The End of the River

When I taught children’s lit at the university, I often included a Newbery Honor Book on my book list called To Be a Slave, edited by Julius Lester. The bulk of the material is from stories collected during the Great Depression through the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration set up by FDR. These stories were told by ex-slaves about their experiences under American slavery. Of course, by the time they told their stories, it had been decades since the end of slavery, so most of the storytellers had been children during the days of slavery. While the book is aimed at middle school kids, it’s really a book for adults, too. It can be read in brief readings, like poetry, because it is arranged by theme in little anecdotes or partial stories.

In New Orleans we went on a plantation tour, but it wasn’t the typical tour where the focus is on the lives of the plantation owners. Rather, the Whitney Plantation explores the lives of the enslaved. Our guide was very careful to use the word “enslaved” rather than slaves, and while it was sometimes slightly awkward, I really liked how it made us concentrate every time we heard it on the notion of PEOPLE who were enslaved. It doesn’t allow for the distancing that some people might feel using the word slaves, which is an “othering” word–a way to be different from the person being talked about.

New Orleans is important to the history of American slavery. It’s the end point for enslaved people whose situations went from bad to worse. When an enslaved person was sold from an enslaver who lived closer to the Mason-Dixon line, but sold farther south down the Mississippi River it meant that he or she would be worked harder and live in more dangerous conditions. New Orleans had the biggest slave market, so many enslaved people ended up at that market. The swamps and bayous of the area meant disease and more back-breaking work, namely growing and harvesting sugar cane.

Whitney Plantation is really just beginning to record and share the plight of the enslaved people of the south. There is much more work to be done. But I loved how they focused on the children because of the voices of the FWP/WPA storytellers. By the way, the bookstore has a great collection, including the Lester book. 

After the church with the children (sculptures), we toured the property.

 

Whitney has memorials that list the names of the enslaved, as well as a particular memorial for the babies who died by age two, which was very very sad. This is a sample of a memorial wall for the adults.

The main house was almost an afterthought after seeing some of the outbuildings, the kettles for harvesting sugarcane, and reading the memorials.

Wherever we travel, there are big beautiful houses to tour, and although this one was plainer than many, the emphasis here is long overdue. It’s a place to learn about the lives of the people who were bought and sold in order to work these plantations.

###

Today would have been my father’s 88th birthday, and it is my uncle’s 88th birthday (Dad’s twin). A week and a half ago, my aunt on my mom’s side (her SIL) entered the ER on the two-year anniversary of the day my father entered (that began his health decline). She was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia and has already entered hospice. Our family is in shock over this as we didn’t know she was ill. If you’re so inclined, please send up your prayers for Aunt Jean.

60 Comments

Filed under Children's Literature, History, Nonfiction, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing

60 responses to “The End of the River

  1. A sensitive post, Luanne. I wish your aunt Jean well, and will pray

  2. I’ve seen a few buildings used to house the “enslaved people” and I want to get on bended knee and thank God for my good fortune as I don’t think I would have survived. Life was harsh for many back then but for these folks it was impossible. My heart always hurts when I hear about how people enslave people and I mean that in all ways — it still goes on today in some countries. Many are sex slaves. Life is meaningless in many countries. Wonderful post and best wishes to your family in this hard time.

    • Well put, Kate. Yes, it makes my heart hurt, too. Slavery still going on today and yet we rarely talk about it! Thank you for your best wishes, too. The family is very sad and in shock.

  3. My great grand was an overseer on the St. Geme Plantation (no longer exist). His letters in French to the owner in the Caribbean Island tell us how mean and ruthless he was toward the slaves. I thank God my grandfather changed all of that. This is a good post. I must get this book and go see this plantation. Thanks for this!

    • Oh, wow, Andy. What an incredible story your family has. His letters must be so disturbing, especially to be read by family who have grown up with different views from the old ones. Let me know what you think/feel about the book and/or plantation!

  4. My prayers are up for Aunt Jean!

  5. Fascinating history, Luanne – thank you for sharing it!
    Offering prayers for your aunt and all those who love her.

    Wishing for you and yours, a very blessed and Happy New Year!

  6. The statues of the children are incredibly touching. And thanks for the introduction of the word “enslaved” versus “slave”. It does make a difference in how you think of the person and the circumstances.

    • So touching and so realistic. It was interesting that the tour guide ever explained–and nobody asked–why she used the language she did. The only reason I probably picked up on it was because of my doctoral studies and teaching right at the time that theory had become so important to literature.

  7. Thank you for sharing your tour, Luanne…wonderful photographs.
    Praying for your sweet Aunt Jean. xo

  8. Luanne, so sorry to hear of your family shock. I’ll be thinking of your Aunt Jean and send her ‘Jean-wishes.’

  9. I will add your aunt to my prayers.

    As for your post, I’m glad you wrote it. In the vein of so many vile and cruel things we’ve done to people, we cannot forget the impact slavery had on the south and on its people.

    • Thank you!!! I really wonder what a lot of people today know about the American past–both kids in our schools and adults who have come to this country as adults and didn’t get our history classes. One thing the tour guide said that I thought was important that had to do with the south–or not the south–was that even the north was complicit because companies (and their workers) made money and/or livings off slavery. They made products used in slavery, transportation was used for slavery, etc.

  10. The story of the enslaved is monstrous. We went to Oak Alley, where the emphasis was on the enslavers. They suffered from ill health — and the enslaved much more so. The plantation owner lost her husband and some of her children, and she had the problem of spending more money than she could make with all those people she wasn’t paying to grow her sugar cane. So she lost the plantation.

    I’m sorry about your aunt.

    • Oak Alley is where 12 Years a Slave was filmed? Yes, the climate in those days in that area was terrible for health. But better if you had access to a doctor and didn’t have to do back-breaking labor. Ugh, it’s so horrific. Yes, monstrous is a good word. So the lady was a poor business woman on top of it all. Who knows how that affected those she enslaved!

  11. Beautiful post, thank you! Thinking of you and your family x

  12. An interesting step back in time. This hits close to home as Charleston has a ‘slave market’ as well. Thanks for sharing Luanne!

    • I recently read an article that New Orleans is like a museum about slavery–the whole city–because of so many places like the slave market that were part of the business of enslaving people. I wonder if Charleston is similar to that–with old buildings still extant that were around at the time, etc. Thanks for stopping by, Andy!

      • Charleston has a preserved bulding called, ‘the Ole’Slave Market’ downtown. I know there is another preserved building as well where slaves were put on auction coming off the boats arriving from Africa. My daughter actually just took a field trip the a local plantation where they showed some slave quarters and told some stories. I thought it was really interesting

  13. I’ve tried to use the word “enslaved” in most of my writing for the past several years. You may or may not know that there has been some controversy over the depiction of slavery and enslaved people on many former plantations and historic sites. I find the statues of the children incredibly moving. I’m sure it was a fascinating tour. I’ve read WPA excerpts, but not this entire book.
    12 Years A Slave was filmed on a New Orleans area plantation.

    I’m so sorry about your Aunt Jean, Luanne. I’m sure this would be a shock at any time, but I’m sure the timing with your father’s illness must make the shock even greater. Sending you a virtual hug.

    • Before this plantation was opened up as a museum, people were torn about whether it was a good idea or not. http://thelensnola.org/2014/12/01/slavery-museum-at-upriver-plantation-stirs-controversy-on-both-sides-of-racial-divide/
      While everybody isn’t going to be happy with anything (you can quote me on that haha), Whitney has done a pretty darn good job. It feels very preliminary. I suspect much more will be done later, but they have the right focus. They also point out that the north was complicit as well because of how the north’s bread was buttered. I thought the fact that there was a focus on memorial walls, a memorial to babies, and the implicit memorial of the sculptures was particularly important. It took away from the idea of a “museum” and moved it toward the concept of memorializing and honoring.
      So many plantation tours focus on the lives of the people who lived off the labors of those they enslaved. There should be controversy over those!
      Thanks so much about Aunt Jean. Yes, it did, but also, she seemed fine! And then suddenly got very very weak, went to the ER, and was given 2 weeks to live!

  14. Poor Aunt Jean. I’ll pray as well. It’s amazing that even with sensitive museums and books about the enslaved that slavery in the world is at an all-time high. I wonder how future generations will judge us all.

    • Adrienne, thank you for the prayers. A week ago she was given an estimate of two weeks in hospice, but so far no pain, just extreme weakness. Her husband, kids, and grandkids were all there for Christmas, except for her granddaughter in the Air Force. I hope she is able to make it. Her grandson in the Navy did make it and brought her a bear that says someone in the Navy loves you :).
      Yes, I wonder about the future generations backward glance at us, too. It depends on where the world is at in the future, I guess . . . .

  15. I missed this very serious post about New Orleans and slavery.
    I am sad to know you lost your father whose twin is 88 years old. I will keep your Aunt Jean in my belated prayers, Luanne. Sending you hugs and best wishes for your new year. I hope there may be a miracle. . .

    • Thank you, Robin. I hope you had a lovely Christmas with family and that 2017 is a super duper year for you xoxo!

      • My family are wonderful, Luanne. I am blessed!
        I made tremendous progress with my knowing Calisto for 9 months, while dating him for six months.
        In his caring choice in gifts of a nice quality artist’s painting set and portfolio, as well as a “first Christmas” ornament. He wrote in his card, he hoped it was the first of many more. (shh! I don’t want to “jinx” it!) 😉 xo
        I hope your 2017 is everything you dreamed of, personally and in the publishing and your writing world!!

  16. I am sorry, I wrote a rushed response, Luanne. I did remember your Dad’s passing but had forgotten he had a twin. I wish that your Aunt Jean didn’t have to be put into Hospice. ❤ I will keep her in your prayers.

    Hoping the new year will help your life to be happy, full of better health for your husband the Gardener, and the cats stay well, too. Hugs xo

  17. This must have been an enlightening, if shocking tour Luanne, I imagine having the ‘children’ watching you as you walk around brings the horror home more.

  18. Luanne, thanks so much for sharing this post. Although I have visited Louisiana I have not been to this plantation. It seems, based on your description and pictures, that they were very intentional about getting across an accurate picture of what and how we were, as a nation –during that time. Many plantations I have visited have glanced over or glamorized slavery. Thanks again for this post and am praying for Auntie!

  19. Wasn’t it Bill O’Reilly who made a comment about how the “slaves” who built the White House were well-fed and well-housed? Right. Too many people still today want to minimize the horrors of enslavement. And I also agree that using the word “enslaved” is much better. These were enslaved human beings; calling them slaves allow one to think of them as another species (which, granted, many folks did back then and too many still do now). Thank you for this sensitive, tender post.
    And my prayers and heart go to you and your family and your Aunt Jean. ❤

  20. Thank you for this. I’ll be adding the book to our library soon, I hope.

    I’m sorry to hear about your aunt. Prayers and positive thoughts coming your way.

    • Thanks, Robyn. She’s doing well so far in hospice. In fact, she’s so much more comfortable just being out of the hospital environment with all the tests and annoying things. In hospice she can see her family every day, have a good meal, a nice whirlpool bath, and even her own hairdresser to fix her hair.
      Such a great book to add to your library, especially because you will be with the book to explain stuff to the kids when they first dip into it. How old are they now?

  21. Pingback: A Visit to The Whitney Plantation: The End of the River — Writer Site – Happy. Homeschooling. Housewife.

  22. I’m sorry to hear about your aunt’s sad news. Yes, I will say a prayer for her now.

  23. Of course. How is Aunt Jean doing?
    Also, I forgot to say thanks for sharing the post – such important history, that was often erased or ignored.
    And yes, I prefer the term “enslaved people” too. Somehow, the term ‘slave’ tends to erase the humanity of these African Americans. One of those words that do that.
    By the way, I just got back from seeing Hidden Figures – wonderful movie that has, at its heart, the involvement of 3 genius women in the space program. The three were black, and between being rare women and rare blacks at NASA they had such a hard time, but eventually prevailed. One wonders how many brilliant minds were shut out from making breakthrough contributions to their country.

    • Thanks so much, Cynthia. Aunt Jean is weak and gets easily tired, but really she seems on a much slower path than the doctors had predicted. At least they take very good care of her in hospice. Yes, I agree: “‘slave’ tends to erase the humanity of these African Americans.” I’ve heard about that movie! What an uplifting and heartbreaking story!

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