Juneteenth: Facing the realities of slavery in America

By Joe Payne

As a student of history, I have liked to think I have some shred of understanding of the pain and plight that people of color face, where it comes from and why, especially concerning black and indigenous Americans. But no matter how much I think I know, learning more continually illuminates my own ignorance, clearly illustrating how facile my comprehension is of the great evil perpetrated through the centuries by the hideous artifice of white supremacy.

Though I don’t find myself wracked by guilt just for having white skin, as so many pointlessly aggrieved white Americans cry about during discussions of race, I was struck by a deep sense of shame at my ignorance when I only learned of Juneteenth days ago, in mid June of 2020, the year of so much of our discontent.

Of course, this was because of President Donald Trump’s plans to hold a rally that day in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of a vicious massacre of black Americans in 1921 by hateful and murderous whites, an event about which I was not ignorant. But I wasn’t alone. Many white Americans first heard about this celebration of the end of slavery by modern black Americans because of Trump’s planned rally.

The fact that we only learn about the reality of black experience in our country because of the continued affronts by modern racism, specifically in this case by the actions of an openly bigoted president (nothing new, mind you), is an embarrassment. Trump, never one to not take credit, even rubbed our noses in the fact that so many were ignorant of Juneteenth before this dog-whistling choice of day and venue for his first post-coronavirus rally.

Unfortunately, such is the case in the United States of America. There’s so much of our story steeped in white supremacy, and so many myths spun to hide that fact, that the vast majority of white Americans are completely blindsided by the cold, hard truths of our history. We’ve been taught to uncritically lionize presidents like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, both slaveholders, because they’ve literally been carved into stone. Many might be surprised that the sculptor of Mount Rushmore was a more-than-active member of the Ku Klux Klan, and before Rushmore carved the largest monument to Confederate generals at Stone Mountain, Georgia. But really, it’s just another footnote in the story of anglo dominance over everyone else in North America and the world over.

This is because, truly, Americans have never really gripped the reality of slavery, sat with the facts and stared the ugliness in the face. The brutality, the evil, and how it all ripples through time into our present day is undeniable the more you learn. Black Americans living today saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and remember a time of apartheid in most of the country through Jim Crow and segregation laws. Mass incarceration has prevailed ever since, and the constant, grinding violence of the police state that targets black men and women like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor reminds that white supremacists still won’t forgive black Americans for winning any semblance of freedom after the Civil War. As was true then, supremacists feel entitled to black bodies, if no longer through ownership and rape, then through authoritarian force and extrajudicial execution. And in a sickening continuation of the terror the KKK brought on generations of black Americans, several black men have been found hanging from trees across the U.S. since the massive uprising following the death of Floyd, though police departments attempt to quickly rule those deaths suicides.

The Whitney Plantation house in Louisiana, as seen from the wrought-iron cage that was used to hold enslaved peoples before the American Civil War. Photo by Joe Payne

I had the privilege to visit New Orleans, Louisiana during October of 2019, which seems ages away in post-COVID time. In between visiting family and sampling just about every storied restaurant we could, my wife and I decided to make the time to visit a truly historic locale. We learned that there were several historically designated plantations located in and just outside New Orleans, but that like many modern plantation “museums,” the realities of slavery were either downplayed, whitewashed, or completely ignored, save but for one—the Whitney Plantation.

The Whitney Plantation is a rarity in the South, which was and is all too eager to re-write the history of slavery and the Civil War, in that the location honors the people who lived and died under the yolk of white supremacist oppression. Through multiple means of interpretation, the property shows the reality of slavery with incredible clarity and context. From the large plaque-filled walls that share the names and quotes of the people enslaved there to the moving sculptures of children that inhabit the grounds and buildings, the potency of seeing and hearing the truth is incomparable.

One of the reasons that the slave quarters at the Whitney Plantation are still intact, a rarity among preserved plantations in the South, is because the building was kept as quarters for blacks who worked under the oppressive system of sharecropping all the way until the 1970s. Photo by Joe Payne

It was uncharacteristically mild the day of our visit, walking the grounds with our tour guide, learning the story of the distinct property as well as slavery in America more generally. Incredibly, several of the tour guides at the Whitney Plantation can trace their ancestors to that very plantation, and others to places not far off. I was hoping for a tour guide who could give us such an intimate perspective, as it’s literally their story to tell, but we weren’t wholly unlucky in the guide we enjoyed.

The man who led us through the grounds and buildings there was James R. Kelly Jr., a historian and history professor from Alabama who makes the commute regularly to the Whitney Plantation to guide tours. As a Californian, it was interesting to hear a white Southerner speak so frankly about the institution of slavery with his crisp Alabama accent. He laid out the reality with rapid-paced precision, saying that slavery was inextricably tied to “the realities of the system of capitalism” and the “failures of Christianity.”

Kelly explained how as the United States acquired the Louisiana territories, before the borders of the new states were even drawn, a huge influx of slaveholders and the people they deemed property came to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama from Virginia and the Carolinas.

“Millions and millions of acres are open for the business of slavery,” he said. “Not just any land; prime farmland along large river networks. Once of the largest rivers in the world right here, the Mississippi river, and that was the superhighway of the day.”

The Whitney Plantation is about a 30-minute drive from New Orleans proper, and sits just near the Mississippi, as so many plantations did. A map of pre-Civil War property lines show long, skinny parcels—not unlike the shotgun-style houses that maximize space in NOLA—fanning off each side of the river, which allowed owners the acreage room for cultivating crops and access to the river to move people and product along the main trade artery of America.

Plaques at the Whitney Plantation share the names, origins, and even words of individuals forcibly held there under the yolk of slavery. Photo by Joe Payne

New Orleans itself, which sits at the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, was the largest slave-trading port on the planet, Kelly explained. Later in the week, during a nighttime bar tour in New Orleans, we would pass a building where Solomon Northup, author of Twelve Years a Slave, was traded and sold.

Northup was shipped to New Orleans from Washington D.C., Kelly said, and was sold “in the shadow of the United States Capitol dome.” The power-game that slavery played politically at the time, and since the beginning of the country, can’t be ignored either.

“That takes us back to how the Constitution has the three-fifths clause in it, which allowed white slave-owning states to count three-fifths of the enslaved people for apportionment in Congress,” Kelly explained, “which allowed the white slave states to control the American government for the first 50 years so that ten of the twelve first presidents are slaveholders.”

“And that’s going to be the reason why the U.S. is a slave nation longer than it’s been a free nation.”

The massive sugar bowls at the Whitney Plantation were used to melt sugarcane down into molasses, allowing the luxury product to be shipped to the north for refinement in mills. Photo by Joe Payne

The crops that were grown in the South were practical at first, Kelly explained, such as rice. The Africans that were targeted by slave traders came with experience, Kelly explained, literally thousands of years worth cultivating rice along the Niger river. Others were targeted for their metallurgic skills, specifically those along the Gold Coast colonies south of Senegal.

But the focus of slave masters quickly turned to cash crops, which they again relied on the experience of stolen people to produced. Indigo was a “luxury crop” that was big at the Whitney Plantation, used for dye and other products. The real money-maker came a bit later—sugar.

Sugar was known as the “white gold” by slave holders and the “white death” by the enslaved peoples—since so many slaves died while producing the crop for a variety of reasons, including the cerated edges of sugarcane leaves that left so many tiny cuts that were susceptible to infection. Massive metal bowls were filled with sugarcane to boil down to molasses for shipping to the North, and the fires were kept lit 24 hours a day during harvest time, Kelly said. Products like sugar explain the grandeur of the manor houses across the South, and the main house at Whitney is a stark, whitewashed contrast to the bare-wood slave quarters that sit within site of its columns and shaded second-story veranda.

The main house at the Whitney Plantation. Photo by Joe Payne

With an understanding of the massive economic and political engines that turned the gears of American slavery, Kelly turned our focus to the people, the lives stolen for their skills, labor, and fertility.

After the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished in the early 1800s, U.S. slaveholders understood the buying and selling power of women and young girls. Girls like Anna, who was sold at ten years old “from the block” in New Orleans after being shipped from Virginia with her mother and brother, were specifically used to create more slaves after the prohibition of the overseas slave trade.

Louisiana law said at the time that you couldn’t sell a child 10 or younger with one caveat—you could buy a younger child if they were an orphan. On the boat ride from Virginia, Anna’s mother fell ill, and was quickly thrown overboard to drown rather than infect any of the other payload of human capital. Anna’s older brother became her guardian, but since he was sold first in New Orleans, she became a de facto orphan, and was sold as gift from the owner of the Whitney Plantation to his wife.

“Anna is going to grow up in this house as a house slave,” Kelly said. “But it says on her record that she is a ‘mulatto,’ which tells me as a historian that quite likely her father is also her owner, back in Virginia, or someone in her owner’s family.”

“And once she gets here, history repeats itself. When she’s 25 she has an unwanted pregnancy and then she names the son Victor.”

There’s a wealth of history, including reams of genealogical data, of the systematic rape of slaves by their holders, Kelly said, with an inordinate amount of attention paid to the men who freed their mixed-race children. Those were the exceptions to what was more generally and grimly the case.

The Children of Whitney is a sculpture project by Woodrow Nash, which represent the freed slaves who were interviewed about their lives at the plantation by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. Photo by Joe Payne

“This is what shocks northern soldiers when they come here, whether they’re open on the race question or not, they’re all shocked,” Kelly said. “I read the diaries all the time—they’re all shocked that the white slave owners will have these children and sell them right on with the rest of the slaves or keep them in the field working with the rest of the slaves.”

“And this is what’s going to happen to Victor, he is going to be enslaved until he’s 35, and the Civil War is going to bring him his freedom.”

Another story told at Whitney Plantation that was definitely new to most of the ears there was that of the German Coast uprising. The section of the Mississippi north of New Orleans was known as the “German Coast” because of the number of German immigrants who moved their with enslaved people in tow, and the uprising happened in 1811 after the end of the sugar harvest while most “masters” were away from their homes to ship molasses up north. It became one of the largest slave revolts in U.S. history.

A group of men from a few plantations organized under the leadership of Charles Deslondes, a “mulatto” who enjoyed some autonomy on the waterways as a shipper, and overthrew one plantation before moving on to another and another. They amassed support to the point that hundreds of rebel slaves marched together “like an army,” Kelly said, though without the armaments of the white militia that violently put down the uprising.

The “freedom fighters” marched towards New Orleans, with the goal of storming the governor’s mansion, freeing the states slaves, or perhaps taking a boat and sailing to Haiti, which enjoyed a very public uprising of enslaved blacks against colonial oppressors just years earlier. But the uprising ended in horrific violence, with dozens killed in the skirmish, with no casualties among the white militiamen. Days later, as show trials were held against the insurrectionists, more then 40 rebels were executed, decapitated, and their heads stuck on pikes as a warning to nearby slaves.

Memorial to the German Coast uprising at the Whitney Plantation. Photo by Joe Payne

One of the grimmest memorials at the Whitney Plantation depicts that violent act, with dozens of sculpted heads sitting atop pikes. Kelly actually gave a warning to the tour before walking us among the display, which is wreathed by trees, giving anyone the choice to sit out the grizzly depiction. We were asked to remain silent in this section of the property, which is also the site of a yearly blessing by local groups celebrating the freedom fighters.

Though those men and women would never see freedom, but for that brief moment of rebellion, the next generation of enslaved peoples did after the Civil War. And some of those held at the Whitney Plantation were a part of that fight for freedom, Kelly explained.

Manuel, a barrel-maker, escaped the property and made his way north to join Ulysses S. Grant’s fighting force of black Americans in the Union Army. Kelly remarked that Grant later said that the black soldiers were among the bravest that fought in the Civil War because Manuel and others were fighting for something much more personal than anyone else in the war.

“He runs away in 1863 from this plantation and joins the Union Army, wears the blue, carries the gun,” Kelly said. “So we celebrate Manuel as a freedom fighter, as we celebrate and honor all these names as freedom fighters, because none of them chose this.”

“Returning the Chains,” a sculpture that appears near the end of the Whitney Plantation tour. Photo by Joe Payne

The tour wasn’t without hope and a celebration of freedom. One sculpture, called “Returning the Chains,” depicts a hand holding a chain forward, no longer bound by it.

One of the more stunning and fascinating buildings on the property was moved there years ago from across the Mississippi River, a beautifully crafted church built after the Civil War by freed peoples. Kelly explained that these were called “anti-yolk” or “freedom” churches, and served as important cultural hubs for the first generation of free black Americans. The tour began and ended at that church, and reminded how powerful emancipation was for those across the South, even if those in Galveston, Texas had to wait nearly two years until they were declared free on June 19, 1865, the origin of Juneteenth.

The “anti-yolk” church at the Whitney Plantation was built by peoples freed by the Civil War and later restored and re-located to the property as part of the project of truly honoring those who lived under the system of American slavery. Photo by Joe Payne

Of course, the struggle for freedom, autonomy, and equal protection for black Americans is still ongoing. Jim Crow, white terrorism, mass incarceration, and police brutality are part of a long strain of white supremacist power politics. For whites such as myself who stand in solidarity with all people and their struggles, only one of the responsibilities we have is to learn, listen, and work to understand the truth. Another is refuse to back down when lies and bigotry rear their ugly heads. From white Americans who casually repeat the “Lost Cause” myth that the Civil War wasn’t “really about slavery,” or the conservative backlash against the New York Times’ 1619 Project, all the way to those who declare “all lives matter!” following the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement into a worldwide phenomena, it’s worth standing against, and loudly, because the truth of American racial oppression is as clear as a blue-skied day filled with raised fists of Americans of all colors, demanding justice, democracy, and equal protection for all.

The tour at the Whitney Plantation was a powerful experience; many cried along the way, perhaps gripping the brutal realities of slavery truly for the first time. If white Americans have any work to do towards their own liberation, it’s to liberate their minds. Liberate their internal stories of America and their identities from the myths—the deification of founding fathers who declared that “all men are created equal” while justifying their ownership and slaughter of others, the political and media manipulation that taints their perspective of black Americans with the propaganda of criminality, and the egoism that tells them that the struggle for civil rights is an attack on them and their white identity. It’s not, it never was, and all we have to do is face the truth, stand up for what’s true, and continue the struggle for freedom and justice for all.

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Published by Joe Payne

Joe Payne is a lifelong resident of the Santa Maria Valley who teaches music, performs, and tunes pianos (pianopayne.com). He's also a seasoned journalist who shares his own reporting and opinion on matters local and national (politicalpayne.com).

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