Today we look at the building of the first slavery museum in America.
Louisiana’s River Road runs northwest from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, its two lanes snaking some 100 miles along the Mississippi and through a contradictory stretch of America. Flat and fertile, with oaks webbed in Spanish moss, the landscape stands in defiance of the numerous oil refineries and petrochemical plants that threaten its natural splendor. In the rust-scabbed towns of clapboard homes, you are reminded that Louisiana is the eighth-poorest state in the nation. Yet in the lush sugar plantations that crop up every couple of miles, you can glimpse the excess that defined the region before the Civil War. Some are still active, with expansive fields yielding 13 million tons of sugar cane a year. Others stand in states of elegant rot. But most conspicuous are those that have been restored for tourists, transporting them into a world of bygone Southern grandeur — one in which mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings
On Dec. 7, the Whitney Plantation, in the town of Wallace, 35 miles west of New Orleans, celebrated its opening, and it was clear, based on the crowd entering the freshly painted gates, that the plantation intended to provide a different experience from those of its neighbors. Roughly half of the visitors were black, for starters, an anomaly on plantation tours in the Deep South. And while there were plenty of genteel New Orleanians eager for a peek at the antiques inside the property’s Creole mansion, they were outnumbered by professors, historians, preservationists, artists, graduate students, gospel singers and men and women from Senegal dressed in traditional West African garb: flowing boubous of intricate embroidery and bright, saturated colors. If opinions on the restoration varied, visitors were in agreement that they had never seen anything quite like it. Built largely in secret and under decidedly unorthodox circumstances, the Whitney had been turned into a museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery — the first of its kind in the United States.
Located on land where slaves worked for more than a century, in a state where the sight of the Confederate flag is not uncommon, the results are both educational and visceral. An exhibit on the North American slave trade inside the visitors’ center, for instance, is lent particular resonance by its proximity, just a few steps away outside its door, to seven cabins that once housed slaves. From their weathered cypress frames, a dusty path, lined with hulking iron kettles that were used by slaves to boil sugar cane, leads to a grassy clearing dominated by a slave jail — an approach designed so that a visitor’s most memorable glimpse of the white shutters and stately columns of the property’s 220-year-old “Big House” will come through the rusted bars of the squat, rectangular cell. A number of memorials also dot the grounds, including a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820. Inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the memorial lists the names nonalphabetically to mirror the confusion and chaos that defined a slave’s life.
Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, was among those to address the crowd on opening day. He first visited the Whitney as the state’s lieutenant governor in 2008, when the project was in its infancy, and at the time he compared its significance to that of Auschwitz. Now he was speaking four days after a grand jury in New York City declined to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man who was stopped for selling untaxed cigarettes; 13 days after another grand jury in Missouri cleared an officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager; and two weeks after Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was killed by a police officer. Evoking the riots and protests then gripping the nation, Landrieu said, “It is fortuitous that we come here today to stand on the very soil that gives lie to the protestations that we have made, and forces us as Americans to check where we’ve been and where we are going.”
The mayor concluded his speech by extending his hand to an older man standing just offstage to his left. Stocky and bespectacled, with a thick head of unkempt white hair, John Cummings was as much a topic of conversation among those gathered as the Whitney itself. For reasons almost everyone was at a loss to explain, he had spent the last 15 years and more than $8 million of his personal fortune on a museum that he had no obvious qualifications to assemble.
“Like everyone else,” John Cummings said a few days earlier, “you’re probably wondering what the rich white boy has been up to out here.”
He was driving around the Whitney in his Ford S.U.V., making sure the museum would be ready for the public. Born and raised in New Orleans, Cummings is as rife with contrasts as the land that surrounds his plantation. He is 77 but projects the unrelenting angst of a teenager. His disposition is exceedingly proper — the portly carriage, the trimmed white beard, the florid drawl — but he dresses in a rumpled manner that suggests a morning habit of mistaking the laundry hamper for the dresser. As someone who had to hitchhike to high school and remains bitter about not being able to afford his class ring, he embodies the scrappiness of the Irish Catholics who flooded New Orleans in the 19th century. But as a trial lawyer who has helped win more than $5 billion in class-action settlements and a real estate magnate whose holdings have multiplied his wealth many times over, Cummings personifies the affluence and power held by an elite and mostly white sliver of a city with a majority black population.
“I suppose it is a suspicious thing, what I’ve gone and done with the joint,” he continued, acknowledging that his decision to “spend millions I have no interest in getting back” on the museum has long been a source of local confusion. More than a few of the 670 residents of Wallace — 90 percent of whom are black, many the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who worked the region’s land — have voiced their bewilderment over the years. So, too, have the owners of other tourist-oriented plantations, all of whom are white. Members of Cummings’s close-knit family (he has eight children by two wives) also struggle to clarify their patriarch’s motivations, resorting to the shoulder-shrugging logic of “John being John,” as if explaining a stubborn refusal to throw away old newspapers rather than a consuming, heterodox and very expensive attempt to confront the darkest period of American history. “Challenge me, fight me on it,” he said. “I’ve been asked all the questions. About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit off of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?” With that, Cummings went silent, something he does with unsettling frequency in conversation.
“Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it,” he finally resumed, “so I figured I might as well get started.”
This was a practiced line, but also an earnest form of self-indictment: Cummings’s way of admitting his own ignorance on the subject of slavery and its legacy, and by extension encouraging visitors to confront their own. As with the rest of his real estate portfolio, which includes miles of raw countryside and swampland, a 12-story luxury hotel near the French Quarter, a cattle farm in rural Mississippi and a 1,200-acre ranch in West Texas that he has never set foot on, he initially gravitated toward the Whitney simply because it was for sale. (“Whatever Uncle Sam and the bartender let me keep,” he likes to note, “I bought real estate with it.”) Originally built by the Haydel family, a prosperous clan of German immigrants who ran the property from 1752 to 1867, the grounds had been uninhabited for a quarter century. “I knew I wasn’t going to live here,” Cummings said as he drove past the blacksmith’s shop that he spent $300,000 rebuilding, where a plaque noted that a slave named Robin worked on the plantation for 40 years and where the actor Jamie Foxx, playing a slave in “Django Unchained,” was filmed being branded. “But aside from that, I didn’t know what I would do with the place.”
It takes just a few minutes of conversation with Cummings, however, to understand that he would never have been keen on restoring the Whitney in the mold of neighboring plantations, which rely on weddings and sorority reunions to supplement the income brought in by picnicking tourists. Pet projects he has taken up in recent years include outlining for the Vatican a list of wrongs the Catholic Church should formally apologize for and — to the chagrin of, in his words, “my friends who have all had political sex changes in the past 15 years” — exploring ways to curb the influence of conservative “super PACs.” Decades ago, his interest in abuses of power led to his involvement in the civil rights movement; in 1968, he worked alongside African-American activists to get the Audubon Park swimming pool in New Orleans opened to blacks. “If someone is going to deny someone rights simply because they have the power to do it — well, I’m interested,” he explained. “I’m coming, and I’m going to bring the cannons.”
Still, his plans for the Whitney might have gone in an entirely different direction, if not for the existence of an unlikely document. The property’s previous owner was Formosa, a plastics and petrochemical giant, which in 1991 planned to build a $700 million plant for manufacturing rayon on its nearly 2,000 acres. Preservationists and environmentalists balked. Looking for avenues of appeasement, Formosa commissioned an exhaustive survey of the grounds, with the idea that the most historic sections would be turned into a token museum of Creole culture while a majority of the rest would be razed to make way for the factory. In the end, it was wasted money and effort: The opposition remained vigilant, rayon was going out of fashion, the Whitney went back on the market and Cummings inherited the eight-volume study with the purchase. “Thanks to Formosa, I knew more about my plantation than anyone else around here — maybe more than any plantation in America outside of Monticello,” said Cummings, a litigator accustomed to teasing secrets from dense paperwork. “A lot of what was in there was about the architecture and artifacts, but you started to see the story of slavery. You saw it in terms of who built what.”
After digesting the study, Cummings began reading “any book I could find” about slavery. Particularly influential was “Africans in Colonial Louisiana,” by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a professor at Rutgers. Certain details startled Cummings, like the fact that 38 percent of slaves shipped from Africa ended up in Brazil. No wonder, he thought, that the women he watched on television celebrating Carnival in Rio de Janeiro so closely resembled those he saw dancing in the Mardi Gras parades that surrounded him as a youth. “I started to see slavery and the hangover from slavery everywhere I looked,” he said. As a descendant of Irish laborers, he has no direct ties to slaveholders; still, in a departure from the views held by many Southern whites, Cummings considered the issue a personal one. “If ‘guilt’ is the best word to use, then yes, I feel guilt,” he said. “I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world — wealth that has benefited me — was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by. How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”
Cummings steered the vehicle past the yellowing fronds of banana trees and pulled to a stop in front of a sculpture, a black angel embracing a dead infant, the centerpiece of a memorial honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in the parish in the 40 years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. At traditional museums, such memorials come to fruition only after a lengthy process — proposals by artists, debates among the board members, the securing of funds. This statue, though, like everything on the property, began as a vision in Cummings’s mind and became a reality shortly after he pulled out his checkbook. Perhaps most remarkable is that this unconventional model has yielded conventionally effective results: at once chastening and challenging, beautiful and haunting. “Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work,” says Laura Rosanne Adderley, a Tulane history professor specializing in slavery who has visited the Whitney twice since it opened. “And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically. Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.”
Before leaving the grounds, Cummings stopped at the edge of the property’s small lagoon. It was here that the Whitney’s most provocative memorial would soon be completed, one dedicated to the victims of the German Coast Uprising, an event rarely mentioned in American history books. In January 1811, at least 125 slaves walked off their plantations and, dressed in makeshift military garb, began marching in revolt along River Road toward New Orleans. (The area was then called the German Coast for the high number of German immigrants, like the Haydels.) The slaves were suppressed by militias after two days, with about 95 killed, some during fighting and some after the show trials that followed. As a warning to other slaves, dozens were decapitated, their heads placed on spikes along River Road and in what is now Jackson Square in the French Quarter.
“It’ll be optional, O.K.? Not for the kids,” said Cummings, who commissioned Woodrow Nash, an African-American sculptor he met at Jazz Fest, to make 60 heads out of ceramic, which will be set atop stainless-steel rods on the lagoon’s small island. “But just in case you’re worried about people getting distracted by the pretty house over there, the last thing you’ll see before leaving here will be 60 beheaded slaves.”
The memorial had lately become a source of controversy among locals, who were concerned that it would be too disturbing.
“It is disturbing,” Cummings said as he pulled out past Whitney’s gate. “But you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road.”
A nation builds museums to understand its own history and to have its history understood by others, to create a common space and language to address collectively what is too difficult to process individually. Forty-eight years after World War II, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington. A museum dedicated to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks opened its doors in Lower Manhattan less than 13 years after they occurred. One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, however, no federally funded museum dedicated to slavery exists, no monument honoring America’s slaves. “It’s something I bring up all the time in my lectures,” says Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” “If the Germans built a museum dedicated to American slavery before one about their own Holocaust, you’d think they were trying to hide something. As Americans, we haven’t yet figured out how to come to terms with slavery. To some, it’s ancient history. To others, it’s history that isn’t quite history.”
These competing perceptions converge with baroque vividness in the South. The State of Mississippi did not acknowledge the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery until 1995 and formally ratified it only in 2013, when a resident was moved to galvanize lawmakers after watching Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” While some Southern states have passed resolutions apologizing for slavery in the last decade, a majority, Louisiana among them, have not. In 1996, when Representative Steve Scalise, now the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, was serving in the Louisiana State Legislature, he voted against such a bill. “Why are you asking me to apologize for something I didn’t do and had no part of?” he remarked at the time. This episode recently came to light amid the revelation that in 2002 he addressed a gathering of white supremacists at a conference organized by David Duke, formerly the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization founded the year the Civil War ended.
Slavery is by no means unmemorialized in American museums, though the subject tends to be lumped in more broadly with African-American history. In 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in Cincinnati with the mission of showcasing “freedom’s heroes.” Since 2007, the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, S.C., has operated as a small museum focusing on the early slave trade, on a site where slaves were sold at public auctions until 1863. The National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in Memphis in 1991 and was built around the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, offers a brief section devoted to slavery. Next year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to be dedicated in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Institution, a project supported by $250 million in federal funding; exhibits on slavery will stand alongside those containing a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong and boxing gloves worn by Muhammad Ali. “It has to be said that the end note in most of these museums is that civil rights triumphs and America is wonderful,” says Paul Finkelman, a historian who focuses on slavery and the law. “We are a nation that has always readily embraced the good of the past and discarded the bad. This does not always lead to the most productive of dialogues on matters that deserve and require them.”
What makes slavery so difficult to think about, from the vantage point of history, is that it was both at odds with America’s founding values — freedom, liberty, democracy — and critical to how they flourished. The Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal” was drafted by men who were afforded the time to debate its language because the land that enriched many of them was tended to by slaves. The White House and the Capitol were built, in part, by slaves. The economy of early America, responsible for the nation’s swift rise and sustained power, would not have been possible without slavery. But the country’s longstanding culture of racism and racial tensions — from the lynchings of the Jim Crow-era South to the discriminatory housing policies of the North to the treatment of blacks by the police today — is deeply rooted in slavery as well. “Slavery gets understood as a kind of prehistory to freedom rather than what it really is: the foundation for a country where white supremacy was predicated upon African-American exploitation,” says Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”
In 2001, Douglas Wilder, a former governor of Virginia and the first elected black governor in the nation, announced his intention to build a museum that would be the first to give slavery its proper due — not as a piece of Southern or African-American history but as essential to understanding American history in general. Christened the United States National Slavery Museum, it was to be built on 38 acres along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Va. Wilder, the grandson of slaves, commissioned C. C. Pei, a son of I. M. Pei, to design the main building, which would be complemented by a full-scale replica of a slave ship. A number of prominent African-Americans, including Bill Cosby, pledged millions of dollars in support at black-tie fund-raisers. The ambition that surrounded the project’s inception, however, was soon eclipsed by years of pitfalls. By 2008, there were not enough donations to pay property taxes, let alone begin construction; in 2011, the nonprofit organization in charge of the project filed for bankruptcy protection. As it happens, it was during the same period Wilder’s project unraveled that John Cummings, unburdened by any bureaucracies, was well on his way to completing a slavery museum of his own.
For much of the last 13 years, Cummings has been joined on the Whitney’s grounds by a Senegalese scholar named Ibrahima Seck. A 54-year-old of imposing height, Seck first met Cummings in 2000, when Seck, who has made regular trips to the South since winning a Fulbright in 1995, attended a talk at Tulane with Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, the Rutgers professor. Cummings put up Seck at the International House, the hotel he owns in downtown New Orleans, and invited him to see the Whitney. Though at that point it was little more than a series of decrepit buildings entangled in feral vegetation, Seck was impressed that Cummings was thinking about it exclusively within the context of slavery. As someone from the region of Africa that provided more than 60 percent of Louisiana’s slaves, he was disturbed by the way other plantations romanticized the lives of the white owners, with scant mention of the enslaved blacks who harvested the land and built the grand homes fawned over by tourists. After walking the property with Seck for a few hours, Cummings invited him to return to New Orleans the next year to help crystallize the Whitney’s mission. Seck took him up on the offer, and for the next decade, Cummings flew Seck in from Africa each year during the scholar’s summer vacation.
Since 2012, Seck has lived full time in New Orleans to serve as the director of research for the Whitney. “As historians, we do the research and we write dissertations and we go to conferences, but very little of the knowledge gets out,” Seck said one afternoon in his French-inflected baritone while seated on the antique upholstered sofa in the parlor of the property’s Big House. “That’s why a place like this is so important. Not everyone is willing to read nowadays, but this is an open book.” He took a moment to glance around the lavish room, its hand-painted ceiling now meticulously restored. “Every day I think about how remarkable this is,” Seck said. “One hundred and fifty years ago, I would not be able to do what I’m doing here now. I would have been a slave.”
The alliance between the two men has been an auspicious one, with Seck’s patience and expertise serving as a counterbalance to the instinctual eccentricity of Cummings. While Seck researched the Whitney’s history, Cummings became something of a hoarder, buying anything he thought might one day be relevant to the project. When he learned about a dilapidated Baptist church in a neighboring parish that was founded by freed slaves in 1867, for example, he brought it across the Mississippi and had it restored on the grounds at a cost of $300,000. When recordings of interviews with former slaves that were made in the 1930s as part of the W.P.A.’s Federal Writers’ Project were acquired, Cummings hired a son-in-law who works as a sound engineer in Hollywood to clean them up; he plans to install a speaker system near the slave cabins, where the recordings will play on a loop, allowing visitors to hear the voices of former slaves while staring into the type of homes in which they once lived. After Seck unearthed in old court documents the names of 354 slaves who worked on the land before emancipation, Cummings bought an engraving machine so they could be etched in Italian granite in a memorial he christened the “Wall of Honor.”
“By 2005, it was clear to me that we were building a museum, but I’m not sure John was thinking about it in those terms,” Seck said. “If John feels something, he just goes ahead and does it. His stubbornness can be frustrating, but who in the world is willing to put so many millions of dollars into a project like this? If you find one, you have to support it.”
In his years of working on the Whitney, Seck has come to see the museum as both a memorializing of history and a slyly radical gesture: Cummings’s desire to shift the consciousness of others as his own has been altered, and in the process try to make amends of a kind that have been a source of debate since emancipation.
“If one word comes to mind to summarize what is in John’s head in doing this,” Seck said, “that word would be ‘reparations.’ Real reparations. He feels there is something to be done in this country to make changes.”
In 1835, a biracial child named Victor was born on the grounds of the Whitney, the son of a slave named Anna and Antoine Haydel, the brother of Marie Azelie Haydel, the slaveholder who ran the plantation at the time. One hundred and seventy-nine years later, a group of both the black and white descendants of the Haydels made their way to the Whitney’s opening in December. Many were meeting for the first time, and the sight of them embracing and marveling at the similarities in their appearances was as powerful as any memorial on the plantation. Among the black Haydels in attendance was one of Victor’s great-grandchildren, Sybil Haydel Morial, a well-known local activist who is the widow of Ernest Morial, the first black mayor of New Orleans, and the mother of Marc Morial, a subsequent mayor. “I was with John when he helped get the pool in Audubon Park opened to blacks,” she said in a later conversation. “Now, with the Whitney, he has given us a place where we can come and clear the air. If my slave great-grandfather had lived eight more years, I would have known him. Yet growing up, whenever my elders talked about slavery, they’d always get quiet when we kids were near.” Morial added that she hoped “some people around here may find their views changing” after visiting the Whitney, which seemed to be the case with some of her white relatives at the opening.
“I have to say, I was a little offended when I heard that slavery, of all the stories, was going to be the focus,” Glynne Couvillion, a white Haydel, said while standing inside the Baptist church, surrounded by dozens of ghostly sculptures of child slaves that Cummings commissioned to represent those interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project as they would have looked when enslaved. “But after today, I’m just in awe and proud to be connected to this place.”
For all the time and money Cummings has dedicated to the Whitney — and he is by no means finished, with plans to build an adjacent institute for the study of slavery — the museum was built on a shoestring budget compared with traditionally financed institutions. (The Holocaust Memorial Museum cost about $168 million.) Besides Seck, there were only two full-time staff members, an energetic young woman named Ashley Rogers, who serves as the director, and her deputy, Monique Johnson, a descendant of sharecroppers from the area, and it was evident that they were still finding their footing. Like the other plantations along River Road, the Whitney can be seen only through a guided tour — the cost is $22 — and a number of the docents struggled to find the proper tone. (“Time to depress you a little more,” one could be heard saying at various points.) Others struggled to answer questions about how, exactly, sugar cane was harvested by slaves, responding instead with generalities intended to incite emotion rather than educate: “It was the hardest, most grueling slave work imaginable.”
Yet this awkwardness might well serve as one of the Whitney’s strengths. Talking about slavery and race is awkward, and the museum stands a chance of becoming the rare place where this discomfort can be embraced, and where the dynamic among the mainly mixed-race tours can offer an ancillary form of education. A man who grew up in a “maroon community,” as bayou enclaves founded by runaway slaves are known, was so moved during his tour that he volunteered to work as a guide. A young black woman mentioned that she avoided tours at another nearby plantation because an ancestor was lynched on the grounds. Among the Whitney’s first visitors was a black man named Paul Brown, whose father was a field hand and who arrived dressed in a sharp blazer and a fedora on opening day “to shake the man’s hand who made this place possible.” During his tour, he offered personal anecdotes that served to buttress the white guide’s skittishness — bringing the past into the present, for instance, by pointing out how the images of slaves etched in one memorial were reminiscent of portraits of his ancestors. “I wish some of my white co-workers would come to this place,” he said afterward. “They’d understand me in ways they’ve failed for 30 years.”
Jonathan Holloway, a dean at Yale College and a professor of African-American studies, arrived for a tour in late January. He was in the area to give a talk at Louisiana State University about the ways the horrors of slavery are confronted and avoided in heritage tourism, and he found the Whitney to be a “genius step” in a long-overdue direction. “People have tried to do a museum like this for years, and I’m still stunned that this guy made it happen,” he said afterward. “There I was, coming down to talk about how in trying to tell the story, it’s often one step forward and two steps back, and boom, here’s the Whitney.” Holloway was particularly taken by the museum’s subversive approach. “Having been on a number of tours where the entire focus is on the Big House, the way they’ve turned the script inside out is a brilliant slipping of the skirt,” he said. “The mad genius of the whole thing is really resonant. Is it an art gallery? A plantation tour? A museum? It’s almost this astonishing piece of performance art, and as great art does, it makes you stop and wonder.”
Cummings, for his part, has been on the grounds every day since the Whitney opened, where he is in the habit of approaching visitors as they enter and telling them how they should feel afterward: “You’re not going to be the same person when you leave here” — a line that some found more grating than endearing. Inwardly, though, he was constantly making notes on what could be done to improve the experience.
“Look, we’re not perfect, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we’ll make more,” he said one afternoon as the sun set across the sugar-cane fields that surround the plantation in much the form they did when slaves worked them 200 years ago. “We need all the help we can get — not financial, but we need brains.” With this in mind, he recently started reaching out to prominent African-American academics, hoping to create a board of directors — typically the first step for a museum, not one taken six weeks after opening day. “I’m firing before I’m aiming, O.K.?” he said. “I’m smart enough to know I don’t have the answers, but so far it looks like it’s the right thing.”
Thanks for your attention.