ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Louisiana is home to a new museum about slavery. At Whitney Plantation, visitors get a realistic look at life in the South before the Civil War. NPR's Debbie Elliott went to see it.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The winding river road that tracks along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is known as Plantation Alley. Restored antebellum mansions draw hundreds-of-thousands of visitors a year. On the drive in, Whitney Plantation resembles the others, majestic oaks framing the front walk to the French-Creole style big house. But before you can see the late 18th-century home, furnished with period finery, a tour guide first introduces you to the slaves who built it and everything else on this former sugarcane plantation.
KONAY: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Kanay and I'm your tour guide for this section of the Whitney Plantation. And this is known as the wall of honor, which pays tribute to 356 individuals that were enslaved on this plantation.
ELLIOTT: Avis Alexander Jessie of nearby Vacherie, La. is standing in front of the granite slab wall, wondering if a name etched here, Alexandre, born 1851, might be a relation.
AVIS ALEXANDER JESSIE: It's overwhelming to see such names and our ancestor's name could be on this.
ELLIOTT: She says the museum makes her think in a more personal way about the human toll of slavery.
ALEXANDER-JESSE: The daddy left behind - the father was left behind. The kids were gone. These people raped these women.
ELLIOTT: Some of the popular antebellum plantations in Louisiana have started to incorporate displays about slavery in recent years, but the Whitney is the first to design the visitor's entire experience around that history.
IBRAHIMA SECK: What was the life of a slave from cradle to the tomb? If you come here, you will learn about it.
ELLIOTT: From cradle to tomb, says Ibrahima Seck, academic director at Whitney. A history professor from Senegal, Seck has written a book about this plantation, founded in the early 1700s by a German immigrant.
SECK: His name was Ambroise Heidel.
ELLIOTT: Seck says Ambroise Heidel bought his first slaves of the New Orleans slave market, and the family had one of the largest slave forces in Louisiana. Seck used household inventories to piece together biographical details of the slaves. People like Vieux Gabrielle, a domestic in the big house, born around 1790
SECK: He was from the Congo, from central Africa. In the inventories, they call him Vieux Gabrielle, which meant Old Gabrielle, because he lived on this plantation for about 50 years under four different masters. Yeah.
ELLIOTT: Standing in front of the wall of honor, Seck says the names pay tribute to those whose work was never acknowledged while they were living.
SECK: I imagine them coming at night here and saying, you see, my name is here. My name is here. This is a way of, you know, taking these people back to life.
ELLIOTT: The Whitney Plantation officially opened to the public late last year.
JOHN CUMMINGS: Let's hope that with the cutting of this ribbon that we cut ties with everything that's evil, and we can start again.
ELLIOTT: Whitney owner, John Cummings, who is white, has been working to create the slavery Museum since the 1990s, when he bought the 1700 acre property from a petrochemical farm. A New Orleans trial lawyer, he's spent millions on artifacts, research and restoration. Cummings offers a personal tour of the grounds in a golf cart.
CUMMINGS: Welcome to the Whitney.
ELLIOTT: We passed the working blacksmith shop, a high-roofed French-Creole mule barn and slave quarters. Not all the buildings are original to the Whitney. Cummings has moved in property from other historic sites, including some of the slave cabins, a rusty, steel jail and an African-American church founded by freed slaves. Some preservationists question taking artifacts from their original setting, but Cummings isn't concerned. He says the goal is to re-create an authentic slave experience.
CUMMINGS: I may be doing something wrong, you know, I may be taking the wrong steps. I think it's important to take a step. If you're going to lead, you've got to lead.
ELLIOTT: He's commissioned stark artwork, including realistic statues of slave children. In months to come, there will be busts of beheaded slaves mounted on posts, as they were after a 19th century slave revolt.
CUMMINGS: What we're trying to do is to start the dialogue again, as if it was 1865.
ELLIOTT: Cummings says he was inspired to turn the Whitney into a slavery Museum after reading the slave narratives collected by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He says Americans have had a hard time talking honestly about the legacy of slavery.
CUMMINGS: If we can demonstrate that there is a hangover from slavery, they will then understand exactly what happened and what obligations we, as a nation - maybe not as individuals. We didn't own slaves. But as a nation, what is it that we can do to right some of the wrongs?
ELLIOTT: Felton Hurst and his family from New Orleans were among the first visitors to the new museum.
FELTON HURST: And just coming in, it's really amazing. I love it.
MARILYN HURST: My name is Marilyn Hurst and I'm originally from here, born and raised.
ELLIOTT: She grew up hearing stories about this plantation.
M. HURST: A lot of people who were sharecroppers here in my family that worked the plantation so, you know, I'm kind of glad to be here. It's very neat.
ELLIOTT: Their daughter, Alea Hurst, is 28 years old. She's struck by the small size of the slave quarters, two-room wooden shacks that would house two families, the eating, sleeping and living all the same tight space.
ALEA HURST: It sort of feels to me a gift and a curse. It's a gift because I am here to experience what happened then. I'm able to experience the past by being here now. But the curse is what happened in the past.
ELLIOTT: Alea Hurst says Louisiana's new slavery Museum is a bittersweet experience. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.