A retired lawyer opens first US slavery museum with $8.6 million of his money
Learning from the past
John Cummings has redeveloped an antebellum plantation in Louisiana where more than 350 slaves labored. Americans must ‘take responsibility’ for the wrongs of slavery, he says.
Unlike other antebellum plantations on the winding River Road along the Mississippi known for their manicured gardens and as exotic locations for weddings, Whitney Plantation has a much different purpose: It wants to tell thousands of visitors each year the tragic story of slavery in the United States.
The force behind the first slavery museum in the US, which opened in December 2014, is John Cummings, a real estate magnate and retired New Orleans trial lawyer who has spent $8.6 million of his own money redeveloping the 250-acre site dotted with swampland and banana trees.
Mr. Cummings has been working on the Whitney Plantation museum ever since he purchased the former sugar-cane fields from a petrochemical company 16 years ago.
In researching the history of the plantation, he found household inventories from former owners that showed that “the second most valuable property here next to the real estate was slaves,” he says. “One female slave was described as a good breeder. She was worth more than a woman who did not have many kids.
“When I saw that, the light went on. I had to find out more about it.”
Realizing his ignorance about slavery, Cummings began to research the subject and now has read more than 400 books on it. “I’m still reading,” he says.
Whitney Plantation, originally known as Habitation Haydel, was founded by Ambroise Heidel, an immigrant from Germany, in the 1750s. The Haydel family farmed indigo and later sugar cane harnessing the labor of more than 350 slaves.
The names of those slaves now are engraved on black granite slabs that are part of the plantation’s Wall of Honor. Other memorials list the names of some 107,000 slaves that once toiled in the state of Louisiana.
Despite the contribution of slave labor to America’s prosperity, “We have not acknowledged our great sin of slavery as a nation,” says the vigorous, white-haired Cummings. “We must own it. We have to embrace it and take responsibility for it.”
The US government should have built a museum like Whitney Plantation, he says. But it has not “because of the prejudice.”
Cummings has visited black churches in neighboring areas, where some of the descendants of those who were enslaved at the plantation live, he says. “I’ve been able to address their congregations and tell them about what we are doing.”
A historian from Senegal
Cummings hired historian Ibrahima Seck, from Senegal, part of an area of West Africa that was the source of many slaves who were shipped to the US. Dr. Seck now serves as director of research at Whitney Plantation.
The two men met at an event in Louisiana in 2000. Cummings asked Seck to visit Louisiana every year to work on the museum project. In 2012, Seck moved to New Orleans to work full time for the museum.
Today visitors who tour Whitney Plantation encounter memorials, slave cabins, a French Creole-style Big House built in the late 18th century, and a Baptist church donated and moved from the town of Paulina, La. The Field of Angels, a circular courtyard, is dedicated to the 2,200 slave children who died before their third birthdays in St. John the Baptist Parish in the 40 years before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which declared all slaves in Southern states to be free.
Visitors can also view dozens of realistic statues of slave children commissioned by Cummings and created by Ohio-based sculptor Woodrow Nash.
“I think the most powerful impression I had at my first visit to the Whitney Plantation was the way the museum forces you to enter the site in a way that does not foreground the large home where white enslavers lived,” says Laura Rosanne Adderley, associate professor of history at Tulane University in New Orleans.
“This is a memorial site, remembering the lives of people who suffered unspeakable horrors – and horrors still rarely spoken of regularly in the United States,” she says.
Cummings combines two major ingredients needed to run Whitney Plantation, says Ken Smith, an artist and retired plastic surgeon who has donated two statues to the site. “He is passionate about the subject, to tell the story of slavery in the United States that took place. And he has a lot of money.”
The two statues were supposed to be displayed at the proposed US National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va., which never opened.
Some have criticized Cummings for moving artifacts and buildings such as slave quarters, a latticed steel prison, and the Antioch Baptist church from their original sites to Whitney Plantation.
But Dr. Smith defends Cummings.
“I don’t think that matters at all,” he says. “He is trying to tell the story. Those people who raised the issue don’t see the big picture.”
In the first year since its opening, Whitney Plantation received more than 34,000 visitors, including thousands of schoolchildren. Americans have traveled from states as far away as New York and California to see the museum.
Whitney Plantation has also drawn international visitors, including a party of more than 100 African mayors and 25 television crews from 15 countries including Germany, Britain, France, Peru, Chile, and Brazil.
At one time, Seck spent more than three hours giving a tour to a group of Chinese scholars, public officials, and businesspeople. “Some of the Chinese visitors became very emotional,” which surprised him, Seck says.
“I’ve seen people crying,” Cummings says. “I still cry.”
Next steps for the plantation
Cummings says he hopes that Whitney Plantation will host 100,000 visitors this year, which would help the museum to become financially self-sustaining.
It is still expanding, adding more memorials. And Cummings plans to start an institute of slavery on the property, he tells a visitor while driving him around the site in a golf cart.
Cummings is also considering someday donating Whitney Plantation to the Smithsonian Institution or to a group of black universities.
“This is a place for education. We educate people about slavery, making them understand how much people suffered and how important it is to study slavery at school,” Seck says. “Everyone has heard about slavery in the United States, but they don’t know the details. By the end of the tour, many adult visitors fall silent and think.”
The US officially abolished slavery in 1865. However, economic and political opportunities for African-Americans continued to be limited, Cummings says. It was not until 1965 that the Voting Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Inequality in educational opportunities was the law until the 1950s.
“There are many hangovers from slavery we experience today,” he says.
“I was born a white male to a family – two parents, a father who was earning enough money to raise all of us,” he says. Any black child in his generation “did not have what I had. What I had was already built for me. That’s the inequality.
“We need more passionate people who understand education is the only way out and insist they get education,” Cummings says emphatically. “It is the only way to improve race relations here.
“We cannot rewrite history, but we can change some of the evils of history. In America, we can do it through education.”
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