Shackles & Chandeliers: Oak Alley Plantation and the Struggle for History

The skies were overcast as we finished our breakfast of crepes and coffee on Magazine Street and then drove west out of New Orleans. The weather that morning suited my ambivalent mood; we were on our way to visit Oak Alley Plantation – and I just wasn’t sure how to feel about it. The further we got out of New Orleans, the denser and darker the tangled thicket by either side of the road became. A little over an hour after we’d left the city, we passed through the little town of Vacherie and pulled up to one of the most iconic estates in the American South.

Oak Alley
Oak Alley Plantation

 

A former slaveholding plantation: To go or not to go?

The idea of heading out to this plantation first came up because the friend that I was travelling to New Orleans with wanted to research some stately area homes to get ideas for a book she’s writing. Once we learned that Oak Alley was just an hour’s drive from the city and fell in love with the photographs of its ethereal, gnarled treescape, we knew we had to make the trip out to Vacherie and see it for ourselves. Even after the decision to go was made, though, I found myself having mixed feelings about visiting.

On the one hand, I was excited to visit and photograph such an elegant, stately place – an estate so steeped in history and pop culture (see Django Unchained, Interview with a Vampire, and Beyonce’s “Deja vu” to name a few). I also knew this would be a good chance to learn more about an important chapter of American history. I had never been to a southern plantation before, and my prior knowledge of slavery came strictly from classroom textbooks years ago. I knew it was important to educate myself more about the history of systemic injustices here in my home country, and that visiting a former slaveholding plantation would be a way to do that. At the same time, however, it made me uneasy to think of paying admission towards a site that had at one time helped to perpetuate slavery. In a way, don’t places like this still reap benefits from the suffering of others – even 150 years after slavery was formally abolished? In the end, I mentally justified forking over the $18 admission by telling myself that, after my visit, I would write up an honest blog post reflecting on the visit.

Oak Alley Slave Quarters
Reconstructed slave quarters at Oak Alley

 

History at Oak Alley Plantation

There have been sugarcane fields on the land at Oak Alley since 1830. The four-bedroom “Big House” itself was begun in 1837, intended as a wedding present from the then owner to his young wife. It’s not clear whether there was ever another house where the current mansion now stands, although it seems likely that there had been some type of structure given the positioning of the rows of trees that would have been planted in the 1700’s; the iconic oaks that lead up to the mansion are now estimated to be 300 years old.

From the very beginning, the Plantation depended on the labor of slaves. Slaves toiled in the earliest sugarcane fields, and the house itself was constructed entirely by slave labor. After the mansion was complete, the owners also relied on a team of house slaves. Up until slavery was formally abolished in 1863, the story of Oak Alley Plantation is inextricably linked to the stories of over 200 slaves who worked there. (You can find a complete list here.)

The plantation withstood a severe cholera outbreak in the 1850’s and the American Civil War in the early 1860’s. By 1866, however, debts brought on by the war and by poor business decisions forced the owners to put Oak Alley up for auction. The property was bought and sold many times between 1866 and 1925, eventually falling into disrepair and sitting neglected for years. The legend is that the new owners in 1925 had to chase cows out of the downstairs before restorations could begin. The last resident passed away in the 1970’s.

Oak Alley Porch
Verandah at the Big House

 

Visiting Oak Alley

Arriving at the plantation when we did, we just missed the next guided tour through the main house. So, after pausing to photograph the gardens that flank the visitor entrance (I got some pretty flower photos, but ultimately decided they didn’t fit the mood of this post), we took our time to walk through the self-guided “Slavery at Oak Alley” exhibit consisting of six reconstructed slave dwellings. The cabins are meant to give a glimpse into what life was like for the house and field slaves who would have lived here from the time the Big House was built until the mid-1860s.

Slavery at Oak Alley Plantation
The “Slavery at Oak Alley” exhibit

A purported goal of the slavery exhibit is to give voice to the stories of individual slaves – people who, in contrast with the residents of the Big House, did not leave behind a trail of primary source documents that would provide insight into their lives. Continuing through the exhibit, taking time to read all of the displays, I appreciated how people like Zephyr, his wife Zaire, and their son Antoine, were humanized and brought to the forefront through the exhibit’s sharing of their unique stories. “This is a respectful recognition of the people on whose backs this plantation was built,” says one of the displays.

The harsh living and working conditions that slaves would have endured were presented in a straightforward, undramatized manner. Only a few ominous relics from the past were displayed, but it only takes one set of children’s shackles to make an impact. Stepping away from the modest slavery exhibit, I wondered if perhaps the point was to be honest about the harsh realities of slavery but to do so without being unnecessarily exploitative of the horrors of the past.

slave_house
A glimpse into the past?

 

It would be a few more minutes before our tour group was allowed into the Big House, so we had to queue up on the verandah. By then, the afternoon heat had become more oppressive, and I could feel my hair clinging uncomfortably to the back of my neck. It was tempting to splurge on a frosty mint julep from the little mint julep station there on the porch… but then, something would have felt wrong about that after just visiting the sobering slavery exhibit.

After a couple more minutes of waiting, the teenaged girls behind us got to chatting. “I mean, I’d marry a man 40 years older than me if he gave me a house like this.” (She was alluding to the fact that the house had originally been a gift from a 36-year-old man to his 18-year-old wife.) Critiques of American materialism aside, I couldn’t believe the insensitivity of what I’d just overheard. Did this girl just not realize that this house had been completely built by slaves? Or was she meaning to suggest that she wouldn’t have minded that? My friend and I exchanged incredulous glances. Then I started wondering how many people visit Oak Alley and, like this teen, gain only the most superficial appreciation for it? As much as ever, I hoped the tour through the house would provide healthy honesty about the sinister realities of the plantation’s past.

Oak Alley sinister
South view of Oak Alley

As expected, the inside of the Big House revealed an opulence that stood in stark contrast to what we had seen in the slave dwellings. Residents of the house would have enjoyed cool marble floors and lofty twelve-foot ceilings. From the elegant formal dining room to the four bedrooms, the furniture was ornate and the fabrics sumptuous. “They liked to display their wealth,” the docent in her giant antebellum skirt stressed. But as the tour went on, I began to question just what was really on display here.

Moving from room to luxurious room, we heard countless stories about the original (white) owners’ marriage, details about the succession of new (white) owners, and affectionate memories about the house’s final (white) resident…. Yes, something was definitely missing.

What had happened to the slave narratives that the earlier exhibit had made such an effort to bring forth?

“Slavery at Oak Alley” showed how slaves would have played an essential role in the house and in the community at large – at once caring for the plantation residents and sustaining the local economy. So, why weren’t their voices being represented on this part of the tour? Every once in a way, a detail about how a slave would have been responsible for fanning the dinner guests, cooking the food, or flattening the moss mattresses each day. By and large, though, it seemed that, now that we were inside the Big House, slaves once again had been relegated to the background as mere supporting characters – their voices subjugated all over again.

Oak Alley bedroom
A bedroom at Oak Alley

 

Reflections

Official literature still claims that Oak Alley Plantation is “a testimonial to the old South’s golden age.” But isn’t it obvious that this idea is out of date?

Researching for this post, I was surprised to learn that the Slavery at Oak Alley exhibit was only installed in 2011. On the one hand, this fact begs the question: was there not any sort of formal testament to slavery on the grounds before then? On the other hand, any updates that have helped to shed new light on the historical realities of the plantation are a good thing – as long as new efforts keep being made. As I see it, the next step is to integrate the slavery exhibit more fully into the Oak Alley Plantation experience. If their mission really is to give voice to the voiceless, then the slavery exhibit can’t just exist as a sideshow for tourists – one that is self-contained, that tourists can “get over with” and then move onto their soothing mint juleps.

It turns out I’m not the only one who suspects that stories are being left untold here. This blogger goes so far as to wonder how many hangings might have taken place under the very oaks that have been so celebrated through the centuries. She suggests going next-door to the St. Joseph Plantation for a more authentic glimpse into the past.

oaktrees
Looking toward the St. Joseph Plantation

 

On the way back to Texas, we got stuck in a small town on the Louisiana border because all of the roads out had been flooded. We had lots of extra time to reflect on all the things we’d seen over the past few days. Still, weeks later, my friend and I are talking about our experience at Oak Alley – trying to navigate the complex feelings and questions our visit brought up.

Looking back, I wish I had asked some of these questions during the house tour to elicit more of the information and stories I felt were missing. What were the relationships between house slaves and plantation owners like? How many known hangings did take place under these oak trees? What happened to the previous slaves’ quarters?

Looking through the online research databases, it’s clear that the Oak Alley Foundation has done significant work over the past few years to collect meaningful records and bring previously untold histories to life. I just hope as time goes on that their official literature and house tours are also updated to more accurately reflect a more enlightened 21st century perspective.

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