Slavery museum brings painful history to light

Slavery museum brings painful history to light

(WVUE) - Tens of thousands of people from all over the world travel to St. John Parish to hear a story rarely told. Whitney Plantation is the site of the only slavery museum in the country. Local attorney and founder John Cummings shines a light on what he calls a hidden part of history. The museum recognizes thousands of slaves who paved the way for some descendants to flourish hundreds of years later.

"The injustice is what motivated me to move," Cummings said. "I had to do it."

Cummings drives a golf cart around the Whitney Plantation grounds. He bought the property 16 years ago. The slavery museum he created just opened last December. The plantation began centuries ago as Habitation Haydel.

"This was a plantation started in the 18th century by a German settler. His name was Ambrose Heidel and this was an Indigo plantation," said Senegalese historian Ibrahima Seck.

He said sugarcane farming began in the early 19th century. Slaves were purchased to work the land.

Cummings enlisted the help of Seck and renowned researcher Gwendolyn Midlo Hall to shape the historic land into a slavery museum. There is a section that honors all Louisiana slaves.

"We went through every courthouse in the state, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and Ibrahima Seck, and we are now going to bring it up to 1865." Cummings said.

It's an effort to return dignity to people viewed for centuries as property. There is an exhibit called the Field of Angels.

"We lost one child a year here at our plantation. Look at these beautiful children," Cummings said, pointing to pictures of slave children etched in granite.

Seck says sometimes he comes across documents and reads them and some are heartbreaking.

"You see how families are broken and people are sold like cattle," he said.

Researchers were able to identify about 400 slaves who worked the fields at Habitation Haydel from the 1700's to the 1860's. A wall of honor pays tribute to them. They are ancestors who paved the way for so many families.

"This is a photograph taken from the gallery of the big house," said Sybil Haydel Morial, the wife of one New Orleans mayor and mother of another.

Morial can trace her early roots back to Haydel Plantation, from a slave named Anna.

"We know she came into Virgina and she's a mulatto herself. As soon as these slaves came here they were impregnated by white settlers," Morial said.

Seck says Anna gave birth to a baby in 1835. The father was white. His name was Antoine, the brother of them mistress of the plantation.
The baby was named Victor. He is Sybil Morial's great-grandfather.

Anna and Victor are the last two names on a slave inventory list from the plantation in 1860.

"It was kind of an eerie feeling at first. It made me sad to see that Victor was owned and had a dollar value on himself. He was valued at $800. Anna valued at $100 dollars. So, for a while it was unsettling to think they had to live like that. They were chattel. They had to do the will of the master," she said.

Seck said the beauty of the plantation was built on the blood sweat and tears of hundreds of Africans and their descendants.

"That's why we have decided to make it sacred ground." Seck said.

All of those terrible terrible stories, you can't sleep when you think  about that," Cummings said. "That's what motivated me here."

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