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Louisiana's Plantation Country River Road


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    white plantation home with bushes around it.

    Published  9-1-2018


    “Caught in the devil’s bargain” Joanie Mitchell 

    destrehen plantation slave inventory 

    No experience has so impacted the United States as profoundly and lastingly as the years of black enslavement from 1619 to the end of the Civil War. “The peculiar institution” remains a defining characteristic of who we were, are and will become as a nation. How do we align the events of the past with the view of ourselves that we are a country founded on the principles of liberty for all and malice toward none? www.louisianatravel.com     


    louisiana slave cabin interior with matteress on floor, chair and pegs to hang clothes


    To better understand the present we must peel back the layers of the past and a trip to the plantations along both sides of the river on Louisiana’s Great Mississippi River Road is a great way to do it. The road begins just outside of New Orleans and winds 70-miles to Baton Rouge. This was the same road that planters and slaves traversed as they traveled from city homes to plantations or moved from field to field, passing palatial homes, slave quarters, rustic churches, bayous and levees. www.gonola.comwww.neworleansplantationcountry.com 


    louisiana river road mansion


    Many of the mansions remain, some offer tours and a few feature overnight accommodations. The largest group of homes was constructed beginning in the early 1800s, often in the Greek Revival-style with a common feature being the use of columns. There is also a collection of Creole houses that dates from the French colonial era. Moss draped oaks and beautiful gardens complete these idyllic scenes but there are other equally important structures that remain from the ante-bellum period. The dependencies, slave quarters and work buildings were also significant parts of the plantation complex. www.nps.gov/nr/travel/louisiana/riverroad


    In 1682 La Louisiane, named to honor Louis XIV, became a colony of France. Antoine Crozat became the Proprietor of Louisiane in 1712 with an express mandate to fill the colony with white Catholics and black slaves in hopes of bolstering France’s sagging economy. Prior to this the native population had been the primary slaves but they proved difficult because they could escape and return home. The settlers primarily imported black slaves from their West Indies colonies. John Laws Company of the West took over in 1717. He promised to supply 3,000 black slaves by 1727. By 1721 two-thousand slaves had been imported but only 565 survived because of the disease, climate and arduous labor.  


    Native Americans and Africans  joined forces on several occasions to rebel, most notably The Great Natchez Massacre on November 18, 1729. Natchez Indians and Africans joined forces and launched an attack that killed approximately 200 of the French and freed more than 275 slaves. Slaves who fled the plantations would often create maroon (from the French marronage, “to run  away”) communities in the bayous and swamps. When the Spanish took over they abolished Indian slavery in 1763. 

    Sqamp tour boat on bayou


    A series of events occurred at the end of the 18th-century that made black slavery even more lucrative. The invention of the cotton gin and mechanization of spinning and weaving increased production and sale of cotton. In 1795 it became possible to produce granulated sugar from Louisiana cane. White planters fled the Haitian revolt bringing with them slaves skilled in the labor needed in the region. Steamboats began plying the waterways of Louisiana increasing the ease of shipping goods. 

    The value of a slave in Louisiana increased and generally cost double the price in Virginia. New Orleans became the largest slave market in the nation, selling 6-8,000 annually. In 1860 there were 331,726  in the state and it ranked first in the number of people owning 70 or more slaves. Solomon Northrup in “Twelve Years a Slave” graphically describes slave sales in New Orleans and life on a River Road Plantation. 

    Cajun Pride Swamp tour sign with alligator holding message To date we have not fed our gators any human body parts. Lets not start now.

    Cajun Swamp Tours, in the heart of the 54-mile Plantation Country, provides an excellent way to explore the bayous and swamps on a cruise within a private wildlife refuge. The native-Cajun guides narrate as you spot wildlife and pass by the Cajun town of Frenier and the gravesite of the Julia Brown. Brown, believed to have been a voodoo priestess, had an acrimonious relationship with her neighbors. She predicted that upon her death they would die too. She died in 1915, the same day a hurricane wiped out the entire community. Her spirit makes Manchac the country’s most haunted swamp. You may not see Julia but you will see numerous American gators. www.cajunprideswamptours


    River Road’s plantations are noted for their architecture, individual histories and now, the unique and increasingly comprehensive manner in which they tell their stories, making each plantation distinctive and worthy of exploration. #nolaplantations

     destrehen plantation bathroom

     female guide in destrehen plantation bedroom


    The oldest extant plantation is the 1787 Destrehan, built during the French Colonial era. The third owner, Jean Noel Destrehan, migrated from France, successfully granulated sugar, became incredibly wealthy and was instrumental in Louisiana’s statehood quest. The house is French Colonial with Greek Revival Doric columns and semi-detached wings. Some of the furnishings and all of the portraits are original and a 1,300-lb marble bathtub is a showpiece. Interview with the Vampire was filmed here. 

    The 20-acre complex features 15 tour stops and a history that is inclusive of all the people who lived and worked there. The slave cabins are original but their porches are not. Costumed docents share information on general history and the lives of the enslaved. Demonstrations on daily life including indigo, construction, weaving, cooking and African American herbal remedies are presented on a rotating basis.  

     a display of dr boyd herbal medicines with a man displaying various types of herbal remedies


    The Miller-Haydel Museum has an excellent exhibit detailing the 1811 slave rebellion, the largest in US history. More than 500 farm implement wielding slaves headed to New Orleans shouting for freedom. Their way was blocked by troops and a battle ensued. Some rebels were hacked apart and decapitated, their heads displayed on pikes along River Road. There were 3 trials for the remaining leaders, one of which was held at Destrehan. The story was suppressed because plantation owners feared further rebellion. Interestingly, after the Civil War the plantation was the site of a freedman’s colony. www.destrehanplantation.org 


     “I remember when they put ‘em on the block to sell ‘em. The ones ‘tween 18 and 30 always bring the most money. The auctioneer he stand off at a distances and cry ‘em off as they stand on the block. I can hear his voice as long as I live.”   —W. L. Bost 

    display of a man and woman manaqens in antebellum costume

    Laura Plantation features a 75-minute award-winning tour of this Creole Plantation that brings to life all aspects of the family that owned the plantation and the free and enslaved population that worked there. Twenty-years of research using archival material, inventories, Civil War pension records and a memoir, “Memories of the Old Plantation Home,” penned by one of the Laura’s who lived there, went into developing the guided tour.  


    Highlights include the house, the focus on the French Colonial experience and the 2017 addition of an exhibit based on the documented experiences of the individual enslaved, including skilled labor, health, medicine, domestic life, and post-Civil War. Approximately 400 enslaved people moved through this plantation, including the parents of Fats Domino. In 1994 Laura was the first Louisiana historic attraction to incorporate the stories of the enslaved. The site is listed on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. www.louisianatravel.com/african-american-heritage-trail


    The guided grounds’ tour showcases 12 buildings on the National Register including the house, gardens and an authentic 1840 slave cabin. The 1804 home, originally 5 rooms wide and 2 rooms deep, is notable for its Federal interior. Visits begin in the outstanding gift shop, Laura’s Plantation Store. www.lauraplantation.com 

    oak alley plantation showing four cabins on slave row

    oak alley plantation walkway with oaks shading peopel walking on driveway


    Oak Alley Plantation provides a memorable experience from the moment you glimpse the quarter-mile allée of 28 Live Oak trees that lead to your exploration of the 11 interpreted sites on the grounds. A guided tour of the “Big House” takes you through the 1837, 2-story, Greek Revival structure dominated by the 28 Doric columns on the façade. Six reconstructed slave cabins comprehensively interpret the life of the enslaved from field to household staff in the “Slavery at Oak Alley” exhibit.  

    sculpture of two slave children on porch of cabin

    The plantation has been used as a setting for Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Interview with a Vampire, True Detective and Beyonce’s Déja Vu video. Oak Alley offers a restaurant, an inn and a gift shop. It is a singular experience. www.oakalleyplantation.com 


    St. Joseph Plantation cabin used as setting for Queen Sugar

    For film buffs the 1830 St. Joseph Plantation, adjacent to Oak Alley, is a mandatory stop. This operating Creole sugar plantation is currently the setting of Queen Sugar and was used in 12 Years a Slave. The gift shop features crafts made by descendants of individuals who worked there. www.stjosephplantation.com 

    sculpture of slave chile lookng down roadway at plantation manor 

    Life-sized sculptures of four enslaved children by Woodrow Nash


    The 1752 Whitney Plantation, originally known as “Habitation Haydel”, is the sole plantation museum dedicated to interpreting the complete story of the enslaved. Founder John Cummings spent $11-million of his private fortune on restoration, artworks, monuments, memorials and a museum based on research and primary documents, all housed on the 2,000-acre complex. Guided tours begin in the museum with a general overview of slavery in the region and proceeds onto the grounds where you encounter the children of Whitney. Life-sized sculptures of enslaved children by Woodrow Nash, as they would have appeared in 1865, placed around the grounds. A collection of the sculptures are in the original 1868 freedmen’s Antioch Church.  

    Hallelujah limestone sculpture by Ken Smith

    Hallelujah, black soapstone, and the limestone Middle Passage, sculptures by Ken Smith, are also on exhibit. Research found that the word freed slaves most often associated with their freedom was “Hallelujah”. The statue depicts that moment of exultation when they realize their bondage has ended. Middle Passage depicts the horrors of the journey with writhing bodies caught in a circular nightmare. www.passionatestonestudio.com/index.html


    Poster showing and esplaining a free Black womon wearing a tignon


    The panels situated in the Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall monument is inscribed with the names of 107,000 of Louisiana’s individuals pre-1820. The  names are accompanied by slave narratives culled from the southern first-person accounts in the  Federal Writer’s Project

    an Angel Sculpture at Whitney Plantation

    There were 354 slaves on Whitney 1752- 1865 and a Wall of Honor records their names. The 1811 German Coast Uprising exhibit details the largest slave revolt in American history. A slave jail made in Philadelphia, a 1790 French Creole barn, slave quarters and the 1803 French Creole raised Big House are included on the tour. The most arresting memorial is the Field of Angels, honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish 1820-60. Etched in each plaque is the child’s name, date and age of death and mother’s name. Whitney Plantation is listed on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trailwww.whitneyplantation.com      


    a poster for Riverlands showing a man in a pirogue 

     a church interior with worshipers deptricted at Historic Riverlands Christian Center

    Louisiana’s Plantation Country’s African American experience did not end with Emancipation and Historic Riverlands Christian Center begins where the plantation stories generally end. They offer specially designed tours as well as interactive experiences, a Catholic History Tour and Soul River: A Musical Journey through African American History. Philadelphians will find the role Katherine Drexel played in the history of Louisiana’s African American history particularly intriguing. Packages and catering are offered and this site is particularly fitting for groups and reunions. It is on the African American Heritage Trail. www.historicriverlands.com 

    Sign telling about Our Lady of Grace Catholic Sancatuary 

    man stanidng nest to sign depicting National Historic places designation at Sorapuru House

    The Sorapuru House, home to a family of Creoles of Color, was constructed in 1825. The house is inscribed on the registry of National Historic Places because of its architectural significance. It is one of the last extant examples of French Creole architecture and it functioned as the first parish courthouse until 1847. www.neworleansplantationcountry.com 


    Just outside Plantation Country, and a short drive away, are two unique sites not to be missed one of which is the Abita Mystery House. It is located in Abita Springs, Louisiana and exhibits artistic works created by artist John Preble of more than 1,000 objects and inventions. Visitors follow a winding path that leads pass tiny dioramas, machines, button-activated displays and animated exhibits. Highlights of this homage to the unusual are the paint-by-number collection, the Bassigator and a full-scale UFO. The Mystery House has been featured on a number of television programs. www.AbitaMysteryHouse.com 


    “Going to prison is like dying with your eyes open.” Bernard Kerik 

    wall mural depticitn convict laborors at Angola Prison Museum

    In West Feliciana Parish in Louisiana sits the 1,800-acre Angola State Penitentiary, one of the most notorious prisons in the United States. “The Farm”, as it is also known, is a complex that houses over 5,300 inmates, more than 80% African American, in what is the oldest and only maximum-security prison in Louisiana and the largest in the nation. It is estimated that 85% of the inmates who enter will never leave. Angola’s 28-sq. miles, bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River, was once extremely remote but is now accessible via Highway 66 and is open for tours by both individuals and groups. www.stfrancisville.us 

    Sign at entrace of Louisiana State Penitentary Musuem 



    sign from 1859 advertising sale of slave children  

    Angola’s story really begins after emancipation. Prior to the end of the 18th-century the vast majority of crimes were punished by fines or torture. In the 1800s incarceration was basically used as a way to hold the ordinary prisoner until trial after which, if found guilty, they were sent to workhouses. In 1817 New York State constructed Auburn, a model prison that set a standard and became internationally famous and was rivaled only by Philadelphia’s Eastern State. www.easternstate.org 


    Men and women were incarcerated, as they are now, prior to the end of the Civil War. Children born in prison to enslaved mothers were taken from them and sold at auction and the money was added to the prison’s finances. After the Civil War the crime rate soared because of the war’s effects and an influx of immigrants. In 1865 the 13th Amendment changed the game for African Americans by declaring the total abolition of slavery except in the case of an individual convicted of a crime. This led to incarceration in the South as a counter to Reconstruction and black empowerment efforts and became an almost effortless way to attain and maintain a work force that closely approximated the slavery experience. Blacks were arrested based on Black Codes supporting specious charges such as walking at night, vagrancy, loitering, adultery and lascivious speech. www.constitution.findlaw.com/amendment13 

    Sign lisitng census information about children born in penitebiry

    Isaac Franklin, founder of the largest slave trading firm in the United States, owned 7 plantations, at least 4 trading sites and 6 ships used to take slaves “down river” to the South. One of these plantations was the 8,000-acre Angola, so named because many of its slaves traced their origins to that country. In 1839 he married Adelicia, 27-years his junior. Upon his death in 1846 she inherited 7 plantations and 659 slaves in Louisiana alone.  


    Three-years later Colonel Joseph Acklen signed a pre-nuptial agreement, allowing Adelicia to maintain ownership of her property and they wed. Joseph tripled her inheritance and died in 1863. Adelicia promptly took over running the plantation and in 1865 she traveled to England to collect more than $950,000 ($26,880,000) in gold that she made by selling her cotton in London to the Rothchilds. She married for the final time, after another pre-nuptial agreement, in 1867. She died in New York City in 1887 while on a shopping trip.  

    Map of orignina plantaion in Angola area

    Convict leasing, a form of privatization had been a reality in Louisiana since 1844 but Confederate Major Samuel Lawrence James who purchased Angola plantation in 1880, began warehousing prisoners and set the bar for cruelty and inhumane treatment. He leased state prisoners who worked his fields and had no vested interest maintaining their health. Early prisoners were actually housed in former slave cabins and farmed the same crops the enslaved once did. They worked from “dark to dark” on both poor and limited rations. Many prisoners died and he is believed to have said, ”One dies, get another”.  

    Weapons used on leased Angola prisoners 

    The system’s cruelty did not go unnoticed and in 1901 the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Correctionspurchased 8,000-acres of Angola for $200,000 ($5,760,000) and it became a working farm and penitentiary continuing to use the original slave quarters for housing. Prisoners lived in scattered camps near their work locations with the first being Camp A and were given no linens, blankets or undergarments. Inmates worked up to 19 hours a day on $.28-cents worth of food. In the 1930s convict leasing was abolished and was replaced by chain gangs. Five men were chained together, toiled under the lash and at gunpoint. Solitary confinement was and continues to be a means of punishment and protection for prisoners. 


    In the early 1900s Louisiana reduced expenditures by having a very limited number of guards and replacing them with the “Trustee System”. Trustees were convicts who were armed and tasked with enforcing prison rules and getting the maximum amount of work out of the prisoners under their control. The system was used until the state made it illegal to arm prisoners. 

    photograph showing domitary at Angola


    Today Louisiana State Prison (LSP) is the size of Manhattan and is almost entirely self-sufficient. Tours of the prison are offered and include a museum, death row cells, historic artifacts, the prison gift shop and the option of eating a meal in Angola’s Big House Café from 10 AM – 1 PM. Visitors tour two structures, the museum and the “Behind the Gates” cellblock. The museum was established in 1997 and has the distinction of being the sole museum housed within a functioning prison. Tours are for 12 years and up and are available Monday – Friday, 8 AM – 4 PM. www.angolamuseum.org

     cell block at Angola



    The LSP Museum is located immediately outside of the gates. The galleries are generally chronological and begin with the origins of the Louisiana prison system in the early 1800s and are filled with photographs and artifacts illustrative of that history. Photo opportunities include an outfitted prison cell with a cast of head and hands used by a prisoner to replace him in his bed while he attempted to escaped. Highlights of the museum include displays of weapons used by guards and those confiscated from prisoners. @angolamuseum 


    There is information on the Red Hat Cellblock, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 that was used to incarcerate incorrigible prisoners. The name was derived from the straw hats they were required to wear in the fields that were marked with red pain so they were readily identifiable. The unit contained 6’ X 3’ cells with one 12-inch square window without glass or screens offering no protection from weather or insects. Inmate Charles Frazier, murderer of 2 guards, served his time in the unit welded into his cell for 7 years. The unit was constructed in the 1930s and functioned until 1973. 


    In 1995, while being lowered into his grave, a prisoner fell through the bottom of the shoddy coffin. Based on that incident Angola began a handcrafted coffin-making industry. Displayed is a replica of the treated plywood coffin crafted for Rev. Billy Graham. Two wall-sized murals depict the penitentiary cemetery and the carriage used to bear the body to the grave. 


    From the museum a brief walk along a concrete path takes you to a locked gate that opens into a small corridor that leads to a second locked gate. The area between the gates is patrolled at night by specially trained wolves. Passing through both gates you continue along the path to a second building and enter into the “Behind the Gates” experience where original areas, admissions, cellblocks and death row, and equipment make up the exhibits. 


    A model of Angola Penitentiary is displayed in the entrance allowing visitors to understand the size and scope of the complex. Galleries radiate from the entry area the most interesting of which is dedicated to Angola’s musical history and traditions. The most famous of the prison’s musicians, Huddie William Ledbetter, is featured. Lead Belly, as he has come to be known, made his first recording there at the behest of music folklorist John Lomax. John and Alan Lomax were touring the Deep South to record ballads, work and folk songs. His most recognized songs are “The Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene”. www.leadbelly.org 


    Early executions in Louisiana were by hanging but in 1940, effective in 1941, the state legislature deemed electrocution the method of choice. The chair was portable and was taken to the designated parish for the execution. The first one was carried out in Livingston Parish. Sixteen years later an execution chamber was constructed at Angola and “Gruesome Gertie” was given a permanent home for all state executions. The original chair, used in 87 executions, is on display along with information on the most infamous cases of capital punishment including that of  Willie Francis.  


    Francis’ attempted electrocution took place on May 3, 1946. The chair did not function properly and Francis cried out for them to remove the mask. The execution was halted and the case was unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court. His execution was carried out on May 9, 1947.  


    Andrew Lee Jones was Gertie’s final victim on July 22, 1991. The state changed to lethal injection as the only method of execution in 1991. Women are executed in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. 

    Display of weapons taken from Angola prisoners

    Angola has been featured in a number of films and posters and movie memorabilia is exhibited. Gertie appears in “Monster’s Ball” as the actual chair used in Puffy Combs’ electrocution. The prison is also in scenes in “JFK”, “The Farm”, “A Lesson Before Dying” and “Dead Man Walking”. Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” was based on Death Row conditions in the 1930s 


    No prisoners have been executed since 2010 and the state cites an inability to obtain the pharmaceuticals needed for lethal injection and judicial challenges as the cause. A walk down an unused cellblock is on the tour. 

    display of shower shoes, boxer shorts and photop of electric chair withman sitting in it


    In 1965 the first Angola Rodeo took place. It is now the longest running prison rodeo in the country. Spectators were admitted in 1967 and it was so successful that an arena was constructed. In 1997 the arena was expanded and upgraded. The rodeo is held every Sunday in October along with Hobbycraft, an arts and crafts festival. Tickets sell out quickly.     www.angolarodeo.com 

     Sign poster for Angola rodeo

    The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) chose items from Angola Penitentiary to feature in the “Power of Place” exhibit. A guard tower and a cell stand as representative of a culture and system that has had a profound effect on social dynamics for more than 100-years. www.nmaahc.si.edu      


    Dining in the towns along River Road is always a treat and here are a few of my favorites. 


    B&C Seafood Riverside Market & Cajun Restaurant features authentic Cajun and Creole food at its freshest. www.bncrestaurant.com 


    Nobile's Restaurant  began in 1894 as a place for lumbermen to meet and eat.                www.nobilesrestaurant.com 


    Chef Richard Kiral presides over the kitchen at Ormond Plantation Restaurant situated in one of the oldest plantation mansions. The atmosphere is exceeded only by the international cuisine. www.plantation.com/restaurant 

     Placemat at Ormond Plantation Restaurant

    United Front Transportation Services provides transportation to the River Parishes for groups and individuals as well as airport pickups. If you have a long layover at the airport you can arrange to take a tour and still make your flight. www.unitedfronttransportationservices


    Make your next visit Louisiana! www.louisianatravel.com, #nolaplantations  

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