Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I visited the beautiful and still functioning Evergreen Plantation, a privately owned sugar farm that offers walking tours. Built in 1790 and located on 2200 acres on the River Road with neighbors such as Oak Alley and Laura’s Plantation, the estate is best known as “the most intact plantation complex” in the south. The grounds holds 37 buildings, including 22 slave cabins. Touring a plantation is an odd way to spend MLK Day but it was a good day to reflect on what has come before and where we are now.
While I was living in Los Angeles, my junk mail decided I was a black woman (though my TIVO remained convinced I was a gay man) and I started receiving catalogs for wigs and monochromatic church-going outfits (fabulous, I must admit – loved the hats). At some point, I received a plea for a contribution to the Martin Luther King National Memorial. Once I got past the shock that there wasn’t already a memorial, then the shock that anyone would need to plead to private citizens for the money to build it, I wrote a check and looked forward to receiving my complimentary “Build the Dream” lapel pin.
I’m old enough to remember “bussing” but my mother is old enough to remember Jim Crow laws. When she was a small child, she saw 2 drinking fountains and ran excitedly to the one marked “colored” then was disappointed to find, “This water’s clear just like the other one.” I thank goodness I was raised by someone who saw the absurdity of Jim Crow. I’m the next generation and I’ve been called “color-blind.” I’m not. I see color, I just forget sometimes that it matters.
My friend caught her 5 year old daughter watching The Color Purple recently. When she walked in and found her daughter taking in the PG-13 film, a white woman was screaming, “Black, black, black,” onscreen. My friend’s daughter turned to her quizzically, ” I keep looking but I can’t find anything black.” I see now that we could live in a world where that 5 year old never finds out that we call people “black.” She won’t, but she could. She is the dream. She judges people by the content of their character (and which toys and snacks they’re willing to share), not by the color of their skin. Our country’s history with the Africans it dragged here in chains is filled with horror, but our future may be bright.
I’ve been to several plantations and taken a number of tours. Because most of the wooden shacks provided to the slaves have fallen to pieces or been destroyed over the years, I often get away with not thinking too much about how the magnificent manor homes were all built and who kept the land prosperous. Since my youth, I’ve known that in my own family’s history, there was one particularly wealthy land owner who had over 300 slaves. There was also a daughter who married an overseer and was disowned. I can’t claim the blood of the woman who followed her heart and rejected the ill-gotten gains without claiming the blood of someone who was a slave overseer as well as someone who owned over 300 human beings. It’s a lot to reconcile.
The Evergreen Plantation tour starts at the lovely manor home with its symmetrical double staircase adorning the front since 1832 when the French Creole farmhouse was redone in the Greek Revival mode. Lovingly restored, the house is bookended with garconnieres and pigeonniers on either side of the home. Garconnieres are bachelor pads for the adult sons to live in once they’ve become men and pigeonniers are giant bird houses to harvest eggs and birds for food and dung for fertilizer. It is rare to find them still standing, much less in such beautiful shape. The garden behind the house is maze-like and grand. Symmetry clearly ruled every design decision during the 1832 Greek Revival overhaul.
I enjoyed hearing about the evolution of the house and the various families that owned the property. There were some people from Hermann-Grima and Gallier Historic Houses who nodded their heads knowingly, but it was fun watching the tourists try to understand the local definition of “Creole” (meaning mixes of all kinds, not just “Creoles of Color”) and reacting to the idea of Voodoo (the guide had to explain, “It’s not bad, it’s like being Catholic. It’s just a religion”). We learned a lot about the house and its occupants but my favorite fun-factoid was actually about the tour guide. She’d already been working at the estate for a couple of years when she found out that her own 11-generations-ago grandfather had designed the home.
Of the 37 buildings on the property, 22 are slave cabins lining either side of a gorgeous alley of 82 Live Oaks. At first look down the alley, I half expected to see a mansion standing proudly at the end. The tunnel of trees dripping with Spanish moss was stately and bucolic at the same time. Instead, behind the trees on both sides of the lane, I found small one-room cyprus duplex shacks meant to hold 2 entire families. Like Oak Alley, documents regarding the property are on display, including an inventory of possessions. Whatever visions I may have had of children playing in the lane or people sitting on their porches comes down to this – “West, 36, Mulatto, excellent blacksmith and engineer and good subject, estimated $1500. Joe, Congo field hand, $300. Eblany, 21, American negress field hand with her two children, $1000.”
“Free people of color” lived in the shacks until the 1940’s when they were removed by a new owner so, unlike most plantations, the homes were cleaned and maintained into the 20th century. As such, they are amazingly well-preserved. There may be other plantations that offer great tours, but only Evergreen Plantation offers 22 residences of over 100 slaves. My guess is that more Africans and their descendants can call Evergreen home than all the owner families combined.
It’s difficult to reconcile the complicated history of mammies and clandestine lovers and children playing together until they are told that one is “to the manor born” and the other is property. The story of how the African population came to America and Louisiana (which was not part of the United States until 1803) is beyond horrible. Can you imagine being in your own home and having invaders drag you off in chains to endure a months long trip in a boat only to be sold upon arrival in your new country? Imagine not knowing the language, not practicing the same faith, being stripped of all of your possessions and then finding yourself farming at the end of someone’s whip. Maybe one day it won’t matter how any of us came to these United States, but as Martin Luther King’s dream trudges toward reality, I think it’s important to see what has come before.