Shelter from the storm: Descendants of the enslaved take refuge in Whitney Plantation’s Big House during Hurricane Ida

Published 9:00 am Thursday, September 9, 2021

WALLACE — The Big House at Whitney Plantation, once a domain for the horrors of slavery, became a place of refuge for descendants of the enslaved when Hurricane Ida devastated the River Parishes on August 29.

Jo and Joy Banner of Wallace, along with their parents, Harriet and William, found shelter in the sturdy walls that have survived generations of catastrophic hurricanes.

Plan A was to weather the storm at home, but as meteorologists warned hours before landfall that Ida’s rapid intensification rivaled that of hurricanes Katrina and Betsy, the Banners realized a Plan B was in order.

“Whitney Plantation has been there since 1791. It was built by the craftsmanship of the enslaved people, and they did excellent work. I trusted their work. Their labor provides a foundation for many of the buildings and infrastructure that we have in this country,” Joy Banner said. “Being familiar with the Big House and knowing how thick the walls are, I’ve always said that if something were to go down, that could be an alternative shelter.”

Joy Banner is the communications director at Whitney Plantation. She’s always been drawn to the history and heritage of the region, and that passion was reflected in a career focused on tourism and plantations. As she grew older, she began to take a more critical look at plantation tourism, which often focused on the lives of the plantation owners and their families.

Whitney Plantation opened in 2014 as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of the enslaved.

“Our present-day tourism economy is really developed from and extracted from the enslaved, but there’s no place in the narrative for them in many of these places,” Banner said. Through her work at Whitney Plantation, she has strived to make sure the descendant community has access to the tourism profession. She’s learned the importance of historical sites like Whitney, where history is quite literally buried in the ground.

Her connection to her enslaved ancestors felt stronger than ever during the wrath of Hurricane Ida. The Banners found shelter on the bottom floor, which is the most fortified area of the house. After arriving around 10:30 a.m., they sat outside for an hour or two and headed indoors as the wind began to pick up.

It was time to close the hurricane shutters, secure the doors, and wait for the worst of the storm to pass.

Without electricity in the Big House, the family relied on flashlights. For the next sixteen hours, they sat together as a family, talked and prayed as the whipping wind sent echoes of frightening sounds just outside the door.

At one point, they misjudged the timing and accidentally went outside as the eye wall was crossing directly over Wallace, packing wind speeds of up to 130 miles per hour. Joy Banner said the wind nearly knocked her 75-year-old mother to the ground.

“We had to assist our parents back into the Big House and hold onto them tightly so they wouldn’t blow over,” Banner recalled.

When they finally emerged after the storm had passed through, they found debris cast around the Whitney Plantation grounds.

“Whitney was hit very intensely by this storm. I would not be surprised if there were tornados on site. I think we actually underestimated the strength of the Big House, for it to withstand everything that was going on at that site,” Banner said.

Two of the six cabins on the Plantation grounds collapsed under Hurricane Ida’s violent winds.

According to Banner, one cabin’s roof was blown off and into a nearby pond, while another was blown off of its foundation. Neither of these cabins were original to Whitney, as they were brought on-site from Terrebonne Parish. Banner reported that the two slave cabins original to Whitney Plantation had minimal damage.

It was heartbreaking to see significant damage at the Antioch Baptist Church, which was built by formerly enslaved individuals just five years after slavery ended.

Ashley Rogers, executive director at Whitney Plantation, said, “This church is really a symbol of a lot of things that enslaved people wanted for themselves, that they couldn’t have during slavery. They did not have the ability to freely practice their religion as they saw fit. They did not have the ability to educate themselves or their children. They did not have the ability to unite their families and community. And this church provided all of those things.”

Whitney Plantation is accepting donations for restoration and repair work at The Whitney Institute, doing business as Whitney Plantation, is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, and contributions are tax-deductible.

Moving forward, the Banner sisters will continue advocating for the creation of environmentally friendly jobs that build upon the culture of the community.

The sisters, along with other members of the community, have been outspoken against the proposed development of a grain elevator facility in the quiet town of Wallace.

“During the storm, me and my sister had a conversation. If a grain elevator was next to us, we would have to worry about what would happen to that facility and how it would impact our neighborhood,” Joy Banner said, referencing the collapse of the Cargill grain elevator over River Road just across the river in Reserve during Hurricane Ida.

“We’re not saying these things to be sensational, provocative or contentious,” she continued. “These are real concerns that we have about our community.”

The Banners started a nonprofit called The Descendants Project, which is collecting donations to help the community in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Banner said a 21-foot-long truck full of supplies is coming from Mississippi to St. John Parish on Sept. 18.

“We’ve collected almost $20,000,” she said. “Every single bit will be given to the community.”