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Through Their Eyes

Ogden Honors College and Georgetown University students visit the Whitney Plantation

On one spectacular spring morning this semester, students from LSU’s Ogden Honors College shared a bottle of sunscreen with students from Georgetown University at the gates of the Whitney Plantation, which in the 19th century was one of the Louisiana’s leading “German Coast” plantations, and the home of scores of enslaved African Americans who toiled in the sugar and indigo fields that made their masters wealthy and powerful.  The Georgetown students were visiting Louisiana for their spring break, and the tour of the Whitney Plantation, also known as Habitation Haydel, was part of a unique blending of three classes on two different campuses.

Students in Baton Rouge and Washington, DC spent the semester reading and discussing the histories of slavery, the internal slave trade, and post-Civil War race relations with a special focus on the sale of an entire slave community owned by the Jesuits of Georgetown to the plantations of South Louisiana in 1838. Ogden Honors College students took a course co-taught by Dean Jonathan Earle and Director of the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History Jennifer Cramer; their Georgetown peers’ courses were on the historical context of the slave sale and a class on social justice and documentary media.

“In this unique case, three courses at two different institutions came together for joint learning opportunities around the histories and legacies of Jesuit slaveholding,” said Bernie Cook, Associate Dean of Film and Media Studies at Georgetown. “Dean Earle and class were warm and enthusiastic hosts… and we were able to inform each other and to engage in productive discussion and dialogue."

During their stay, Earle and one of the descendants of the “GU 272” led students on a tour of Maringouin, the west bank town where a large number of descendants still live; hosted a Louisiana dinner of gumbo and jambalaya; and invited the students to partake in a special “dialogue on race” led by the well-known descendant (and Baton Rouge media icon) Maxine Crump, who was featured in an earlier article in this series. 

“Southern Louisiana is a particularly rich place to study the history and effects of slavery and race relations, two of the main topics of this course,” Earle said. “Being sold ‘down the river’ – and the potential destruction of intact black families – was one of the institution’s most terrifying realities, one that befell each of the 272 people from Georgetown’s Maryland plantations. It was important for all the students to see where these people, and a lion’s share of their descendants, ended up.” 

Earle also wanted to introduce his students to Whitney Plantation “not only because it is a pristinely-preserved example of a Louisiana sugar and indigo plantation, but also because [Metarie lawyer and owner ] John Cummings and [Senagal-born historian] Ibrahima Seck have built the only plantation tour I know of that tells the story from the perspective of the enslaved.” Whitney houses the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery and the enslaved, Earle said.

Cramer and Spring

Sophie Spring, an Ogden Honors freshman from New Jersey, said that she was eager to finally get a well-rounded vision of the plantations, or “slave labor camps,” as the students call them in class. Spring said that she had no preconceived notions of how a plantation would be, and she had been looking forward to learning about the people that lived and worked in slavery, the way they are represented at Whitney plantation and the mark they left on the world. 

Whitney Plantation is meant to pay homage to every slave that lived in the United States, but it gives a unique perspective on Louisiana’s working plantations. The students’ visit allowed them to physically see the cabins where the enslaved slept and the buildings and fields where they worked. Whitney Plantation, as LSU freshman Riley McDaniel said, “smells rich with history.”

Dr. Ibrahim

Dr. Ibrahima Seck, the Director of Research for Whitney Plantation and author of Bouki FaitGombo: A History of the Slave Community of Habitation Haydel (Whitney Plantation), led the students’ “VIP” tour. The students toured both the original buildings to the plantation and the memorials built to honor not just those enslaved on Whitney Plantation, but all over the United States

“Whitney is unique, because it associates slavery, history and art,” Seck said.  He said he was especially proud of a brand new plantation exhibit on the 1811 slave revolt on Louisiana’s “German Coast,” the largest uprising to take place in the U.S. South. Seck and Cummings commissioned sculptor Woodrow Nash to create a monument to the scores of slaves who were murdered in the wake of the uprising.

“The history of slavery should not be the history of labor,” Seck said. “These people built America and the American culture at large.”

As the students learned about the history of slavery, statues of enslaved children, most of Slave girl statuethem also sculpted by Nash, “watched” from every corner of the plantation. The statues are of children that were emancipated from slavery and told oral histories of their time in chains. The students each read a compilation of these oral histories as a class assignment, and when they visited Whitney, had the opportunity to see the faces of the children that worked the land in South Louisiana.

Seck reminded the students at the end of the tour that “in order to insist the truth in college, students must hold their professors responsible to learn all the facts of history.”

Insisting on teaching the truth is exactly Earle’s mission for the course. An expert in slavery and its role in American politics, Earle early on stated his desire to disrupt the “moonlight and magnolias” romanticization of the Old South that lives on in many plantation tours and high school textbooks.

Earle and Cramer’s class may have begun with a focus on the 272 slaves that were sent from Maryland to Louisiana in 1838, but the students’ final projects involved recording and preserving oral “life histories” of dozens of descendants from Louisiana and as far away as Hawaii and Illinois.  “The final oral history projects turned out beautifully,” Earle said, “and in addition to the students being phenomenal, I attribute that to the deep contextual readings and visits to places like the Whitney.  The fact is, the story of the GU 272 didn’t end with the sale, or emancipation, or even the destruction of Jim Crow.  The students understand this.”

To learn more about the class, check out our previous articles here and here

 

Article by Zoë Williamson, Ogden Honors College