Louisiana’s River Road Plantations

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

While I’ve visited New Orleans, I’ve always wanted to see the plantation houses on Louisiana’s River Road, a 70-mile stretch on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The banks are dotted with these monumental homes, built by wealthy sugar planters in the decades before the Civil War. What is also critically important to understand is that their economic success was dependent on the forced labor and lifeblood of enslaved people.

We chose three destinations for our tour — Oak Alley Plantation, the Whitney Plantation and Houmas House. With their outstanding architecture, lovely antiques and stunning settings, the River Road mansions clearly convey the privileged white life of the antebellum period, but we had a much deeper, richer and authentic visit as we also learned about the horror — and resilience — of African-Americans who also lived on the land during the same time.

Our first stop was Oak Alley Plantation, where the story of the “Big House” was told separately from the story of the reconstructed slave quarters just 100 yards from the front door. Oak Alley is known for the quarter-mile row of facing 300-year-old oaks leading up to the plantation house.

A different perspective greeted us down the road. A visit to the Whitney Plantation, opened in 2014, was a remarkable way to be immersed in events that are still difficult to discuss 150 years after the Civil War. Whitney provided a visceral experience, told through the real narratives of enslaved children and in the footsteps of the enslaved people who lived on this plantation.

In a white clapboard church, we met 40 life-sized statues of slave children created by Woodrow Nash. Around my neck, the lanyard had a portrayal of former slave Ann Hawthorne, a little girl in a hat and pinafore, whose story was recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1930.

“I was bo’n in slavery, and I was a right sizable gal when freedom came,” she tells me. Nearby rows of granite slab walls — The Wall of Honor — captured the names of 356 people enslaved on the plantation through the years. Seven slave cabins stand on the site, two of them original and the others acquired from another plantation. Our guide walked us slowly around the property and told stories of hardship, privation, death and hope.

Standing in the master’s Creole French-style house, our guide patted the head of another statue and told her story. Anna was raped by the brother of the owner. Her son by that encounter was given the owner’s name and eventually freed. His great-granddaughter became a well-known local activist and married the first black mayor of New Orleans; their son also became mayor.

The guide looked at our group and said, “If this child could turn his life into such a gift of service, what excuse do you have not to make a difference?”

To anchor our weekend, we chose the striking Greek Revival mansion, Houmas House, with its two-storied colonnade, lushly landscaped gardens, newly built guest cottages and several excellent restaurants on site.

At Latil’s Landing, we had a wonderful five-course prix fixe meal that provided a stark contrast to the stories we had heard earlier in the day. Later, we sat on the wraparound porch in the gathering twilight and discussed what we had learned.

It was easier now to see the ghosts of all who lived and died to support the “Sugar Palace” and the other grand houses on River Road, including the thousands of enslaved men, women and children whose voices we are only now beginning to hear.