On our way back from Mexico to Canada last spring (2019), Jennifer and I traveled eastward to Louisiana and New Orleans. I enjoyed wandering the French Quarter and listening to the jazz, but for some strange reason I was not inspired to photograph it. Other highlights included a river cruise on the Natchez, canoeing in Manchac Swamp, and cycling along a Mississippi levee, with the spring high water considerably above the level of the city. Sadly, the Manchac cypress trees, a few of which were alive at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, are dying out, mainly due to channels dug in the Mississippi delta to serve the oil industry. The other highlights were visits to two antebellum plantations.
The first was the Evergreen Plantation, perhaps the best preserved Mississippi sugar plantation, with original slave quarters in place. With surprise and shock, we heard our guide, a young black woman, claim that slaves on this plantation were much better treated than elsewhere, giving as an example the planter’s “love” and deathbed manumission of a slave woman and THEIR children.
The slave quarters survived because they were lived in by the plantation’s freed slaves and their descendants. Our guide claimed they stayed due to the kindness of the planter, but I doubt they had any viable alternative. Many former slaves soon found themselves locked into a life of peonage – indebted to the plantation store and subject to extremely repressive race laws.
The guide also claimed that the “Code Noir” in Louisiana mitigated the cruelty of slavery. It’s unlikely that slaves were ever in a position to avail themselves of any minuscule protections the Code might have provided. It was, however, a handy tool to legitimize slave exploitation, and literally to work them to death. The guide’s story was really about humanizing and idealizing the planter and his life in the “big house”, and whitewashing slavery. The presentation was so disturbing that we felt the need to visit another plantation a couple days later. That was the Whitney Plantation, the subject of a very different story (see my next post).