WALLACE, La. — Just inside the levee holding back the mighty Mississippi River, there is a quiet stillness in the land and a story that is still unfolding after more than two and a half centuries.
The place is known as the Whitney Plantation, which dates back to 1752.
“We just have a lot to contend with,” said Joy Banner. “When we think about plantations, most people erroneously use the word ‘plantation’ to refer to the ‘Big House’ and the ‘Big House’ only.”
Not there, though: the ‘Big House’ is not the main attraction.
That’s by design.
“This interpretation is based around the life, labor and the culture of the enslaved people,” she said.
Joy Banner’s ancestors once worked in the surrounding fields as slaves. She now works for the nonprofit foundation that runs the Whitney Plantation.
“There is so much trauma and so much pressure on Black people to just push it on the side and move forward: ‘Don’t make anyone uncomfortable with it,’” she said. “So, I’ll be honest, I’m unpacking my feelings about the cabins, the plantations, every single day.
Seven years after opening to the public, the Whitney remains one of the only plantations in the country whose entire focus centers on the people who were enslaved there.
“If we are presenting true history, then I don't see there being any other choice, but to center it around enslaved people,” Banner said.
Inside a church on-site, visitors are greeted by life-like statues known as the "Children of Whitney."
“In the face of everything that is happening to them, they drew from their faith,” Banner said, as she looked around the church and at the statues. “They just have a presence and they have a humanness – a humanity about them – that really makes you feel like you’re in company with them.”
There are no shoes on the feet of the children's statues. Their clothes are threadbare.
“It’s a reminder that the system of slavery impacted children as well,” she said.
Even after Juneteenth and news of their emancipation, not everyone on the plantation could afford to leave. Many stayed and worked the land under a new system, not slavery in name, but difficult to get out from under.
“In the case of Whitney, there's a plantation store. And so, all of their staples, all of their groceries, items that they need, are purchased from the store, which is then deducted from their wages. So, then you have a system of debt that's created and perpetuated,” Banner said. “And so you have generations of people that stay on the plantation and work on the plantation.”
People worked the land there well into the late 20th century.
“Until the 1970s,” Banner said. “The cabins that we have here on-site, we have two original cabins, there were people that were living in them until the mid-1970s.”
The cabins are a stark reminder of slavery and have been moved to be located much closer to the "Big House" than they were in the past.
“Sometimes, I’m in this desensitized mode, just to go about my day,” Banner said, “and then there’s other days where I just walk by the cabin and I’m just like, ‘People lived here. Like, my ancestors lived here.”
It’s also emotional: a place of uncertainty and pain in the past that is still felt today.
“Think of the trauma – it may be a person that has just been separated from their family. Because that person that you welcome into your family unit, and that you love as part of your family, he could be sold tomorrow,” Banner said, as she held back tears. “So, when people love someone else in a community, that’s an act of resistance, to stay human and to stay connected with each other.”
For the 100,000 people who visit each year, she hopes their message about what plantations were really like historically helps them think about what racism looks like today.
“I would also encourage people to understand how does racism take shape and form in their own communities,” Banner said, “and what is it that we can do to learn more or to help more.”
It’s a message they hope will resonate throughout the land.