Plantations have a rough history thanks to the actions of the ancestors who roamed their halls. I struggle with giving money to such places, but then I also think it is important to face their history rather than try to hide it or let it disappear quietly like it never happened. While I visited plantations on our southern road trip, some of them stood out for their approach to history in good ways and very, very bad ways. Louisiana housed the best and the worst of these. While I don’t want to glorify plantations and tell anyone they ought to see them (because they aren’t a necessity for many), I know that others will visit them. So, we toured three – Laura, St. Joseph, and Oak Alley – and I did my best to provide an honest review of what each plantation is like so you can make the best choice.
If you’ve read enough about slavery or you don’t ever plan to visit a plantation because of their sordid pasts – both of which are more reason than anyone needs – please exit this post now (or just scroll through the photos if you want to appreciate the workmanship of the men, women, and children who actually built these structures rather than the people who forced them to do so).
Laura, A Creole Plantation
The most informative and historically accurate of the plantations in Vacherie is Laura Plantation. By far. There was no sugar-coating or complete dismissal of slavery (we’ll get to that in a bit) or who was responsible for the building of this ornate structure. The guides explain everything from the numbered beams that hold the house above ground (in a system developed by the plantation’s slaves to make sure the house was properly supported) to the manmade bricks to the choice of style. A Creole family ran the plantation for more than a century and each generation treated their slaves differently, all bad but some worse than others. The guides do not hide this. No matter their relation to the plantation’s family, they do not hide its sordid past. They ask the tourists, many just interested in the house of many colors, to confront its history. This is important.
That’s not to say the entire tour is tragic, it’s to say that it is honest. The guides also discuss the folk tales told on the plantation (Brer Rabbit), the family business and what it meant to be both the man and woman of the house, as well as the Creole custom of living in town (New Orleans) and treating the plantation house as a business-only type of place.
St. Joseph Plantation
Now, we get to the plantation that dismisses the horrors of slavery. Sure, it’s interesting that it’s still an operating sugar plantation and the stories about the family are personal anecdotes and that it’s still run by the same family – but not at the expense of accurate history.
Our guide (a woman of the family) made comments about slave life in such terms: “They (slaveholders, not just her family) wanted their workers to be happy and healthy. They didn’t hurt the workers. Why would they hurt their workers? That doesn’t make sense for business. That’s Hollywood stuff.”
She was not joking (and it would’ve been an awful joke anyway). At first, I’ll admit, I didn’t realize she was talking about slaves because she kept referring to them as “workers.” I assumed she meant those the family employed and paid more recently, like over the last half-century. Then she threw in that Hollywood comment – with direct relation to Twelve Years A Slave, as portions of it were filmed on a nearby plantation – and I knew she was referring to slaves as “workers.” My mother kindly or maybe not so kindly – she’s Midwestern and it’s hard to tell when disgust is masked in niceties but maybe this woman could tell – reminded her that the people who built this plantation and made it profitable were not “workers” who were gainfully employed, they were slaves. The guide did not like this truth.
She then went on to blame slavery on Africans as “they sold each other well before Americans bought them” (!!) and claimed them as a “drain on the plantation” (!!).
The plantation itself does (or did) have two slave cabins still on its grounds, both of them barren square buildings in disrepair. These were not a part of the tour. In fact, they were not discussed until we asked about the two buildings ourselves. It was like they didn’t exist even though they were right in front of us.
I, mouth agape as we exited the plantation, first tried to figure out whether or not this woman was for real. And then I remembered that we were in the Deep South; we were in the last state to abolish slavery; we were in the state with the lowest education; we were in the home of someone’s family who held humans captive. And when I remembered these things it all made sense. A sick pit grew in my stomach. I get that it’s hard to reckon with your past when your ancestors were objectively not-good people, but that’s no excuse to entrench yourself in lies.*
Bottom line: My personal experience with this place was bad. Bad, bad.
– M. Ray Hall
*(I went in June 2014 and did my research to make sure my experience wasn’t just a one-off. You will see a few reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp that had the same experience – I did not leave my own, as I am doing so here. I cannot explain the good reviews other than perhaps they had a different, more historically honest and knowledgeable tour guide. I would hope, based on the reviews as of late, that it has chosen to acknowledge slavery’s part in its past but as this is based on my experience alone, I must be honest.)