Visiting the Whitney Plantation/Slavery Museum
November 16, 2018 5:34 AM   Subscribe

I hope a FPP from mathowie doesn't cause some sort of weird self-link ban loop that destroys the site, but his account of visiting the Whitney Plantation/Slavery Museum is absolutely the best of the web.
posted by COD (33 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Indeed, an excellent writeup. Sounds very powerful. You can do all the reading in the world, but there's nothing like a well-interpreted historic site to make those stories viscerally real.
posted by Miko at 5:41 AM on November 16 [4 favorites]

I can't see how. It was an amazing article and YOU linked it, not him.
posted by Samizdata at 5:42 AM on November 16

I thought we all agreed to never speak of mathowie again. (This is a really good article)
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:24 AM on November 16 [6 favorites]

I wish there was a way to make a visit to this museum mandatory for every person in the United States. We owe it to the human beings who were tortured and murdered to be uncomfortable for and be in the presence of the evil of slavery. We need to sit with the true reality of slavery to really comprehend the brutality of it and to really comprehend that just because slavery ended so many years ago, it left a scar on the country that we need to heal.
posted by cooker girl at 6:27 AM on November 16 [14 favorites]

TW -- child mortality:

There we learned the birth rate in the plantations around New Orleans was -13%. That for every 100 children born into slavery, 113 died before they reached the age of an “adult” which is ten years old.

I am going to remember this fact. I am going to remember this fact because I have racists in my life who insist that the owners treated the slaves well because they were so very invested in them as valuable property.

Aside: is there a better term than "owners"? It seems too neutral, and to concede too much conceptual ground.
posted by gauche at 6:47 AM on November 16 [9 favorites]

That seems an impossible statistic, how can more die than were born?
posted by Lanark at 7:03 AM on November 16 [1 favorite]

Aside: is there a better term than "owners"? It seems too neutral, and to concede too much conceptual ground.

I tend to use the term "slaveholders" and use the verbs "hold" or "keep" instead of "own."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:05 AM on November 16 [5 favorites]

Aside: is there a better term than "owners"? It seems too neutral, and to concede too much conceptual ground.


That seems an impossible statistic, how can more die than were born?

I imagine the numbers were maintained by buying new slaves rather than through reproduction
posted by logicpunk at 7:06 AM on November 16 [18 favorites]

If that's the case then the statistic is meaningless without knowing the number being purchased, it could be 13 or 13,000.
posted by Lanark at 7:24 AM on November 16 [2 favorites]

Mortality figures for slaves were pretty bad on plantations. Most slave children were unlikely to survive until adulthood. On the big plantations adults survived an average of 7-9 years. Being sold down the river into a deep south plantation meant a short, brutal life.
posted by rdr at 7:38 AM on November 16 [1 favorite]

I need to go to this place. I spent a few days (for work) on a former plantation which is now a Ritz-Carlton in Georgia, and it was seriously psychically uncomfortable, made all the worse by its lavishness.
posted by wellred at 8:06 AM on November 16 [6 favorites]

The thing I took away was there were property insurers paying 75% of the purchase price after the slavers extracted the labor. And now I go vomit.
posted by mikelieman at 8:10 AM on November 16 [8 favorites]

I know that I am descended from people who were enslaved and brutalized and it breaks my heart just thinking about it. I feel like I need to see this, but that it may also break something in me.
posted by Julnyes at 8:34 AM on November 16 [12 favorites]

The -13% statistic works because of the "before the age of 10" framing. In other words, 100 children are born in a given year, joining a group of existing children; that same year, 113 children (ranging in age from zero to 10) die. That works out to between 11 and 12 deaths per age-year.

Bleah, I hate even typing that out.
posted by GrammarMoses at 8:34 AM on November 16 [13 favorites]

I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago. The Whitney Plantation was on my list of places to visit. I didn't make it because it wasn't very convenient. Uber/Lyft apparently doesn't go out there, renting a car would have been a hassle, and to be honest I didn't want to visit the Whitney during my birthday celebration trip. One of the options for getting from New Orleans out to the Whitney plantation was to join a group tour. The odd thing about some of the group tours was that some of the tours went to multiple plantations. I wonder how they mixed the big house fantasy plantation tour with the realistic slavery plantation tour.
posted by rdr at 8:54 AM on November 16 [5 favorites]

That seems an impossible statistic, how can more die than were born?

Some of the slaves on plantations were children who were bought as children.

And then died on the plantation. As children.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:13 AM on November 16 [8 favorites]

Re: that childhood mortality statistic - Here's the Whitney Plantation's own page about it, with information that doesn't seem to help confirm or explain the -13%. I have to tell myself to ignore the logic and instead just lament the horrific situation that gives rise to even trying to figure out how this is possible.
posted by achrise at 9:24 AM on November 16 [4 favorites]

If that's the case then the statistic is meaningless without knowing the number being purchased, it could be 13 or 13,000.

I think it's a very useful statistic, because it demonstrates how the traditional "birth rate" data point that applies to normal human populations was upended in the slave population. A negative birth rate means that the slaveholders had to constantly import new slaves to replenish the population and keep it from decreasing. In other words, slavery wasn't a traditional population story where people grew up, had families, and so on; it was a system based on churning through and destroying human bodies as though they were industrial parts.
posted by Pfardentrott at 9:59 AM on November 16 [28 favorites]

If that's the case then the statistic is meaningless without knowing the number being purchased, it could be 13 or 13,000.

I don’t understand how it’s meaningless depending on the size of the population. Are you saying that it’s OK for the death rate of a small group of children to be over 100%?

And yes, as other people have pointed out, the population of enslaved people on a particular plantation isn’t a closed population. You could have more children die on the plantation than are born on the plantation because children are being brought to the plantation.

I once went to New Orleans for a few days because it’s a good and easy train trip from where I am. I wanted a sleeper car trip that was long enough to really savor being on the train, and Chicago to New Orleans is a really nice length. I want to take that train again, and include at least some of my children the next time, but haven’t felt like I necessarily had a good reason to go back to New Orleans. Now I do.
posted by Orlop at 11:25 AM on November 16 [4 favorites]

I don’t understand how it’s meaningless depending on the size of the population.

13 deaths from 150 is very different to 13 deaths from say 700, Im sure the numbers whatever they are are terrible, but that 13% figure is meaningless without the population size. It's basically 13% of {unknown} I tried Googling this but every website gives wildly different figures, which I guess goes to show that slave owners didnt think it was worth even keeping records.
To be clear I mean the numbers are meaningless not that the deaths are meaningless.
posted by Lanark at 11:40 AM on November 16 [1 favorite]

That seems an impossible statistic, how can more die than were born?

This was sadly common for sugarcane and rice plantations where the enslaved people faced the harshness of plantation life as well as mosquito-transmitted (malaria, yellow fever) and waterborne diseases (cholera, dysentery). For example, at South Carolina's Gowrie rice plantation the slave population had an average mortality rate two and a half times the fertility rate, meaning for every four children born into slavery ten would die [pdf]. Not counting stillbirths or miscarriages (because no records were kept), ninety percent of the children born on the plantation died before they reached age 16.

I guess the thing to remember is that slavery was not monolithic, its practices varied. In general, Caribbean slavery, being almost entirely sugarcane, never had "self-sufficient" slave populations and relied on the Atlantic slave trade for replacement labor. In the US, growing food crops or tobacco wasn't as dangerous or labor intensive as cotton, rice, and sugarcane, so we had an internal slave trade sending "excess" slaves from the upper South to the lower South.

This meat grinder effect is especially important to remember in the context of the typical cash crop plantation tour which emphasizes the grandeur and wealth of the owners and not the toll extracted from the enslaved workers. That is what makes the Whitney Plantation remarkable.
posted by peeedro at 11:54 AM on November 16 [12 favorites]

Thanks, mathowie. That was a compelling read and now I want to go (and take my kids) even more than I did before.
posted by dawkins_7 at 1:31 PM on November 16 [2 favorites]

“ museums dedicated to [slavery] before 2014?“

posted by stanf at 1:51 PM on November 16 [3 favorites]

Thanks to an AskMe suggestion, I visited the Whitney Plantation during my first visit to New Orleans in January of last year. It was so powerful that I brought my wife to the Plantation on her first visit to New Orleans later that year. It’s a must-see even if you have only a day and a half in the Crescent City.

Each of the statues in the first photo are of specific children who lived on plantations. At the start of the tour, each of us was given a lanyard with a card corresponding to a different one of the children, with their name and a brief description of their experience on a plantation. We were encouraged to seek out our statue. It was another way that the tour connected us to the reality of slavery.
posted by ogooglebar at 3:41 PM on November 16 [4 favorites]

Being a west coast kid, slavery was always a distant story in history class growing up. I knew about it in the abstract enough to never want to visit or celebrate a southern plantation but having been to this place, I don’t know how any plantations celebrating life in Dixie even exist. The thought of visiting one seems utterly disgusting.

On the birth/death rate, it’s true they bought lots of new slaves (including children) to replace those that died. The thing I didn’t mention was cotton plantations further north were much safer and had positive birth rates of like 20-30%. If you got out of line up north you were threatened of being “sent down the river” to much more dangerous sugar production. People died in droves working around scalding sugar for months on end. The price of slaves were cheaper up north as well, so re-selling a slave to someone outside of New Orleans for 2-3x the amount you paid was a horrific option.

I wish we had national museums about this in DC and major cities, much like holocaust museums.
posted by mathowie at 4:05 PM on November 16 [14 favorites]

While in Ouro Preto, Brazil, I took a tour of a slavery era gold mine called Mina Do Veloso underneath the colonial town. The vein apparently still contains gold, but the danger of collapsing the buildings on top of it has been too great to allow the owners to continue the mining. The gold was mined by slaves, they worked 16 hours a day in the dark, underground, in water up to their knees, with ceilings too short to stand upright and smoke from the candles that lit the shaft filling the air - until they died after a couple of years (something like 2-4 on average) and were replaced by more slaves imported from Africa. The owners figured out that their profits were higher than the cost of replacement, and so they just worked the slaves to death. The mine shaft was lit by bare light bulbs when we took the tour, and the floors were dry. It was still horribly dim and incredibly claustrophobic. The guide showed us the recesses that had been hacked into the walls to hold the candles that lit the mine when it was actually being worked. It was unimaginably horrifying. To think that slavers were any more civilized in the United States than they were in South America, or the Caribbean is basically delusional.
posted by youthenrage at 4:15 PM on November 16 [4 favorites]

Wow, MatHowie became a great photographer!

The picture of the cell was ... powerful. I've never seen one before. Also, surprised to find out the punishment for being caught with paper or a pencil was worse than the punishment for escaping.
posted by xammerboy at 6:17 PM on November 16

While in Ouro Preto, Brazil, I took a tour of a slavery era gold mine called Mina Do Veloso underneath the colonial town.

sounds like it could have been the mines of Shelby County, Alabama.

How much of the economy of the United States was financed on the value of human bodies?
posted by eustatic at 6:35 PM on November 16 [2 favorites]

The picture of the heads on spikes, and reading what it represented, was chilling.

Today’s racists try to revise history to make slavery seem less barbaric because even they are aware in hindsight that slaves were humans and the actual practices that took place were almost unbelievably brutally barbaric.

I've heard abstract claims along the lines of "slave owners treated their slaves better than workers, because they owned them and had an incentive to keep them healthy."

The most concise and accurate response I ever heard was "The slaves were resources and the incentives weren't that they should be used, it was that they should be used up."
posted by mark k at 8:03 PM on November 16 [5 favorites]

How much of the economy of the United States was financed on the value of human bodies?

That's a big question, if you want to scratch the surface with fifteen minutes of reading try here then here to touch on the value of slaves themselves, the labor they performed, and the effect on Northern industry and banking.

This 10 minute segment on the economy of the South from David Blight's Civil War series is also a good big-picture view of the economic impact of slavery. He really buries the apologist myth of a backwards, stagnant plantation economy and paints slavers as hypercharged capitalists building an oligarchy on the backs of 4 million enslaved people.
posted by peeedro at 9:38 PM on November 16 [3 favorites]

I had no idea this museum existed and if I'm ever in the area, it'll be my top priority, and I'll drag anybody I can with me, if I have to.

I've been talking to white people about race and whiteness for years, but it still floors me how many nice, Trump-hatin' white progressives fundamentally do not have, nor do they seek to have, any gut-level understanding of power imbalances where a white-skinned person has all the systemic-level cards.

A play called Thomas and Sally, by African American playwright Thomas Bradshaw, about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, premiered at Marin Theatre Company in 2017. One scene has Jefferson give Hemings oral sex; another has her girlfriend ask, "So...what was sex with him like?" 14-year-old (maaaaybe 15-year-old) Sally says of 40-something-year-old Thomas's sexual prowess: "I loved it!"

I saw the play. I talked with the protesters (the core were African American women who'd tried, during the years that the theatre company and the playwright developed the play, to talk with the (white, male) Artistic Director about the problematic issues). I read what the (99% white) theatre company had to say about why they thought the play was brilliant (it's challenging and edgy! they said -- in the same way that some people, usually men, defend predictable rape jokes as challenging and edgy). I read historians' interpretations of the historical records.

95% of progressive white people I talked to about it said, "....but maybe they really were in love!"
Me: "They were master and slave. There was a a ridiculously unequal power imbalance. You do know that?"
Them, hastily: "Ohyeahsure! Sure. Of course. Master. Slave. .....But maybe they really WERE in love!"

Some of these people are sorta-friends, but not close enough that I risked pushing them to think deeply and uncomfortably. Intellectually they get that slavery was bad, but their brains shorted-circuited at "an African American guy wrote this."

Emotionally, I think they're remembering themselves at 14 or 15, horny, yearning for the sexual attention of a powerful authority figure, never having known any powerlessness much worse than what's typical of white kids in a white-dominated democracy. The play's titillation and romanticism was what they focused on. So cozy, such pleasurable feelings! Much more comfortable than grasping the power brutalities that enslaved adults and children learned to contort themselves under, to have a chance at surviving white totalitarianism.

Some of 'em can't even bear to lend any mental real estate to the everyday contortions that woke People of Color, especially girls and women, undergo NOW, to best survive patriarchal white supremacy. How can I expect them to feel in their guts the horrors of slavery? Well, I do. More museums like the Whitney would help. Put some in the North, too, where white people rioted to drive black people out of town. Canada, too.

tl;dr: Thanks for the excellent writeup and photos, mathowie, and thanks for posting it, COD. The Whitney Plantation/Slavery Museum is a good start. There's a long way to go.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 1:31 AM on November 17 [16 favorites]

I have not yet been to the African American History museum in DC. Can someone who’s been there comment how it presents slavery?
posted by natasha_k at 5:38 AM on November 17

I can't tell if it's been covered here before on the Blue, but the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis has an extensive exhibit on the history of slavery in America.
posted by ogooglebar at 11:54 AM on November 19

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