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Our Undying Past

At last, a slavery museum

The Louisiana museum includes a number of tableau including this one of children.
America finally has a slavery museum. And it’s right in the belly of the beast, rural Louisiana.

But what took long? Our country was founded on two pillars of shame – the enslavement of black people and the dispossession of Native Americans – so why did it take us until 2015 to open a museum focusing on the enormity of what’s been called our “peculiar institution”?

Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor, has a theory about this societal avoidance. “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,” he says. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”

Johnson is among the people quoted by The New York Times in a Feb. 26 feature story about the new slavery museum. The article walks you through the museum grounds, located on the original Whitney Plantation west of New Orleans. Whitney is far different from other restored sugar plantations in a region where, the Times states, “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.”

At Whitney, the visitor finds not only slave cabins and exhibits but also a series of walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who lived in Louisiana before 1820. The Times says the memorial “lists the names non-alphabetically to mirror the confusion and chaos that defined a slave’s life.”

The museum is the brainchild of a Louisiana-born white lawyer, John Cummings, 77, who plowed $8 million of his own money unto the project. Was white guilt what motivated him? “If ‘guilt’ is the best word to use, then yes, I feel guilt,” he told The Times. “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?”

Probably the most troubling sight at Whitney will be a pending memorial to the victims of a 1811 slave revolt there. The story goes that at least 125 enslaved people walked off their plantations and marched down the river road toward New Orleans – until white militias stepped in. About 95 protesters were killed – including dozens who were decapitated as a warning to other slaves. Their heads were placed on spikes along the road and in New Orleans’ famous Jackson Square.

To memorialize that gruesome action, Cummings hired a sculptor to make 60 ceramic heads, which will be mounted on steel pikes at Whitney. “It is disturbing,” Cummings told The Times. “But you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road.”

The news of this ground-breaking museum caught my attention because I’m currently researching a group of fugitive slaves who resettled in my hometown in northeastern Pennsylvania. Next time I’m in New Orleans, I’ll take the 35-mile side trip to the Whitney to absorb its story, learn what I can, and pay my respects.

Consider doing the same. At the least, check out the article in The Times. Here’s a link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/magazine/building-the-first-slave-museum-in-america.html?_r=0#
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