Touching the Slave Experience: Lt. Governor says Whitney Plantation puts faces to tragedies

Published 12:12 am Saturday, March 10, 2018

WALLACE — When John J. Cummings III realized the most valuable assets of any plantation were the human beings sold, forced to work and stripped of their hopes and dreams, he felt a sense of shame for having overlooked a vital period of history.

“I was embarrassed,” Cummings said.

“Here I had everyone fooled, thinking I was a civic leader, wealthy and meanwhile, I did not know this. Other white people didn’t know it either.”

That realization inspired him to establish Whitney Plantation, the first museum in the country dedicated to teaching the horrors of slavery through memorial artwork and hundreds of first-person narratives.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and staff toured the plantation Wednesday and found themselves immersed in the stories of slaves who once lived and worked on the grounds.

Following the tour, Nungesser commemorated Whitney Plantation’s recognition in the Los Angeles Times as a top worldwide travel destination for 2018.

Nungesser said he was most affected by the poignant stories of enslaved children.

At the tour’s beginning, he and other guests were given cards with a child’s account of plantation life. Statues of children in the church match up with stories and provide another layer to understanding the impact of slavery.

“When I learned about slavery in school, no one ever put a face to it,” Nungesser said.

“To see the children’s faces in this church brings a tear to my eye. To read the names as we walked through the garden and to see the heads on a stick makes it personal.”

John J. Cummings III presents Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, left, a hand crafted, nameless sculpture of a slave created by the same artist who crafted the statues in the plantation’s church.

Nungesser plans to raise Whitney Plantation, which recently garnered an impressive 70,000 visitors in its third year of operation, to new heights by designating it the National Slave Museum within the next year.

This year, Whitney will be advertised at Essence Festival in New Orleans and as far away as China as the only plantation museum that focuses on the slave experience and not the charm of antebellum culture, Nungesser said.

Whitney Plantation is on the top of his list for promoting “staycations” for locals to take advantage of Louisiana’s rich tourist industry, and he’s discussing allocating field trip funds for children to visit the museum, believing it to be a part of history that must be seen.

“We’ve got to get kids in our museums to learn our history, touch it and see it in this capacity,” Nungesser said. “Reading it from a book isn’t the same.”

Kristen Sanders, assistant secretary of the Office of Culture, said Whitney Plantation is redefining the American perspective of slavery.

“As a historian, this is something that I’ve researched and read about, but to physically be in this space where they presented these stories is incredible,” Sanders said. “I think Mr. Cummings has changed the way people talk about slavery on plantations.”

Historian and research director Dr. Ibrahima Seck speaks to visitors at Whitney Plantation, which opened its doors to the public for the first time four years ago as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery.

Nungesser said he’s grateful Cummings used his money and resources to share his love and passion for teaching a challenging part of history.

Whitney Plantation was a $10 million investment, according to Cummings. He said it was money well spent, and he hopes every guest leaves with a renewed sense of moral responsibility.

He referenced how Germans embrace World War II as a difficult period of history and give reparations to those of the Jewish faith to compensate for the evil acts that were imposed upon their culture.

“You never pay a debt unless you acknowledge it,” Cummings said.

“We haven’t acknowledged our debt. There is more to be done. If we can get 200,000 more African Americans through college, two-year or four-year, we can eventually introduce everyone to true equality.”

Cummings presented Nungesser with a book and a hand crafted, nameless sculpture of a slave created by the same artist who crafted the statues in the church.

In turn, Nungesser presented Cummings with a proclamation for his contributions.

Whitney Plantation is open for tours from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day with the exception of Tuesdays. For more information, call 225-265-3300.