River Road Slavery

May 7, 2013

At the River Road plantations that we toured, there was only a brief mention of slavery, despite the fact that each of them relied on the forced labour of approximately 200 slaves.  Although both plantations retain some slave quarters, and the topic received an obligatory acknowledgement in the guided tour, not enough information was provided about this critical aspect of the plantations.  It would undoubtedly interrupt the sense of fantasy and glamour that these mansions and their beautiful grounds tend to evoke.

Slavery existed in the United States from the early days of the colonial period.  Slavery had its early roots in indentured servitude, where people of all races could pay off their debts with their labour (for example, the cost of their passage to the Americas).  Over time, as more captive slaves were imported from Africa, state laws were passed that racialized slavery, restricting black Africans and their descendants to slavery. By the time the United States sought independence from Great Britain in 1776, slavery was firmly entrenched.  By 1804, all states north of the Mason Dixon Line had either abolished slavery outright or passed laws for its gradual abolition, but slavery continued to grow in the South with the expansion of the cotton industry.  The fledgling nation became polarized into slave and free states.

The United States and Great Britain both prohibited the international slave trade in 1808, but the domestic trade in the United States continued and expanded.  The South was vigorously defending slavery and supporting its expansion into the new American territories. After Abraham Lincoln’s election, eleven Southern states broke away to form the Confederate States of America.  This led to the Civil War, during which (not before) the abolition of slavery became a goal.  On January 1, 1863 President Lincoln unilaterally freed the slaves in the territory of his opponent, the Confederacy, by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Black and white photo of Abraham Lincoln's head and shoulders wearing a black suit

Abraham Lincoln

This decree was based on the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, not a law passed by Congress. It proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free, and ordered the Army to treat as free all those enslaved in the 10 states that were still in rebellion (3.1 million of the estimated 4 million slaves in the United States at the time). The Proclamation could not be enforced in areas still under rebellion, but as the army took control of Confederate regions, the slaves in those regions were freed rather than returned to their masters.  After the war, the 13th Amendment, effective December 1865, abolished slavery throughout the entire United States and its territories.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas (South, Central, and North). Of these, only an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States.  But by 1860 the slave population in the American South had grown to four million.   Of the 1.5 Million total households in the 15 slave states, nearly 400,000 held slaves (one in four), which was 8% of all American families.  The great majority of slaves worked on plantations or large farms, cultivating cash crops like rice, tobacco, sugar and cotton. By this time, most slaves were held in the deep south, where the majority worked on cotton plantations.

A small building with a tiny front porch

Slave Quarters for 2 families

Slaves could gain freedom only by running away (which was difficult, dangerous, and illegal), or by rare manumission by owners, which was regulated by states and became increasingly difficult or prohibited.  Slaves resisted through non-compliance and rebellions, and escaped to non-slave states and Canada, facilitated by the Underground Railroad.  Even after abolition, freed slaves in the South were forced into second-class legal and economic status through Jim Crow laws intended to enforce racial segregation and white supremacy which persisted until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The terribly scarred back of a black slaves, seated with no shirt on

The first African slaves were brought to Louisiana in 1708.  On the River Road, and throughout Louisiana, slavery was governed by The Code Noir.  Passed by King Louis XIV in 1685, it defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire.  Among other things, it also restricted the activities of blacks, forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism, and forbade Jews from living in French colonies.  Ironically, it required that all slaves be baptised in the Roman Catholic church (they were apparently still concerned with their immortal souls while disregarding all their earthly human rights).  The Code Noir outlawed torture, but institutionalized corporal punishment like beating, disfigurement, and execution (not much of a difference in my book).

A small grey and white building with porch out front and a museum sign on the lawn

River Road African American Museum

One place that I learned about slavery was at the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville.  Founded in 1994, this small museum is a labour of love of one woman, Kathe Hambrick.  She created the museum to celebrate the culture and contributions of African Americans in Louisiana, and to provide a more accurate historic account.  Like me, she noted that the plantation tours which bring thousands of people to the area provide little information about slavery.  Unfortunately, her museum is sparsely attended, and was only open by appointment when we visited.

Some small black dolls in front of a wall with signs saying, "White", "Coloured"

Museum Artifacts

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River Road Plantations

May 6, 2013

In the years prior to the U.S. Civil War, the 70 mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was a corridor of sugar cane plantations, many showcasing monumental homes.  Today the sugar cane and a few of the antebellum mansions remain, intermixed with petro chemical plants that sprang up in the 20th Century.  We drove the length of the River Road, visiting the plantations and small, historic towns along the route.

Of the historic River Road plantations, the most recognized is probably Oak Alley.  Its white pillared house, built in the Greek Revival style, has been featured in many movies and television shows.

A white pillared house at the end of a long walk line with beautiful old oaks

Oak Alley

The 300 year old Southern Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) which line the path extending from the house to the river, pre-date the building.

Pat and Diane on the oak-lined walk of Oak Alley

Visitors to the plantation are taken on a guided tour of the house.

Our tour guide wearing a white dress standing in front of a fireplace

Our tour guide in period dress

Oak Alley looks like the stately southern mansions of my imagination.

The parlour filled with furniture include blue upholstered wooden furniture, and a small piano

The Parlour

A foyer long foyer extending the width of the house with a narrow staircase extending to the 2nd floor

The Foyer

A long dining room with wooden floor and a set wooden table, with a fabric fan hanging above the table

The Dining Room

Many plantation homes were abandoned, ruined, or destroyed during the 20th century due to encroachments of the Mississippi, federal action, owner disinterest, fragmented ownership, demolition by industry, and a weak economy.  The revival of the remaining River Road homes began with the restoration of Oak Alley in the 1920s.

Diane standing behine a large metal cauldron filled with water and lillies

Diane with an old sugar cauldron

The River Road plantations were narrow and long, allowing each to have access to the Mississippi river, which was bounded by a small levee to protect from spring flooding.  In addition to the main house, each had a large number of buildings including a sugar mill and many slave cabins.  The plantations produced a cash crop on a large scale for world export.  They were self-contained communities run like a manufacturing business.

We also visited the Laura Plantation, one of the few Creole plantations that remain.  Creoles were a multi-racial people descended from the French, African American, and Native Americans.  Creole plantation houses were generally smaller and brightly coloured.

A 2 story house painted hellow with an upper pillared balcony

Laura Plantation House

At its largest size, the Laura Plantation was approximately 12,000 acres (4850 hectares), which included properties amassed over time.  The main house, in addition to being the living quarters of the plantation owners, was also their business office and the place where grand social occasions took place.

Dinae standing in a white walled room in front of a fireplace with a large set dining room table with white tablecloth

Laura’s Dining Room

Laura Locoul, after whom the plantation was named, left a journal for her daughters, so a great deal is known about the family itself and the estate. The guided tour offered at this plantation is based on personal accounts about life on this historic farm found in Laura’s journals and the French National Archives.

in the center of the property, 3.5 miles behind the house were the slave quarters.  There were 69 cabins, each holding 2 families, communal kitchens, an infirmary, and several water wells.  By the 1850s, the Laura Plantation was the workplace for 100 mules and 195 humans, 175 of them slaves.

2 small shacks among trees in the distance with a large bell int the foreground

Slave Quarters