Oak Alley is the beautiful plantation with its white-columned Big House and alley of multi-century old trees you’ve seen in dozens of film and photograph backgrounds.
Oak Alley is one of those places where the guides dress up in costumes, parasols sometimes included, to show you around the home. It’s one of those places that has buildings where you can spend the night and offers itself up to fanciful weddings and videos and shoots made for people much wealthier than the average tourist. It’s one of those places that has a restaurant and a café, both overpriced. In other words, it’s commercialized.
That said, the non-profit foundation that keeps the grounds intact and the home historically accurate and up-to-snuff has done a commendable job. The reason it looks the way it does in photographs and on film is because it looks as beautiful in real life. I wouldn’t call it magical – given its heritage who would? – but the scene is definitely one that requires recognition of the workmanship that went into building such a structure and the work that went into planting and maintaining the grounds.
The tour itself is hit and miss with most of the focus being on the Big House and the family who lived in it. There’s a small discussion on sugarcane and its impact on Oak Alley as well as on the more recently planted pecan trees (in honor of an enslaved gardener who was responsible for the first paper shell pecan). The guided tour did not address slavery, though the guides were adamant that everyone take the time to read and view the permanent exhibit in the form of reconstructed cabins. There are six of them: four focus on different types of housing (a sick house, a field slave’s cabin, a house slave’s cabin, and a post-emancipation dwelling) while two share a detailed description of what a day’s work would’ve consisted of for a slave on the property (in written form and through material goods). It’s informative of the things you probably read in a history textbook that discusses slavery. It’s cold, displayed like you could be looking at a day in the life of a pioneer or a day in the life of gold miner even though you know it was nothing like that. It’s set up like a museum and like at a museum, far too many people never read the placards or look beyond the display.
The above statement is not necessarily an indictment on Oak Alley; it cannot coerce people to care any more than a museum can coerce its patrons to see the meaning behind art. However, the immense focus on the riches inside the Big House and their way of life (told in anecdotal bursts) in contrast with the self-guided slavery “exhibit” kind of just rubbed me the wrong way. This was especially apparent after coming from Laura Plantation where every person who walked on the grounds (by choice or force) was readily humanized in the retelling its history.
If you do visit, just be sure to take your time with the cabins and read the descriptions, the lists of names. Read them and humanize them.
– M. Ray Hall