Harsh world of slavery focus of Louisiana plantation museum

Sat Jan 17, 2015 1:07pm EST
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By Jonathan Kaminsky

WALLACE, La. (Reuters) - Life-size sculptures of slave children haunt the clapboard church on the grounds of the old sugar cane plantation, where ceramic heads of black men will soon sway on pikes in the Louisiana breeze.

Unlike other plantation museums along the Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the newly opened and under-construction Whitney Plantation focuses squarely on the plight of slaves.

While nearby sites highlight their antebellum architecture and the lifestyles of the white people who lived there, only 11 minutes of the roughly two-hour Whitney Plantation tour are devoted to the grand house where the German-American masters resided.

More time is spent with the granite slabs bearing the names of thousands of Louisiana slaves, interspersed with painful snippets of their narratives.

"The idea is to have people with this color skin be educated," said John Cummings, the museum's 77-year-old founder, pointing to his own white arm. "When you leave here you will be different."

Cummings, a retired trial attorney from New Orleans who made much of his fortune litigating mass disasters from deadly hotel fires to a sugar refinery explosion, has put more than $7.5 million, along with his advocate's zeal, into the plantation, which he bought 17 years ago from an oil company that planned to redevelop it.

Some scenes from the 2012 Quentin Tarantino film "Django Unchained" were shot on and around the sprawling property, which was opened to the public as a museum last month.

"He's a man of great passion and he wants to share it with other people," said Norman Marmillion, who owns the nearby Laura Plantation museum, which unlike most others nearby does not shy from slavery but has Creole cultural history as its emphasis. "He just can't hold it in."   Continued...

An etching on a memorial wall depicts a suffering slave at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Edmund Fountain