October 18 is UK Anti Slavery Day, created in 2010 by a private member’s bill in order to “raise awareness of modern slavery”.
To understand the contemporary manifestations of this iniquity, it helps to look at the past – which is what brings me to a plantation house on the banks of the Mississippi River in rural Louisiana, in the Deep South of America.
An imposing oak-lined driveway sweeps up to the front of the big, white, pillared house. But it is not for the likes of us. “We are going to enter the home as enslaved individuals would have entered – through the back pantry,” says our guide, Adina Oubre.
Whitney Plantation, which opened to visitors on guided tours in December 2014, offers a deliberately back-to-front experience. In the mid-19th century it was one among hundreds of sugar cane plantations lining both sides of the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Each had a grand house built in the Greek Revival or Creole style – and a cluster of wooden cabins to house its workforce of slaves. A handful of these old estates are now open to the public, offering a taste of bygone grandeur with “costumed interpreters” in hooped skirts (“Step back into antebellum elegance … and savour a mint julep,” exhorts the promotional leaflet of one of the plantations).
Slavery is acknowledged – how could it not be? – but in most cases in a perfunctory fashion that relegates it to a footnote.
At Whitney slavery is the narrative, and the lives of the slave owners in the big house merely an afterthought. “The purpose of today’s tour is simply to give a voice to those who did not have one,” says Adina Oubre, a 39-year-old African American who grew up locally and, she tells me, “always wondered about this place” on her doorstep.
Whitney’s history is pretty standard for the plantation houses along this stretch of the Mississippi River. It was established in the mid-18th century by a German immigrant, Ambroise Heidel, and by 1860 the family had grown immensely wealthy on the sugar processed by their enslaved workforce.
What visitors see and learn there today is the brainchild of a white New Orleans lawyer and property magnate, John Cummings, who has spent millions of dollars developing the old estate as America’s first museum dedicated to slavery. (The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington DC last month as part of the Smithsonian Institution, explores this shameful period of history across America.)
Whitney is also a “site of memory,” featuring memorial walls inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington.
The Wall of Honor features the names and details of 354 Whitney slaves (including an “idiot” sold for $105) carved on granite slabs while other memorials commemorate 107,000 people enslaved in Louisiana between 1719 and 1820 and 2,200 slave infants who died before their third birthday between 1823 and 1863: Jacob, Heloise, Fanny, “a little negress”… “I ask that you take a second or two to speak some of these names,” murmurs Oubre.
The site is historic as well as commemorative. In addition to the main house there are two cypress-wood slave cabins original to the property and five others brought in from other plantations, the largest collection of “sugar kettles” – drums in which the cane juice was boiled – in Louisiana, and various outhouses including a “pigeonnier” and a reconstruction of a blacksmith’s forge which features in the Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained.
The most disturbing construction is the slave pen, a rusting iron cage into which slaves who had broken the rules – meeting other slaves in secret, for example – were strapped and then left in the hot sun. If that didn’t teach you a lesson, you would be branded.
“The brand of choice in Louisiana was the fleur de lys,” says Oubre. “It was the mark of the beast. It meant you were a troublemaker, you didn’t comply.” And the man who did the branding was the blacksmith, “who was himself an enslaved individual.”
Oubre gives our group of a dozen visitors – a mix of locals and tourists on day trips from New Orleans – time to digest this information. Over the 90 minutes of the tour there are frequent pauses for reflection and afterwards I ask Adina Oubre what it is like to work in the shadow of such a troubled history.
“It can be a bit much in the early mornings, when there’s no people around,” she says. She also reveals a direct family connection with the plantation: “Since I started here I’ve found that two of Ambroise Heidel’s sons married Oubres. So I’m kind of researching myself to find out how I fit in here.”
The tour ends at the big house – where most plantation tours start. The Whitney house, a fine example of Spanish Creole design, is notable for its decorative wall paintings both inside and out, the work of an Italian artist, Dominici Canova.
Oubre points out marks on the wall of the loggia at the back of the house, where the family recorded in pencil the heights of their growing children, as families the world over have always done.
“And that simply shows us – these were people,” says Adina Oubre.