their role in America’s largest slave rebellion. In January 1811, a group of slaves launched a plan to march to New Orleans and put an end to the profitable trade in humans. Carrying a few guns, knives and bats, they marched along the Mississippi River, burning crops and plantation houses in their path. White folks fled while more slaves followed in with the rebels until they were 500 strong. Their desperate rebellion ended three days later under attack by local militias.
Trials of the rebel slaves came quickly and dozens were executed, their heads put on display as a warning to other slaves not to challenge their masters. The gruesome sight neatly reinforced the mutual fears of slaves and slave owners that defined their relations.
The memorial at Whitney Plantation attempts to honor the fallen slaves. Artist Woodrow Nash has created ceramic heads that are stuck atop black rods, eyes closed to give each face a peaceful, meditative aura. Row after row, their souls could almost be felt hovering above the sweet, flat expanse of Mississippi Delta where slaves suffered to turn sugar cane into sugar.
Nearby the memorial, the ghosts of former slaves inhabit the rooms built from rough wooden planks where slaves lived under the watchful eye of the overseer. Giant metal bowls sit abandoned at their doorways, empty now of the hot, wet sugar that built an empire.
In a church moved to the site, statues of young children stand still near the altar. They represent the youngest slaves at the time just before emancipation, children who 60 years later would tell the story of slavery. Their words, taken down by writers for the federal government, described the world of cruelty and family upheaval endured by slaves who were bought and sold at will.
Inside the plantation houses, the owners’ lives were made easier by the labor of domestic, so-called house slaves, who cooked, cleaned and did the laundry. Some even suckled the infants of the slave-owner’s family. Others were seized to satisfy the owner’s uncontrolled sexual desires. Field hands planted sugar cane, then cut and processed the stalks to extract the sweet liquid that was turned into granulated sugar and molasses to be sold throughout the world.
When plantation owners could no longer count on the free labor of slaves after emancipation, they turned to other sources. Former slaves could be held to the land by an onerous system of shareholding that benefited the landowner. Other slaves could be locked up in jail for the slimmest of reasons and convict labor could be contracted for a pittance.
A visit to Whitney Plantation is an opportunity to try to understand the complexity of our nation, the roots of suffering, the inequalities, and to feel for even a moment, the weight of injustice.