7 Historic Plantations In Mississippi That Are Being Reclaimed By Nature

slave plantation tours mississippi

Daniella DiRienzo

Though Daniella was born in New York and has lived in a couple of other states, Mississippi has been her home for more than 30 years. After graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi, Daniella began to hone her writing skills through various internships. In the years since, she’s had the privilege of having her articles appear in several publications, such as the Mississippi-based Parents & Kids Magazine. She’s also had the honor of interviewing actress Sela Ward for The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience.

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Just like any other state, Mississippi has a rich history, and one way that history lives on is through historic sites such as battlefields, churches, and old plantations. Luckily, the state is home to loads of perfectly preserved sites from yesteryear. However, there are some that haven’t been so well taken care of, and sadly, these seven old Mississippi plantations are among them. Take a look! Have you ever visited one of these eerie, abandoned plantations? Let us know!

slave plantation tours mississippi

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slave plantation tours mississippi

So, did you know about these historic homes? Or maybe you have another to add to this list? Which old, abandoned plantations in Mississippi capture your imagination the most? Let us know in the comments!

If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out the spooky but amazing ghost town chapel in Mississippi you can’t resist exploring.

For more amazing abandoned spots in Mississippi, be sure to check out these epic abandoned places in MS that are sure to give you the chills! Interested in visiting some of the amazing historical places in Mississippi that are open to visitors? You might want to do this totally awesome historical sites of Mississippi road trip !

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Mississippi plantations.

  • Can I tour old plantations in Mississippi?  

Absolutely! Touring old plantations in Mississippi is an amazing way to get in touch with American history – dark parts and all – and there are numerous plantations in MS that offer tours like:  

  • Longwood    
  • Rosemont    
  • Glenfield    

2. How many abandoned plantation homes in Mississippi are there?  

Though an exact number is difficult to say for sure, there are at least a dozen abandoned plantation homes in Mississippi worthy of visiting and/or exploring. Some of the best ones are:  

  • Mount Holly    
  • Arlington    
  • The Windsor Mansion    

3. What are some other interesting, abandoned places in Mississippi?  

Of course, the list of interesting, abandoned places in Mississippi doesn’t end with the above entries. Other fascinating abandoned places in MS include spots such as:  

  • The Hoarder House    
  • The Hanging Bridge    
  • South Mississippi Charity Hospital  

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  • The Abandoned Hoarder House In Mississippi Is One Of The Eeriest Places In America
  • One Of The World’s Best Racetracks Sits Abandoned Deep In The Woods Of Mississippi
  • This Fascinating Mississippi Mansion Has Been Abandoned And Reclaimed By Nature For Decades Now
  • There's A Hike In Mississippi That Leads You Straight To An Abandoned WWII POW Camp
  • Most People Don’t Know The Story Behind Mississippi’s Abandoned Bridge To Nowhere
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  • There's An Abandoned Mansion In Mississippi That Was Never Completed And It's Eerily Fascinating

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This Is My South

A travel guide to the Southern USA

Visiting Natchez Historic Homes and Plantations

December 13, 2019 By Caroline Eubanks 7 Comments

Fall Pilgrimage Natchez

Like so many towns along the Mississippi River, Natchez , Mississippi was home to lavish plantations and farms where cotton and other products could be shipped up or downstream to market. Cotton planters became millionaires but at the cost of the enslaved labor.

Some of these historic homes in the 300-year-old town are still standing and are open to tours. They’re a popular day trip for those traveling with the river cruises. Some homes are only open during the Natchez Pilgrimage , seasonal tours of homes, but others are open year-round.

During these pilgrimages, you can visit multiple homes for one price. Most can be seen by a group tour, which we’ve linked to, as well as independently by renting a car from the airport rental car  counters in Jackson .

A Note On Plantations:  These homes have a dark history that shouldn’t be ignored. Only you can decide whether this is something you’re interested in doing. Read  this post  for more perspectives on both sides of the debate.

This post contains affiliate links.

Auburn Mansion, Natchez, Mississippi, in April 2011.jpg

Auburn is an antebellum mansion built in 1812 by Levi Weeks, who had fled New York after being tried for murder, for Mississippi’s first attorney general. It is built in the Greek Revival style with porticos and columns as well as a stunning unsupported spiral staircase.

Book your tour of Auburn Museum & Historic Home .

Choctaw Hall

Choctaw Hall

Choctaw Hall was built in the Federal and Greek Revival styles in 1836. It has dramatic double porches. Today it operates as a bed and breakfast and event venue. Tours are offered from Wednesday to Sunday at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm.

Book your tour of Choctaw Hall or spend the night at Choctaw Hall .

LANSDOWNE.jpg

Lansdowne is an antebellum plantation set on over 700 acres and is still owned by descendants of the original family. It contains much of the original decor and furnishings and has never undergone a restoration. Tours are offered on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 3 pm. It also operates as a bed and breakfast and event venue.

Book your tour of Lansdowne .

Longwood

Longwood is the most unique antebellum home in the country, built in a circular “Oriental-style” mansion. Built for a cotton planter, all work stopped during the Civil War and never continued. Tours of the home go through the basement, where the family lived, and the unfinished upstairs. It’s also open for seasonal ghost tours and was even featured in  True Blood .

Book your tour of Longwood Antebellum Mansion .

Magnolia Hall

Magnolia Hall Natchez Mississippi USA Front.JPG

Magnolia Hall was built in 1858 as a Greek Revival mansion, also known as the Henderson-Britton House. It was owned by Thomas Henderson, a wealthy cotton broker and merchant. A Union shell hit the kitchen during the Civil War. Tours are offered by the Natchez Garden Club and an upstairs exhibit features costumes.

Book your tour of Magnolia Hall .

Melrose-Natchez-MS.jpg

Melrose was built in the Greek Revival design in the 1820s for lawyer John T. McMurran, who worked with Monmouth owner John Quitman. After the Civil War, he sold the home to Elizabeth and George Davis, a couple whose home, Choctaw, had been taken over by Union troops. It has furnishings from this time period. Tours are offered daily by the Natchez National Park Service .

Monmouth

Monmouth is a 26-acre estate with one of the oldest homes in Natchez, now serving as a restaurant and inn. It was built in 1818 and inhabited by John Quitman, who became a Mississippi Governor. The home offers its own tours and is a stop on the City Sightseeing tour. Restaurant 1818 has Southern favorites like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and collard greens. 

Book your tour of Monmouth Historic Inn and Gardens or spend the night at Monmouth Historic Inn , a AAA Four Diamond property.

Rosalie Mansion

Rosalie Mansion

Rosalie Mansion overlooks the bluffs of the Mississippi River and was built in the 1700s. Named for the Countess of Pontchartrain, the home was owned by three families before being turned over to the Daughters of the American Revolution. It survived the Civil War by becoming a Union headquarters.

Book your tour of Rosalie Mansion .

Stanton Hall

Stanton Hall

Stanton Hall is a Classic Revival antebellum home that was built in the 1850s for an Irish cotton broker. It was built to resemble his home in Belfast, another name given to the home. It later became a women’s school and inspired the design for Disney’s Haunted Mansion . Today they operate tours as well as the Carriage House Restaurant, which has some of the best fried chicken around.

Book your tour of Stanton Hall or spend the night at Stanton Guest House .

Other Natchez Houses to Tour

In addition to the grand antebellum homes and plantations, Natchez also has other historic homes open for tours.

The House on Ellicott’s Hill was one of the first homes built in Natchez in 1797. Featuring Federal style elements, the house was purchased through a Spanish land grant. It is now open for tours, operated by the Natchez Garden Club. The 1951 film Show Boat was filmed at the home.

The William Johnson House was named for the freed slave that lived here, a barber. He owned slaves himself and his house and diary provide a picture of life in Natchez during that time.

See the city’s historic homes and attractions on the City Sightseeing Natchez Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour , an informative bus tour that makes twelve stops around town. Your pass is good all day, so take your time.

Where to Stay in Natchez, Mississippi

In addition to the historic homes offering both tours and accommodations, these Natchez mansions run their own bed and breakfasts.

Devereaux Shields House – Guests enjoy a full Southern hot breakfast and 24-hour coffee, sofa, and tea service at this Victorian bed and breakfast. Accommodation options include rooms in the main house and the adjoining cottage. 

Linden – A Historic Antebellum Bed and Breakfast – Located in a well-preserved antebellum mansion, the inn is set on seven acres. Built in 1785, residents include the United States senator Thomas Buck Reed.

The Burn Bed and Breakfast was built in 1834 and became an inn in 1978. Rooms and suites have private baths, cable television, wireless Internet, and access to the outdoor pool.

Brandon Hall Plantation was built in 1856 outside of Natchez. It went through a number of owners before becoming an inn and event venue. They also operate tours during the fall and spring pilgrimages.

slave plantation tours mississippi

About Caroline Eubanks

Caroline Eubanks is the editor of this website, a Lowell Thomas award-winning travel writer, and the author of This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States. Her stories from the South have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Thrillist, Roads and Kingdoms, and BBC Travel.

Reader Interactions

slave plantation tours mississippi

June 16, 2020 at 6:46 pm

Hi! We’re wondering if the historic Natchez homes and plantations are open now?

slave plantation tours mississippi

June 17, 2020 at 9:22 am

I don’t know. You’ll have to check with each website.

slave plantation tours mississippi

February 22, 2021 at 1:50 pm

Can you tour the homes without getting tickets through Natchez Pilgrimage? At NPT, you have to purchase separate tours for $20-$25 each. We only want to tour 3-4 and I was hoping for a ticket/pass that allows multiple home tours for one price.

slave plantation tours mississippi

March 24, 2021 at 1:41 pm

We usually purchase tickets at the Natchez Visitor Center when we get there. They usually have a package deal for 3 houses.

slave plantation tours mississippi

April 12, 2021 at 10:35 pm

I am assuming that Washington and Ellen Ford’s plantation was located in Natchez. Is the house still standing?

slave plantation tours mississippi

February 6, 2022 at 5:57 pm

Caroline – I’m researching my husband’s (Eubanks) family tree – they were enslaved in Jackson MS area. Any relation, possibly?

February 7, 2022 at 3:20 pm

Hi Jeannine, I’m not sure but would love to know! I think most of my family is based in GA and SC.

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Mississippi Plantation Tours

by Madi Reade

Published on 29 Jun 2023

Brandon Hall Plantation

Linden plantation and gardens, monmouth plantation, rosemont plantation.

Blessed with the most fertile ground on earth, Mississippi is renowned for its sprawling plantations that once fueled the cotton industry, satisfying the voracious appetite of American and European textile manufacturers. These plantations not only shaped the region's history but also left behind a legacy of grandeur and architectural marvels. Today, visitors can embark on plantation tours along the scenic River Road, offering valuable insights into a bygone era. Let's delve into some of the remarkable antebellum homes and gardens that showcase the rich heritage of Mississippi.

Situated on the outskirts of Natchez, Brandon Hall Plantation stands as a testament to the opulence of the cotton era. Originally a centerpiece of a large cotton plantation along the historic Natchez Trace, this majestic mansion, completed in 1856, now operates as a bed-and-breakfast inn. History buffs can immerse themselves in the past by staying in its individually decorated guest rooms, complete with a full Southern breakfast each morning. Guided tours of the plantation home are also available, providing a captivating glimpse into the lives of the former inhabitants. For a sneak peek inside Brandon Hall, plan a visit to the Natchez area during its annual two-week pilgrimage in the spring and fall, when this mansion and 28 other antebellum marvels open their doors for tours.

Founded in 1827 by John Wesley Vick, the son of Vickburg's founder, Linden Plantation served as the family home for Vick and his beloved Ann Marie Brabston. Although tragedy struck with Ann Marie's untimely death, the plantation home and its surrounding gardens endured. Today, operating as a bed and breakfast, Linden Plantation welcomes groups for pre-arranged tours of the home and gardens. A visit to this enchanting plantation provides a glimpse into the remarkable legacy of the Vick family and the captivating beauty of its gardens.

Dating back to 1818, the estate house of Monmouth Plantation holds a captivating history that has weathered significant changes. Surviving the trials of the Civil War, this magnificent antebellum mansion underwent a long period of decline until it was lovingly restored by California developer Ronald Riches and his wife, Lani, in the late 1970s. Now operating as a small luxury hotel, Monmouth Plantation is open daily to the public for self-guided tours during the late afternoon and early evening hours. Hotel guests have the additional privilege of enjoying guided historical tours, further immersing themselves in the rich heritage of this storied plantation.

As the childhood home of Jefferson Davis, who later became the president of the Confederate States of America, Rosemont Plantation holds a unique place in Mississippi's history. While it may be less grand compared to other plantations, the main house still retains much of its original charm, including furnishings and memorabilia belonging to the Davis family. Visitors can explore the house and its gardens from Tuesday to Saturday throughout most of the year, with extended opening hours during the Natchez Pilgrimage in the spring and fall. A journey through Rosemont Plantation offers a personal connection to one of the key figures of the Civil War era.

Embarking on a plantation tour along the majestic Mississippi River and its neighboring areas, such as Louisiana and New Orleans, is a remarkable experience that unveils the stories of the past. From the awe-inspiring Greek Revival mansions adorned with iconic live oak trees to the historic homes along the French Quarter, the Lower Mississippi Valley is a treasure trove of architectural wonders. Whether you cruise the river or explore the scenic River Road by land, guided by knowledgeable tour guides, these plantation tours promise to transport you to a bygone era of Southern charm and opulence. Don't miss the chance to visit the notable Oak Alley Plantation, Longwood, Laura Plantation, Destrehan Plantation, or Houmas House Plantation, each showcasing the rich Creole heritage and captivating history of the region. Immerse yourself in the fall pilgrimage and explore the magnificent antebellum homes along the Mississippi River, including Baton Rouge and New Orleans, to truly appreciate the grandeur and beauty of this historical region.

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Notable Southern Plantation Tours in the United States

Oak Alley Plantation, Louisiana, USA

History buffs with an interest in the southern part of the United States will enjoy these plantation tours. They offer insight into the history of slave labor, plantation living and how the south evolved into what it is today.

Did you know you can now travel with Culture Trip? Book now and join one of our premium small-group tours to discover the world like never before.

Oak Alley Plantation

slave plantation tours mississippi

Located in Louisiana, Oak Alley Plantation was first a sugar cane plantation started by Valcour Aime, who purchased the property in 1830. He established an enslaved community who worked the plantation. Then in 1836, Jacques Roman acquired the Oak Alley property and began to build his own home on the plantation. Accomplished entirely by slave labor, his home was built in Greek Revival style using bricks made on site and marble shipped in by steamboat to construct the dining-room floor. The self-guided exhibit at Oak Alley focuses on the lives and living conditions of those who were owned and kept on the plantation. Visitors learn about life after emancipation and can stop by the Blacksmith Shop, which acts as a tribute to Louisiana craftsmen and the history of forging metalwork.

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Belle Meade Plantation

What started as a single log cabin is now a plantation located outside of Nashville, Tennessee that serves as an educational resource. Founded by John Harding in 1807, “Belle Meade” translates to mean beautiful meadow in old English and French . It began as a 250-acre property that eventually became a 5,400 thoroughbred horse farm. It had a Greek Revival Mansion, a train station and a rock quarry that supported five generations of owners and their enslaved workers. Today the site retains 34 acres of the original property, including the mansion and original homestead. It is dedicated to the preservation of Tennessee’s Victorian architecture and equestrian history.

slave plantation tours mississippi

Visitors to Belle Meade Plantation enjoy a tour of the property led by trained and costumed guides, who share the history of the mansion, as well as many other historic buildings like a horse stable, carriage house and log cabin. Free wine tasting is offered at the site’s winery after tours, and there is a gift shop and restaurant for visitors as well.

Nottoway Plantation

The south’s largest antebellum mansion is Nottoway Plantation. Located in Louisiana northwest of New Orleans and southwest of Baton Rouge, Nottoway is a Greek and Italianate style mansion full of extravagant features and details. It was completed in 1859 and the construction was commissioned by prestigious sugar planter John Hampton Randolph. The mansion became home to John, his wife Emily Jane, and their 11 children. As a wealthy businessman, John wanted no expense spared when it came to the home’s design. The 53,000 square foot mansion has 64 rooms with features like 22 massive exterior columns, 12 hand carved Italian marble fireplaces, 15 1/2 foot ceilings and a lavish pure white oval ballroom. Modern bathrooms with running water and a gas plant that provided gas lighting throughout the home were also installed per John’s vision.

slave plantation tours mississippi

John’s wish was for the mansion to be a place where he could entertain visitors in extravagant and elegant style. He wanted a home that would be admired by all, seen by river boaters on the Mississippi River or riders on a horse drawn carriage traveling on Great River Road. When you visit Nottoway Plantation today, costumed plantation tour guides take you through the mansion, sharing details of the property’s construction and history. Over the years, Nottoway Plantation went through several different owners and years of decline, but managed to survive the Civil War. This is a testament to the loving care that the mansion has received by those who are determined to keep its history alive.

Pebble Hill Plantation

The original owner of Pebble Hill Plantation in Georgia was Melville Hanna, who acquired the property in 1896. In 1901, he gave the property to his daughter, Kate. She immediately began construction on Pebble Hill, hiring architect Abram Garfield, and was actively involved in the design process. The first building was a log cabin that served as both a school and a playroom for her children. Several of the buildings were neo-classical brick structures that include the Plantation Store, the Pump House, the Waldorf and the Stables Complex.

Kate was a humanitarian who provided many benefits to the employees who worked on the plantation. Over 40 families of employees lived in furnished cottages, the Visiting Nurse Association provided medical services for employees and their families, and two schools were built and maintained for employees’ children in grades 1-7.

After Kate’s death in 1936, her daughter Elisabeth “Pansy” inherited the plantation. She wanted it to become a museum, and in 1956 formed the Pebble Hill Foundation to make the property open to the public. After her death in 1978, the plantation became property of the Pebble Hill Foundation, which maintains and manages the estate today.

Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

Located about 10 miles east of downtown Nashville, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage offers self-guided audio tours and interpreter led tours of the former president’s estate. General admission plantation tours cover over 1,000 acres of farmland that used to be The Hermitage Plantation. The Hermitage was a self-sustaining property that relied on slave labor to produce cotton. President Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel lived there for several years in the late 1700s. The Jackson family survived on profits made from the crops that the slaves worked every day. When he first bought The Hermitage in 1804, he owned nine African American slaves. At the time of his death in 1845, he owned about 150 slaves who lived and worked on the property.

Although slaves could not legally marry, Jackson encouraged his to form family units. This was a way to discourage slaves from trying to escape, since it would be more difficult for an entire family to safely flee.

Take a plantation tour of the Hermitage to walk through the mansion, the exhibit gallery and the grounds, where both President Jackson and his wife are laid to rest. Costumed tour guides will share the detailed history of the Jackson family, the plantation and the buildings and original belongings that remain on the property.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

slave plantation tours mississippi

Back in 1676, Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann established the Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River in South Carolina . The couple were the first in a line of Magnolia family ownership that has lasted for more than 300 years. During the Colonial era, the plantation saw immense growth due to the cultivation of rice. Once the American Revolution began, troops occupied the land and Drayton, along with his sons, became soldiers fighting the British. In 1825, Thomas Drayton’s great grandson willed the estate to his daughter’s sons, since he had no male heirs to leave the property to. One of the sons died of a gunshot wound, leaving the second brother a wealthy plantation owner at the age of 22. The American Civil War threatened the welfare of the Drayton family, the house and the gardens on the plantation. But the plantation recovered and saw additional growth of the gardens, which became the focus. The property was saved from ruin when it opened to the public in 1870. The plantation offers half-hour long guided tours taking visitors through the Drayton family home – the third in more than three centuries – and gives a glimpse of what plantation life was like in the 19th century onward. There are 10 rooms open to the public, furnished with antiques, quilts and Drayton family heirlooms. More than five years ago, Magnolia’s Cabin Project started as an effort to preserve five structures on the property that date back to 1850. The structures are former slave dwellings that are now the focal point for a 45-minute program in African American history .

Destrehan Plantation

The Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana was established in 1787. It is located 25 miles from downtown New Orleans. It was the home of successful sugar producers Marie Celeste Robin de Logny and her husband, Jean Noel Destrehan. By 1804, 59 enslaved workers inhabited the property, producing over 203,ooo pounds of sugar. The Destrehan Plantation was the site where one of the three trials following the 1811 Slave Revolt took place. It was led by Charles Deslondes, and was one of the largest slave revolts in U.S. history.

Visitors can tour the restored plantation, which is surrounded by lush greenery and looks over the Mississippi River. Stories of the Destrehan family and those who were enslaved are shared through guided tours, which also feature historic exhibits and the opportunity to participate in period demonstrations. Plantation tours also include access to the Jefferson Room, which displays an authentic document signed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

San Francisco Plantation House

Considered the most opulent plantation house in North America, the San Francisco Plantation House is located on the east bank of the Mississippi River, about 40 minutes outside of New Orleans. In the early 1800s, Elisee Rillieux sold the land that later became the San Francisco Plantation House to Edmond Bozonier Marmillion and Eugene Lartigue, profiting $50,000. Edmond was in debt, despite being a successful crops planter. His financial problems stayed with him for the 26 years he owned the property. He continued to acquire slaves and purchase land, but didn’t make investments in sugar machinery.

The plantation was prosperous for a while in the mid-1800s, but in 1853, Edmond hired expert builders and skilled slaves to convert the plantation into a prestigious residence for his sons. Valsin and Charles were the only two of Edmond’s and his wife Antoinette’s eight children who didn’t die from tuberculosis, the same disease that killed Antoinette in 1834. The main construction on the house was completed two years later and Edmond then hired artists to create hand painted ceilings, painted door panels, faux marbling and faux wood graining throughout the home.

When Edmond passed away in 1856, his son Valsin took over the plantation. In 1859, he tried to sell the estate, but wasn’t able to due to a legal conflict involving his sister-in-law, Zoe Luminais. When the conflict was resolved in 1861, war and reconstruction prevented the possibility of sale for 15 years. Valsin died in 1871, and in 1879, Achille D. Bougere purchased the property for $50,000.

Guided plantation tours are conducted by professional costumed guides who take visitors through the colorful plantation, exploring a slave cabin, a one room school house, and the property, which was restored in both 1970 and 2014. Blacksmithing and demonstrations also take place on the property, where you’ll find a gift store as well.

James Madison’s Montpelier

Ambrose Madison, a planter and slaveholder in Virginia, along with his wife Frances and their three children, arrived in 1732 to a plantation they called Mount Pleasant. One of Ambrose’s grandchildren, James, spent his early childhood at Mount Pleasant while construction began on a brick Georgian house that would later become the center of James Madison’s Montpelier .

It was on this very land that James Madison contemplated ideas and shaped the United States as the country’s fourth president. With 2,650 acres of horse pastures, rolling hills and scenic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, James Madison’s Montpelier offers insight into the Madison family history, and provides a deeper look into James Madison’s presidency . Just behind Mount Pleasant is the Madison Family Cemetery, where both James and Dolley Madison are buried.

Exhibits on the property include the 1910 Train Depot, which explores the African American struggle for civil rights . It opened in 2010 and is a permanent exhibit on the plantation. There’s also The Mere Distinction of Colour, which allows visitors to hear the stories of those who were enslaved at Montpelier, as told by their descendants. It recounts the events that took place at the Madison’s home, as well as the South Yard of the property, where the slaves lived and worked. The exhibition also explores how the legacy of slavery impacts race relations and human rights in modern America.

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Natchez National Historical Park

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Last updated: February 3, 2023

HISTORY & LEGACIES

Whitney plantation, the plantation every american should visit, -national geographic.

slave plantation tours mississippi

THE WHITNEY INSTITUTE EDUCATES THE PUBLIC ABOUT THE HISTORY AND LEGACIES OF SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES

Whitney Plantation (legal name The Whitney Institute) is a non-profit museum dedicated to the history of the Whitney Plantation, which operated from 1752-1975 and produced indigo, sugar, and rice as its principal cash crops. The museum preserves over a dozen historical structures, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Whitney Plantation Historic District.

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Oak Alley Plantation, Louisiana

Plantation homes of the South

By USA Specialist Carla

Almost everywhere you go in the South, history calls. You hear it in the jazz, blues and soul music that drifts from bars — genres that began in the fields of the sugar plantations. You smell and taste it in the Creole food, which blends the many cultures that settled here. And you see it in the architecture, from antebellum mansions to New Orleans’s French Quarter.

I find it’s impossible to appreciate the modern day here without looking back to the region’s roots. One of the surest ways of doing this is by visiting a plantation. While many that are open to the public brush over their role in the slave trade, others face the past head on. Visiting gives you a rounded view of the region and a renewed understanding of its character today.

How to fit plantation visits into a wider trip

New Orleans French Quarter

It’s easy to plan a plantation visit (or several) as part of a wider self-drive trip through the South . I recommend driving north to south so you can visit Memphis ’s National Civil Rights Museum first, which helps to set the scene. Most plantations are clustered along a stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. You could stop at one or two of them en route to New Orleans , or visit on a day trip from the city. Another option is to stay overnight at one, which gives you a chance to explore Plantation Country in more depth.

Alternatively, you could visit plantations on a self-drive trip through South Carolina that focuses on the state’s history.

Which plantations to visit in the South: our recommendations

Whitney plantation, visit for: an in-depth look at slavery.

Main house at Whitney Plantation, Louisiana

Established in 1752, Whitney Plantation is by far the best plantation in the region for confronting its history of slavery. Its museum focuses solely on the lives of the 350 enslaved people who were forced to live and work on its land for more than a century.

I find the level of research and curation the current owners have undertaken staggering: you’ll find exhibits detailing first-hand accounts from enslaved people, photographs and original items from the time, and poignant memorials.

You can visit the property’s two self-guided exhibits, one of which changes regularly while the other focuses on slavery across Louisiana. I also recommend joining an hour-and-a-half tour led by one of the plantation’s guides, who each have in-depth knowledge of its history.

As well as showing you the main house (which is traditionally known as the ‘Big House’), built in 1790, your guide will lead you to the original enslaved peoples' cabins and historic outbuildings, including a freedmen’s church where you can learn about enslaved peoples’ spirituality. You’ll also find out more about the slave revolt that occurred in the region in 1811, marked by a memorial featuring sculpted heads impaled on pikes.

While things like this were disturbing to see, I also found it refreshing that the plantation had gone to great lengths to show the reality that enslaved people faced — something many others try to hide.

Laura Plantation

Visit for: an insight into the lives of plantation owners.

Laura Plantation (2)

Originally owned by a French-Creole family, the Duparcs, Laura Plantation was established in 1804 and is still set among sugar-cane fields today. Its Big House has a distinctive Creole style, painted in shades of red, green, ocher and gray, with a balcony running along its entire width.

I found the tour guides here exceptional, bringing the stories of the people who lived here to life in their Southern drawl. While there’s a detailed exhibit about slavery on the plantation, complete with photographs, personal biographies and documents related to those enslaved here, the tour mainly focuses on the Duparc family.

The diary of Laura Duparc-Locoul, who was born in 1861 and raised on the plantation, was discovered some years after her death. It paints a vivid picture of plantation life, and it’s around this that the tour is based. Her memoirs detail everything from everyday occurrences to family feuds and affairs with enslaved people.

Taking the 80-minute tour is almost like seeing the plantation through Laura’s eyes. You’ll explore the restored rooms of the Big House, walk through three of its gardens and see some of the historic outhouses within the grounds. Your guide will also show you inside one of the slave cabins, built in the 1840s, where the contrast between rich and poor is most striking.

Oak Alley Plantation

Visit for: beautiful grounds and a one-off stay.

Oak Alley Plantation

Used as a filming location for several movies and TV shows, Oak Alley is the most familiar of the South’s plantations. Its grand antebellum mansion is framed by an avenue of oak trees, which curve inwards to form a tunnel leading to the house’s dazzling white columns and shuttered windows.

While admittedly the tour here isn’t the best, with guides sometimes downplaying the role of slavery, it does give you the opportunity to look around one of the area’s most attractive mansions for an insight into the lives of the wealthy.

For me, the highlight of visiting Oak Alley is exploring its extensive grounds. You can stroll through its 1920s formal garden and find a peaceful spot to yourself among its wide green pastures dotted with oaks.

Make the most of the grounds by staying overnight in one of the plantation’s cottages. Some have stood for more than a century, others are more modern, but all provide a comfortable and unusual base for the night. And, you’ll have access to the property’s grounds after other visitors have left.

While Oak Alley’s restaurant is open for breakfast, come evening there’ll be no staff, though you can arrange for a light dinner to be left in your cottage ready for your arrival (or stop by one of the restaurants en route to the plantation).

Start planning your trip to the Deep South

Oak Alley plantation, Mississippi

Discovering the American South

13 days from $3,495pp

Jekyll Island, Georgia

Luxury Georgia & the Carolinas self-drive tour

12 days from $5,445pp

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

Further reading

  • Exploring Georgia and the Carolinas
  • Music culture of the South
  • Luxury vacations in the South
  • Exploring the South: Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee
  • A New Orleans food guide

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slave plantation tours mississippi

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Laurel Valley Village & Sugar Plantation

Laurel Valley is the largest surviving 19th and 20th century sugar plantation and features miles of sugarcane fields, the original slave cabins, schoolhouse and church. Visit the general store and view antique tools used for harvesting sugar cane.

Learn more about the History of Laurel Valley , the facilities and buildings, what plantation life was like, and the movies that were filmed here through their 1-hour guided walking tours. Tours run daily at 10:30 AM & 2:00 PM and are available for purchase directly on their website under the 'Tour Booking' tab HERE

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One of the biggest U.S. slave markets finally reckons with its past

slave plantation tours mississippi

Natchez was the largest slave-trading market in Mississippi before the Civil War, and one of the largest in the country. Today, the city is full of the former homes of plantation owners and their slave quarters, though for many years, these sites didn’t acknowledge their Black history publicly.

One of those former slave quarters sits on an estate that housed 124 enslaved people in 1844. In 2014, Debbie Cosey, now 66, and her husband, Gregory, now 72, bought the building. It was in significant disrepair, with dirt floors and plants growing out of the walls. Over two-and-a-half years, the couple renovated it, converting it into a bed-and-breakfast called Concord Quarters. Now they live on the first floor, and the second floor accommodates six guests.

Cosey and her husband are Black, both descended from enslaved people. And rather than conceal their home’s troubled history, they’re doing all they can to share it with their guests.

Natchez, like many Southern locales, has a long history of downplaying its role in slavery. But in recent years, especially since the 2020 racial justice protests, there have been renewed efforts across the country to tell the whole truth about the antebellum period. Activists have pressured plantations not to gloss over slavery on their tours, and many sites, including some in Natchez, have become more open about their history of slavery.

Cosey wants to highlight the stories of the enslaved people who toiled at the Concord estate. Aside from a small, deteriorated building of unknown use, Concord Quarters is all that remains of the original estate. The main house was built for Spanish Governor Manuel Gayoso de Lemos in 1794—95, when the territory was under Spanish control, and after being sold more than once, it burned down in 1901, according to Historic Natchez Foundation .

In 2019, Concord Quarters was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Last year, Mississippi State University led an archaeological dig on the property, which unearthed numerous artifacts, some of which are on display for Concord’s guests, including a brick with the fingerprint of an enslaved person.

Historic homes in Natchez have long struggled to talk about slavery, said Cosey. Years ago, she said, she was working for a historic inn in town, and she was asked not to broach the subject. “They said to me, ‘You stick to the script, Debbie,’” she said. (The inn did not respond to requests for comment.)

But at Concord, “I wrote my own script,” she said. “Perhaps I will talk about slavery, and if that offends you, I won’t be offended if you leave.”

She added, “Why not talk about it? Why not give honor to those people that your ancestors enslaved? Is it that hurtful to you? Are you that embarrassed? And if you are, if you talk about it, I feel it’s good healing for your soul.”

Joseph McGill, a history consultant at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, S.C., stayed at Concord in 2018 as part of his Slave Dwelling Project, through which he educates the public on slavery by giving talks and spending the night in former slave dwellings. He travels widely for the project, and Natchez was high on his list of places to visit. For many years, when visiting antebellum sites in Natchez, “you heard about the architecturally significant big houses, the nice beautiful grand staircase, the place settings, vaulted ceilings, drapes, and things of this nature,” said McGill. “But very seldom would they talk about whose labor was stolen to make all that happen.”

McGill said of the local tourism industry, “They take pride in benefiting from the ‘Gone With the Wind,’ hoop skirt, mint julep-type story. They’ve been making money handsomely off of that story.” Tourism is the largest industry in Natchez, which is 62 percent Black as of the 2020 census; Mississippi River cruises are a major draw.

Some of the historical sites in Natchez are now discussing slavery more openly. In 2021, the Historic Natchez Foundation started installing permanent slavery exhibits in historic homes that offer daily tours. Three exhibits are complete, and two are still in progress. The artifacts on display include maps, a historic image of a house, and a page from a slave schedule that lists ages, sexes and sometimes names of enslaved people. At a home called Longwood, there’s a rare portrait that was painted of a man while he was enslaved.

These exhibits first appeared on the homes’ porches during the early part of the covid-19 pandemic as an outdoor attraction for visitors. But even before covid and the 2020 racial justice protests, historical site operators in Natchez were asking for help educating visitors on slavery, said Carter Burns, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation. “The public expects to hear those stories,” he said.

In 2021, Natchez donated the site of its former slave market to the National Park Service. The site, called Forks of the Road, is part of Natchez National Historical Park. The city is working on a Forks to Freedom Corridor, a trail to teach visitors about slavery and other Natchez Black history, but funding has not yet been secured, said Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson. “We recognize we have a difficult past, as so many cities in the South do,” he said. “But we also recognize that we’re making tremendous progress.”

Many visitors have expressed their support for the city’s new emphasis on the lives of enslaved people, but there has been some dissent, said Roscoe Barnes III, cultural heritage tourism manager for Visit Natchez. One commenter on Instagram suggested that telling these stories would hurt tourism, said Barnes. “He believed that we should go on telling the stories about the antebellum period and the homes, and call the enslaved ‘servants’ and basically whitewash the history,” Barnes said.

Rural plantations are obvious targets for inclusive storytelling, but there hasn’t been as much scrutiny on urban and suburban historical homes that held enslaved people for domestic work, like the ones in Natchez. During slavery, Natchez’s town center was surrounded by a ring of suburban villas, said Burns. The residents of those villas didn’t grow crops there, but rather on plantations farther outside town or across the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

There have also been calls for plantations to stop hosting weddings, a practice that many deem disrespectful to the human lives lost in these places. Concord Quarters is an unusual example of a Black-owned slavery-related site that hosts weddings.

Cosey didn’t originally intend to open a bed-and-breakfast, she said, but was attracted to Concord as a potential wedding venue, especially given its majestic columns, popular among brides in the area. She counsels couples on the property’s history of slavery and asks how their guests may feel about it. “I see things differently because I am a Black woman who owns a slave dwelling,” she said. “I convey things differently.” She added, “These were our people who were enslaved.”

McGill has long opposed plantation weddings, but he acknowledges that for many of these historical sites, weddings are a crucial source of revenue. “If these organizations are going to have these weddings, they should tie them into reparations,” he said, perhaps by charging a fee that funds a scholarship program for the descendants of enslaved people.

While activists try to amplify these historical Black voices, Black history curriculum has been rolled back at many schools across the country, particularly in the South and other Republican-leaning areas. Some parents are now looking to museums and other institutions outside of schools to educate their children about this history. Historical sites “should step up and be the place that you can still go to get this history,” McGill said.

After all these years, Natchez is becoming a place to learn about Black history. “That nut has finally been cracked,” McGill said.

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Claudius Ross: ‘Visiting Prospect Hill brings all the pieces back together’, he said.

'This is surreal': descendants of slaves and slaveowners meet on US plantation

At Prospect Hill in Mississippi, people came from as far as Liberia for an unlikely gathering that led to a scene of visible emotion – with ‘a lot to talk about’

The gathering at Prospect Hill plantation that day could have been a casting call for a period drama set before the American civil war .

The location was remote, along a one-lane gravel road in sparsely populated Jefferson County, Mississippi . A group of about 50 people, black and white, stood in front of an archetypal southern Gothic home, chatting amiably about slave owners and slaves.

At one point, a lone costumed man in a top hat strolled through. Nearby, an elderly white woman held the hand of a black man with whom she was deeply engrossed in conversation. Then a van pulled up and discharged a group of African visitors who were running an hour late, and the crowd broke into applause.

As she surveyed the scene, Prospect Hill’s de facto director, Jessica Crawford, said: “This is all actually a bit surreal.”

She was right: where but in a dream would stand-ins for slave owners and slaves gather in the middle of nowhere, just to chat? Yet these were actual descendants of Prospect Hill’s original slave owners and slaves, gathered for the first of a series of reunion events held between November 2011 and April 2017.

Each attendee existed along a vast network of interconnected circuits, and once they got together, all the circuits lit up.

‘It changed my whole life. It helped me to understand who I am’

B.H. Wade at the gin at Prospect Hill, located near Whetstone Creek, just south of the house. Taken in 1901.

With the arrival of the van, a missing piece fell into place: the passengers were descendants of slaves who had been emancipated from the plantation before the civil war and emigrated to a freed-slave colony in what is now the west African country of Liberia. The contingent had driven all night to attend the event, completing a trip across a chasm that encompassed 170 years and 5,000 miles.

Their leader, Evangeline Wayne, noted that her ancestors had been taken from Africa during the slave trade. After decades in the US, their descendants had been allowed to immigrate “back” to Africa, though they’d never actually been there before.

Then, as a result of Liberia’s civil wars, which lasted from 1990 to 2003, Wayne herself immigrated “back” to the US, though she had likewise never been to the country before.

At Prospect Hill she found herself being embraced by people she’d never met as if she were a long-lost friend. “I didn’t expect this,” she said, smiling and fighting back tears. “I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this.”

Wayne cannot definitively document her connection to Prospect Hill because Liberia’s national archives were destroyed during the civil wars, though she remembers her grandmother mentioning a Mississippi plantation and a “Captain Ross”.

Isaac Ross, a revolutionary war veteran, founded the plantation and provided in his will for the freeing of its slaves to emigrate to a colony in what is now Liberia – Prospect Hill’s primary claim to fame.

“To be honest, I’m unsure of who, and what, I am, and where I fit in,” Wayne observed, with visible sadness. “I’m considered a foreigner in Liberia, even though I’m from there, and it’s the same in the US.” When she met James Belton, a descendant of Prospect Hill slaves who had chosen not to emigrate, they both encountered someone whose life represented what their own might have been, had their ancestors made a different choice.

Unsure what to say, they simply embraced.

Claudius Ross, who was born in Liberia and immigrated in 2007.

Belton said the reunions had helped him see Prospect Hill’s history from different vantage points. “In this country, we have so much division, black, white and what have you. And things like this, if it’s put out there where you can see it, it will let people know you can have unity regardless of what happened 150 years ago. It was a rare opportunity for everyone.”

Claudius Ross, a Liberian, visited Prospect Hill in June, when he was interviewed by the documentary film-makers Alison Fast and Chandler Griffin, who have been compiling footage from the reunion events. He became curious about his own background after his family was threatened by fighters from Liberian indigenous groups who were at war with his own ethnic group, freed slave descendants known as Americo-Liberians.

After he moved to the US in 2007, Ross was distressed to read that some Liberian immigrants had enslaved members of indigenous tribes. Then he read about Prospect Hill and recognized his family’s connection.

In Liberia, he recalled being told: “‘You don’t belong here. Go where you came from.’ So I was humiliated. I was sad. It led me on this journey of trying to find out exactly who I was. You know, ‘What does my name come from? What does it mean? Who does it belong to?’”

Visiting Prospect Hill, he said, “brings all the pieces back together”. He added: “It’s also a celebration for me, knowing that I do have a history. I’m not just a wandering person in the galaxy. I do have a spot, I do have a name, I do have a light.”

Mississippi-in-Africa

James Belton, Claudius Ross and Sam Godfrey.

Charles Greenlee, a white descendant of the plantation’s slave owners, said he was “filled with anxiety the week prior to the reunion, as well as the day of the event”. He could barely contain his emotions as he watched the Liberians disembarking from the van.

Another slave owner descendant, Jim DeLoach, said that when he made plans to attend, he couldn’t help but feel “a little apprehensive at first”. His ancestors, after all, had owned the ancestors of people who would be there, whose own lives had been profoundly affected by that. He wondered if he might encounter hostility. But after talking with slave descendants, he discovered “they were really proud of their heritage, the struggles that their ancestors faced and the fact that all of their lives would have been different had it not been for Isaac Ross”.

Ross moved from South Carolina to what was then the Mississippi territory in 1808, accompanied by a large group of mixed-race slaves who were said to have been a source of discomfort for their former owners. Also in the group were several free black people who had fought alongside Ross in the revolution and would gain title to their own land in the territory.

After wresting his plantation from the wilderness, Ross set about correcting what he saw as the worst ills of human enslavement. He never sold any of his slaves and taught them to read and write, which was illegal at the time.

Then, out of concern for what would happen to them when he and his similarly sympathetic daughter were gone, he stipulated in his will that after her death the plantation should be sold and the proceeds used to pay the way for those who chose to emigrate to Mississippi-in-Africa, the west African colony set up by the American Colonization Society, a group of abolitionists and slave owners who shared a belief that the removal of free black people might reduce rising tensions over abolition.

The resulting saga encompasses heroes and villains in two Mississippis, on two continents.

Ross’s family was divided over the plan, and a grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, contested the will for a decade. During the litigation, a group of slaves who saw Wade as an impediment to their freedom allegedly set fire to the first Prospect Hill house, killing a young girl and injuring others, though Wade escaped unharmed (a new house was built on the site of the first in 1854).

Neighboring vigilantes reportedly lynched or burned alive 12 slaves whom they believed had participated in the uprising. In 1845, the state supreme court ruled against Wade, allowing more than 200 slaves to emigrate, while about 50 chose to remain behind, enslaved. Belton said one of his ancestors was the mother of the two slaves who escaped, not wanting to leave them behind, where she remained as a cook.

‘At the end of the day, it explains America today’

Descendants of slave owners, slaves and freed slaves listen to a history of the plantation. Eve Wayne is seated near the center, in cream colored coat.

Prospect Hill lends itself to complex discussions about race because its tumultuous history is not easily reduced to simple black and white.

Laura “Butch” Ross laughed as she said that because she’s of mixed race but identifies as black, everyone at the first event assumed she was a slave descendant, when in fact she’s descended from the slave owners – from a later interracial union of a white Ross and a woman of color.

“Everybody got a different version,” she said. The point, she said, is to “get everybody involved and just let everybody meet everybody and find out what’s going on.”

Her daughter Donna Ross agreed. The crowd at the first event “was like our family history, really all mixed up”, she said. “But at the end of the day, it explains America today. We are so intertwined in ways we don’t even know, and it tends to get lost because it’s not talked about, so we don’t really know what’s going on.”

It also helps that the default setting for people in the area is usually to be polite. Manners are typically highly valued in the south, even when they mask underlying divisions. At the Prospect Hill events, there have been occasional conversational red flags, but also opportunities for comparing notes and for circumspection.

One American woman in African dress asked at the first event how frequently rape occurred on slave plantations. Butch Ross observed: “Everyone spoke to me, but it was still a little catch in there.” She said she sensed lingering prejudice among a few older whites. “They were standoffish to me until they found out who I was related to”, at which point they began to freely converse, she said.

Amekia Mazie is a descendant of slaves who did not emigrate. “I grew up in Chicago and for me it was like being in a movie, or going back in time,” she said. When she told people of her visit, some were disgusted, struggling to understand why she wanted to see all that. “But I talked to the old folks, and it changed my whole life. It helped me to understand who I am,” she said. It helped her see more clearly her family’s legacy of overcoming adversity, she said.

Betty McGehee, a descendant of the slave-owning family, said that after visiting with slave descendants at Prospect Hill, she saw her own life differently and wondered whether her land holdings and heirloom antiques represented “a kind of greed, really – for me to have these things, and hold on to them”.

A fight to protect an epic history

n interior room of Prospect Hill

Today, most of Prospect Hill’s architectural peers have literally fallen by the wayside, and the majority of the area’s white residents have moved away, taking their money with them.

As Crawford put it, the region is “a wrecked ship, and the crew who wrecked it got off a long time ago”. Jefferson County today has the highest percentage of black residents – 85% – of any county in the US and is the fourth poorest, according to the most recent census. All of which means the options for Prospect Hill are limited.

Crawford said the original idea was to draw attention to the house in hopes of finding a buyer to restore it and grant an easement enabling the exploration of the property’s underground antebellum artifacts, a comparatively new field of archaeology.

After the Wade family sold the house in the late 1960s, its decline accelerated under a succession of eccentric owners, one of whom lived in the past, heating the house with fireplaces and lighting its rooms with oil lamps while doing little to keep it in repair. The next owner filled the rooms with fine antiques while the exterior walls rotted down.

When Crawford happened upon it in 2010, the house appeared headed for collapse. As she picked her way through the dank, shadowy rooms she saw moldering rugs, rat-gnawed tables, emasculated chairs and piles of mildewed clothes. An empty bourbon bottle protruded from sodden debris atop a warped grand piano, while an array of cooking pots caught water from roof leaks. “It was as if a bomb had gone off inside,” she said. For someone devoted to preserving clues about the past, Prospect Hill’s disfigurement was a profoundly sad sight.

Then, as she stepped gingerly toward the front door, she saw a patch of brilliant color from the corner of her eye and turned to see a peacock standing in front of a bookcase. In her mind, the peacock, which had been left behind by the last occupant, offered a kernel of beauty and hope, and she later named it Isaac, after Prospect Hill’s founder. Until its death, Isaac served as a mascot for the events, and visitors invariably photographed him.

Isaac the peacock in the cemetery.

After convincing the owner to sell the house and the Archaeological Conservancy to buy it in 2011, Crawford enlisted the help of friends, strangers, descendants, even jail inmates to clear the debris and return the structure to a point where it might at least evoke its epic history. Later, using donations and a state grant, she had the roof replaced and the foundations bolstered to buy it some time. Through it all, she hosted the reunion events and sought a buyer.

In the cemetery behind the house, most guests notice that the tombstone of the grandson who contested the will is installed backward, facing away from his grave, perhaps indicating the family’s postmortem judgment.

Yet there is also a proliferation of flowers beneath moss-draped trees, and an elaborate, towering marble monument over Ross’s grave, erected by the Mississippi branch of the colonization society. There is the grave of the girl who died in the fire, and another of a Confederate soldier (the remains of a Union soldier who died in the house during the war were later moved up north by his survivors).

No one yet knows where the slaves are buried, their wooden markers long since having crumbled into dust.

‘We all have a lot to talk about, don’t we?’

At the most recent reunion event, a young, dreadlocked rapper named William Ross played period music on a violin, choosing the song Amazing Grace to accompany a blessing of the house by Sam Godfrey, an Episcopal priest who is descended from Isaac Ross.

Godfrey said he never felt any trepidation about meeting people whose ancestors his family owned. “I don’t expect people to look at me and see what my ancestors did,” he said. “I don’t take credit or blame for it. All I can do is what I can do today.”

Before the events, “I didn’t know any of the slave story, really,” he said. “I just knew that Isaac Ross freed his slaves. I was fascinated to meet James Belton and the people from Liberia. It made it a real homecoming.”

Like many descendants, Godfrey said he now believed Prospect Hill has a higher purpose than as a private home – that it should be permanently devoted to racial reconciliation events.

Crawford echoed that sentiment. “There’s so much potential here, and so much willingness to see it become a place that brings people together to confront an uncomfortable past,” she said.

Unfortunately, she added, “it all comes down to money, and the money just isn’t there.” If Prospect Hill can’t be saved, “a huge opportunity will be lost to tell an important story not only about American history, but world history”, she said.

In Donna Ross’s view, Prospect Hill’s value lies in the fact that it represents a story that needs to be told over and over again. “We all have a lot to talk about, don’t we? You never know how people are connected until you sit down and talk.”

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Plantations are a dark chapter in American history—here’s why to visit

Louisiana's Whitney Plantation pays homage to the experiences of slaves across the South.

The moment I see her name, I feel a lump in my throat.

“Pauline Johnson” is written on the back of the small card hanging from a lanyard around my neck. It tells me she was a 12-year-old child who had watched her father die in Louisiana just before slavery was abolished in the United States.

Everyone who visits the Whitney Plantation , located on the west bank of the Mississippi less than an hour’s drive from New Orleans on Louisiana’s historic River Road , receives a similar card. Each bears the story of a different slave, derived from interviews with more than 2,300 former slaves conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s.

I am standing next to my own 12-year-old the moment I read Pauline’s story and can’t imagine him having to grow up knowing he was someone else’s property.

The inability to imagine is part of the luxury of this tour.

Visitors have the opportunity—the privilege—of learning about the complex and often grueling history of slavery in the United States from a distance of more than 150 years. The 13th Amendment to the nation’s constitution, which outlawed the practice unequivocally, was ratified in December 1865.

Despite the fact that the Whitney Plantation, a sugar-cane plantation formerly home to more than 350 African slaves, is immaculately groomed, the raw emotion of the place is undeniable.

Travel across sections of the American South and you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid running across one of the large antebellum plantations—some as populous as modern-day suburban housing developments—that once dominated the countryside.

Plantation tours are almost equally ubiquitous. At most properties, the visitor experience includes a guided exploration of the plantation home and grounds led by a living historian clad in period garb.

It typically goes a bit like this: Tour the big house with a docent portraying a privileged occupant, then follow one meant to be a black slave or cook through the fields and kitchens.

A retired (white) trial lawyer named John Cummings took it upon himself to tell the plantation story in a different way.

In 2014, at the age of 77, the New Orleans native opened the doors on a project 15 years in the making. The Whitney Plantation Museum is one of the only historic sites in the country focused solely on the slave experience.

From the outset, our guide Courtney makes it clear to the group, which includes a mixed bag of ages and races, that the goal here is to inform and educate, not to shame or romanticize. Notably, she isn’t wearing a costume.

Contrary to precedent, the tour doesn’t commence in the massive plantation home, where the land (and slave-) owners would have lived. This experience is not about them, Courtney tells us.

Instead we start in the tiny freed-slave-built Antioch Baptist Church , a cool spot to escape the searing heat of a Louisiana summer’s day, to be sure, but also the kind of place where slaves would have found sanctuary and a few moments of rest and peace.

The church isn’t original to the property; it was donated to the plantation in 2001 by a congregation in Paulina, a community located just a few miles away on the opposite side of the Mississippi River.

This kind of deliberate borrowing is part and parcel of the Whitney Plantation Museum experiment, which seeks to provide a unique perspective on the working plantation as it evolved over time in Louisiana in addition to paying homage to the experiences of slaves across the American South.

Many of the outbuildings that now sit on the living history museum’s grounds, including most of the slave cabins—small shacks that would have been shared by up to a dozen workers—have been imported from nearby plantations to help tell that story.

Though some acquisitions have been donated, Cummings has personally invested millions here. Art he has commissioned includes 40 life-size casts of slave children that stand and sit in and among the pews of the church, and a massive bronze angel erected in the garden to memorialize the 2,200 children who died on the plantation and across St. John the Baptist Parish before slavery was abolished in the United States.

A young man comforts his friend after taking a tour at the new African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C., during the opening weekend of the museum.

As we walk through the fields where slaves once collected sugar cane, we come upon Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, an open-air monument honoring the 107,000 people who were held in bondage in Louisiana.

The group is left to read plaque after plaque in silence before Courtney shares more information.

We learn about Louisiana’s Code Noir , a list of state-proposed recommendations—regarding housing, clothing, food, and more—put forth in order to make the slave trade more “humane.” The terms of the code suggest slaves should be given a day off each week (it rarely happened, we are told), guaranteed food (insufficient weekly rations drove many slaves to hunt squirrel, possum, and alligator), and treated with care (abuse was rampant), exposing the shocking gap between prescribed behavior and reality.

We see the tiny outdoor kitchen (the oldest in Louisiana) where the enslaved cook would have prepared meals for the master’s family and the “hot box”—a rusting metal chamber barely wide enough to stand in with arms outstretched where slaves awaiting sale at auction or those being punished would be left to suffer in the hot sun. On the interior walls, Courtney points out small cutouts meant to hold a slave’s chains. Nearby, a list of slaves and the prices for which their lives were bought and sold is posted.

And on it goes.

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By the time we get to the 14-room plantation house, it seems to have grown in size. Courtney shows us the fine china, elaborate drawing rooms, and frescoed ceiling without emotion. Still, I feel my stomach turn. The view of the cabins in the distance only makes it worse.

In addition to the escorted tour, the plantation offers a small self-guided area where visitors can learn about the history of slavery on an international scale, offering vital perspective on an industry that once fueled much of the world’s economy.

It is there that we learn most slaves came from West Central Africa, that Portugal and Brazil were among the largest slave traders, and that 2,500,000 slaves eventually were brought to North America. We are also introduced to the pope, Nicholas V , who authorized the King of Portugal to “capture and subjugate” people who weren’t Christians for the purpose of forced labor “in perpetuity,” a harsh reminder of how morally upright the practice was felt to be.

Courtney is careful with specifics of brutality owing to the children on the tour. My own two boys remain interested but detached as we make our way around the property. They take in the information presented, sometimes offering their thoughts (“That’s not right.”), and move along. But the tour dominates our conversation as we drive away from the plantation, grateful for the chance to talk about the experience in private.

Much like a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau , there is no joy in visiting the Whitney Plantation, or in learning about the atrocities that happened there and on similar properties throughout the South. You won’t leave feeling better about humanity, especially in light of recent racial tensions across the United States. But you will leave informed … and affected.

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Go Backpacking

Whitney Plantation: Tour of an American Slavery Museum

By: Author Dave Lee

Posted on Last updated: October 7, 2021

Slave quarters on Whitney Plantation

In planning my third trip to New Orleans , going on a Whitney Plantation tour was high on my to-do list.

I wanted my first southern plantation experience to be more than a photo-op. 

The Whitney Plantation is the first museum dedicated to American slavery. 

The 2,000-acre sugar plantation dates back to 1752 when it was developed by German immigrants Ambroise Haydel and his wife.

According to the plantation's website , it stayed in their family for 115 years, before being “sold to Bradish Johnson, a major businessman and plantation owner with roots in Louisiana and New York.”

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and John Cummings, a successful lawyer from New Orleans, purchases the property as a real estate investment.

Over time, he realizes how little he knows about the history of the slaves who once worked on such properties.

And as he learns more, he decides to invest millions of dollars of his own money into turning the plantation into a museum honoring their experience.

Whitney Plantation Tour

The Whitney Plantation opened in December 2014.

Unlike most plantation tours that focus on the large houses of the owners, the Whitney Plantation tour is given from the slaves' perspective. 

Visitors meet their guide in the Welcome Center, which also serves as a tasteful gift shop, primarily offering books on slavery.

The Antioch Baptist Church

The Antioch Baptist Church

The 90-minute walking tour begins with a visit to the Antioch Baptist Church, which was built in 1870 on the eastern side of the Mississippi River.

Slaves would come from nearby plantations to worship there. 

The church was donated and relocated to the Whitney after its community opened a new, larger one in 1999.

Slave children

The Children of Whitney

Walking inside the historic wooden structure, one's attention is drawn to the lifesize sculptures of child slaves.

Their innocence and vacant eyes evoke empathy. 

“ The Children of Whitney , a series of sculptures by Ohio-based artist Woodrow Nash , represent these former slaves as they were at the time of emancipation: children.”

The children bring the space to life in a way I've never experienced in a museum before. We would see more of them as the tour continued.

Slave memorial

The Wall of Honor

Next, we visited The Wall of Honor, which memorializes stories from the 350 slaves who worked on the Whitney Plantation.

Etched into the granite slabs, in their own words, are horrific, heartbreaking accounts of their treatment. 

My words certainly won't do these stories justice, so I took a few photos to share here. 

Webb story

“The most crue master in St. John the Baptist Parish during slavery time was a Mr. Valsin Mermillion. One of his cruelties was to place a disobedient slave, standing, in a box, in which there were nails placed in such a manner that the poor creature was unable to move. He was powerless even to chase the flies or sometimes, ants crawling on some parts of his body.” — Mrs. Webb, Louisiana Slave

Julien

“We jus' have co'n braid and syrup and some times fat bacon, but when I et dat biscuit, she comes in and say, ‘What dat biscuit?' I say, ‘Miss, I et I's so hungry.' Den she grab dat broom and start to beatin' me over de head wid it and callin' me low down nigger and I guess I jes' clean lost my head 'cause I know'd better fan to fight her if I knowed anything ‘tall, but I started to fight her and de driver, he comes in and he grabs me and starts beatin' me wid dat cat-o'-nine tails, and he beats me 'till I fall to de floor nearly dead. He cut my back all to pieces, den dey rub salt in de cuts for mo' punishment, I's only 10 years old.” — Jenny Proctor

Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

Following The Wall of Honor, we had a few minutes to walk through a memorial to the 107,000 Africans enslaved in Louisiana during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The memorial is named after Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a historian, teacher, and author who compiled a database known as “Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820.”

The black granite walls are filled with more names, stories, and images of the enslaved. 

See also: Zanzibar's Prison Island in Tanzania

The Field of Angels

The Field of Angels

The Field of Angels recognizes the 2,200 slave children born in St. John the Baptist parish between 1823-1863, many of whom died before their second birthday.

Most were buried on the grounds of the plantation; some were buried in the cemetery of a nearby Catholic church.

“Death rates on Louisiana’s cane plantations were relatively high compared to cotton or tobacco plantations. Many of the children honored at this memorial died of diseases, but some of them died under tragic circumstances such as being hit by lightning, drowning, or burning.” — Whitney Plantation website

The striking statue at the center of the memorial is “Coming Home” by Rod Moorehead. It depicts a black angel carrying a baby up to heaven. 

Slave cabin

The Slave Quarters

The Whitney originally had 22 cypress slave cabins.

However, in the 1970s, all but two were destroyed to make more room for larger trucks and more modern harvesting equipment. 

Some of the family owners, who were focused on selling the property rather than preserving it, believed the value would increase as a result.

The rest of the cabins visible on the Whitney Plantation were purchased from the Myrtle Grove Plantation. 

Children of Whitney at a slave cabin

The Children of the Whitney make another appearance on the porch of a slave cabin.

This particular cabin had a wall in the middle, splitting the single building up for use by two or more people.

Each side had a fireplace, a bedroom, and what appeared to be a sitting room.

Slave cell

Constructed in Pennsylvania in 1868, this rusty metal jail was donated to the Whitney by a Louisiana couple. 

The metal box, about the size of a shipping container, would have been used to hold slaves who were caught trying to escape. 

It is similar in design and appearance to what was used during slave auctions, as well.

Robin's Blacksmith Shop

As the Whitney Plantation tour continued, we passed by Robin's Blacksmith Shop.

According to a plaque, Robin was an enslaved man born in 1791 on the east coast of the U.S.

His job was to provide all the metalwork for the plantation, including “horseshoes, nails, hinges, and curtain rods.”

Slave kitchen

The Kitchen

Built in the early 1800s, Whitney's kitchen is the oldest detached kitchen in Louisiana. 

Here, a slave was responsible for cooking all the meals for the plantation owner's family.

Pigeon holes were cut in the roof so that the loft could be used as an additional pigeonnier (a space created for pigeons to nest). 

Whitney Plantation house

The Big House

Last but not least, we walked from the kitchen to The Big House, where the plantation owners lived.

The house was rebuilt in its current form sometime before 1815, making it a little over 200 years old. 

It's an excellent example of Spanish Creole architecture. 

Front view of The Big House, which is the last stop on the Whitney Plantation tour

Each floor has seven rooms. However, the guided tour only passes through the dining room in the middle of the ground floor.

There's not much to see. I found it the least interesting part of the experience. 

Overall, I found the effort to present plantation life from the slaves' perspective to be a success. 

Walking the grounds where so many indentured men, women, and children toiled without choice, were mercilessly tortured, and sexually abused is a heavy experience. 

The investment in bringing a church, slave cabins, and original artwork to the grounds has paid off.

The Children of the Whitney, especially, give faces to the names and stories. 

Seeing them throughout the tour reminds you what happened there was real, not some abstract history lesson. 

Getting to Whitney Plantation

There's no public transportation from New Orleans to the Whitney Plantation, so the easiest thing to do is sign up for a tour, which includes roundtrip bus transportation (from the French Quarter) and admission for a guided tour.

I went in partnership with Gray Line , which sells adult tickets for $69. Children age 6-12 cost $35 each. 

The whole trip takes five hours. To make a full day of it, you can add a second plantation for an additional cost. 

I also visited Oak Alley Plantation, where the focus is on the owners' home and oak trees. It's a beautiful property, and there are some slave cabins to see; however, the impact wasn't the same.

If you have a car and prefer to visit Whitney Plantation independently, it's recommended you buy your tickets in advance. Adult admission is $25; children age 6-18 are $11 each. 

Where to Stay in New Orleans:   The Quisby is centrally located in the Garden District, a 15-minute walk from the French Quarter. Free breakfast, an on-site bar open 24/7, and dorms starting at just $18 are a few of the reasons to stay here. Click here to check availability

My trip to New Orleans was in partnership with New Orleans & Company and The Quisby; this tour was provided compliments of Gray Line. 

slave plantation tours mississippi

Dave is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Go Backpacking and Feastio . He's been to 66 countries and lived in Colombia and Peru. Read the full story of how he became a travel blogger.

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Tours at Former US Plantations Focus on Telling Truth About Enslavement

  • By Deborah Block

Alfred Jackson sits in his cabin at the Hermitage Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee, home of President Andrew Jackson, the 7th U.S. president. (Courtesy the Hermitage)

Many tours on former plantations in the American South have focused on wealthy white landowning families and glossed over the people who were enslaved. This romanticized version centers on the lavish lifestyles and mansions of the slave owners while disregarding the enslaved people who built the homes and toiled in the fields.

While some plantation tours have intertwined the lives of the slavers and the enslaved, others are evolving as part of a growing awareness in the push for social justice that includes facing the enduring scars of slavery today.

Mount Vernon, the plantation owned by President George Washington in Alexandria, Virginia, has not shied away from talking about those scars.

Reconstruction of the men's bunkroom in the greenhouse slave quarters at Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia. (Courtesy George Washington's Mount Vernon)

During the Enslaved People of Mount Vernon Tour, history interpreter Jessica Obert tells stories, sometimes disturbing, about the men, women and children who were held in bondage.

Matt Briney, Mount Vernon's vice president of media and communications, told VOA the tour "brings humanity and sympathy to those who were enslaved."

Obert explains to a group that the word "enslaved" is used today rather than "slaves" because "enslaved" indicates it was forced on them.

"There has been a positive cultural shift in changing the word from 'slave' to 'enslaved,'" Briney said.

He thinks more people are interested in the enslaved tour in part because of Black Lives Matter protests. Those protests have gotten the attention of visitors, who are wanting to delve more into African American culture and gain a deeper understanding about enslavement, even if they find it unsettling, he said.

That was true for Jae Broderick of New York, who went on her first enslaved tour.

"The tour opened some uncomfortable truths and gave me a better understanding of the caste system of white society," she said. "The stories emphasized both the humanity and brutal realities of the people who were enslaved."

A slave cabin at Laura, a former sugar plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. (Courtesy Laura Plantation)

A former plantation called Laura, in Vacherie, Louisiana, also tells the personal stories of the people who were enslaved.

"As we discover new stories, we update our perspectives, including how Blacks and whites interacted with each other," Joseph Dunn, public relations director at Laura Plantation, told VOA.

He notes that in recent months, more people of color have been visiting Laura than in the past. He thinks "they may also want to know if their ancestors were enslaved on the plantation or learn about the history and struggles the people faced."

Other former plantations are also concerned about racial sensitivity.

Betty, an enslaved cook at the Hermitage for 50 years, poses with some children. She was Alfred Jackson’s mother. (Courtesy the Hermitage)

That includes The Hermitage, the plantation home of President Andrew Jackson in Nashville, Tennessee, according to Howard Kittell, president and chief executive officer at The Hermitage.

"Even though we have continually woven the story of the enslaved people into the story of President Jackson, in the past five years, we have been more sensitive about how we convey the stories about enslavement," Kittell said.

But some plantations are sticking to their old narrative about the Old South.

Dunn, of Laura Plantation, said some tours in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi hark back to antebellum nostalgia, with stories about "the big house" with the wealthy white family. It's a more comfortable story to sell, he said, than the terrible history of enslavement.

Lavish mansions, like the one built at Oatlands in 1804 in Leesburg, Virginia, were common at the large southern plantations where the white families lived. (Courtesy Caleb Schutz, Oatlands)

That was the case at Oatlands Historic House and Gardens in Leesburg, Virginia, where tours highlighted the plantation's slave owners and neglected to mention the Black people who labored there.

Now that is about to change, said Caleb Schutz, CEO at Oatlands. "Upcoming tours will tell the entire truth about the people who were enslaved," he said, not a sanitized version about the mansion and white families, "which in a sense, memorializes the enslaver."

The details are being finalized by a new board of directors, which includes a white descendant of the enslavers and two African Americans, one of whom discovered that some of his ancestors had been enslaved on the plantation.

Oatlands is finally being held "accountable for enslavement," including that of my ancestors, Ryan Williams told VOA, "and needs to tell the unvarnished truth about the people who were held against their will to farm the land."

A tour of Oatlands isn't complete, he added, if you don't talk about the enslaved people who "crafted the mansion for the white family to live in comfort."

Darryl Simon, the other African American board member, agrees. The tours should tell the "whole story of Oatlands from different people's vantage points," he said, not a whitewashed version of the antebellum South that ignores the cruelty of slavery and the contributions of those who were enslaved.

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Building the First Slavery Museum in America

slave plantation tours mississippi

By David Amsden

  • Feb. 26, 2015

Louisiana’s River Road runs northwest from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, its two lanes snaking some 100 miles along the Mississippi and through a contradictory stretch of America. Flat and fertile, with oaks webbed in Spanish moss, the landscape stands in defiance of the numerous oil refineries and petrochemical plants that threaten its natural splendor. In the rust-scabbed towns of clapboard homes, you are reminded that Louisiana is the eighth-poorest state in the nation. Yet in the lush sugar plantations that crop up every couple of miles, you can glimpse the excess that defined the region before the Civil War. Some are still active, with expansive fields yielding 13 million tons of sugar cane a year. Others stand in states of elegant rot. But most conspicuous are those that have been restored for tourists, transporting them into a world of bygone Southern grandeur — one in which mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings.

On Dec. 7, the Whitney Plantation, in the town of Wallace, 35 miles west of New Orleans, celebrated its opening, and it was clear, based on the crowd entering the freshly painted gates, that the plantation intended to provide a different experience from those of its neighbors. Roughly half of the visitors were black, for starters, an anomaly on plantation tours in the Deep South. And while there were plenty of genteel New Orleanians eager for a peek at the antiques inside the property’s Creole mansion, they were outnumbered by professors, historians, preservationists, artists, graduate students, gospel singers and men and women from Senegal dressed in traditional West African garb: flowing boubous of intricate embroidery and bright, saturated colors. If opinions on the restoration varied, visitors were in agreement that they had never seen anything quite like it. Built largely in secret and under decidedly unorthodox circumstances, the Whitney had been turned into a museum dedicated to telling the story of slavery — the first of its kind in the United States.

Located on land where slaves worked for more than a century, in a state where the sight of the Confederate flag is not uncommon, the results are both educational and visceral. An exhibit on the North American slave trade inside the visitors’ center, for instance, is lent particular resonance by its proximity, just a few steps away outside its door, to seven cabins that once housed slaves. From their weathered cypress frames, a dusty path, lined with hulking iron kettles that were used by slaves to boil sugar cane, leads to a grassy clearing dominated by a slave jail — an approach designed so that a visitor’s most memorable glimpse of the white shutters and stately columns of the property’s 220-year-old “Big House” will come through the rusted bars of the squat, rectangular cell. A number of memorials also dot the grounds, including a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820. Inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the memorial lists the names nonalphabetically to mirror the confusion and chaos that defined a slave’s life.

Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, was among those to address the crowd on opening day. He first visited the Whitney as the state’s lieutenant governor in 2008, when the project was in its infancy, and at the time he compared its significance to that of Auschwitz. Now he was speaking four days after a grand jury in New York City declined to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man who was stopped for selling untaxed cigarettes; 13 days after another grand jury in Missouri cleared an officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager; and two weeks after Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was killed by a police officer. Evoking the riots and protests then gripping the nation, Landrieu said, “It is fortuitous that we come here today to stand on the very soil that gives lie to the protestations that we have made, and forces us as Americans to check where we’ve been and where we are going.”

The mayor concluded his speech by extending his hand to an older man standing just offstage to his left. Stocky and bespectacled, with a thick head of unkempt white hair, John Cummings was as much a topic of conversation among those gathered as the Whitney itself. For reasons almost everyone was at a loss to explain, he had spent the last 15 years and more than $8 million of his personal fortune on a museum that he had no obvious qualifications to assemble.

“Like everyone else,” John Cummings said a few days earlier, “you’re probably wondering what the rich white boy has been up to out here.”

He was driving around the Whitney in his Ford S.U.V., making sure the museum would be ready for the public. Born and raised in New Orleans, Cummings is as rife with contrasts as the land that surrounds his plantation. He is 77 but projects the unrelenting angst of a teenager. His disposition is exceedingly proper — the portly carriage, the trimmed white beard, the florid drawl — but he dresses in a rumpled manner that suggests a morning habit of mistaking the laundry hamper for the dresser. As someone who had to hitchhike to high school and remains bitter about not being able to afford his class ring, he embodies the scrappiness of the Irish Catholics who flooded New Orleans in the 19th century. But as a trial lawyer who has helped win more than $5 billion in class-action settlements and a real estate magnate whose holdings have multiplied his wealth many times over, Cummings personifies the affluence and power held by an elite and mostly white sliver of a city with a majority black population.

“I suppose it is a suspicious thing, what I’ve gone and done with the joint,” he continued, acknowledging that his decision to “spend millions I have no interest in getting back” on the museum has long been a source of local confusion. More than a few of the 670 residents of Wallace — 90 percent of whom are black, many the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who worked the region’s land — have voiced their bewilderment over the years. So, too, have the owners of other tourist-oriented plantations, all of whom are white. Members of Cummings’s close-knit family (he has eight children by two wives) also struggle to clarify their patriarch’s motivations, resorting to the shoulder-shrugging logic of “John being John,” as if explaining a stubborn refusal to throw away old newspapers rather than a consuming, heterodox and very expensive attempt to confront the darkest period of American history. “Challenge me, fight me on it,” he said. “I’ve been asked all the questions. About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit off of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?” With that, Cummings went silent, something he does with unsettling frequency in conversation.

“Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it,” he finally resumed, “so I figured I might as well get started.”

This was a practiced line, but also an earnest form of self-indictment: Cummings’s way of admitting his own ignorance on the subject of slavery and its legacy, and by extension encouraging visitors to confront their own. As with the rest of his real estate portfolio, which includes miles of raw countryside and swampland, a 12-story luxury hotel near the French Quarter, a cattle farm in rural Mississippi and a 1,200-acre ranch in West Texas that he has never set foot on, he initially gravitated toward the Whitney simply because it was for sale. (“Whatever Uncle Sam and the bartender let me keep,” he likes to note, “I bought real estate with it.”) Originally built by the Haydel family, a prosperous clan of German immigrants who ran the property from 1752 to 1867, the grounds had been uninhabited for a quarter century. “I knew I wasn’t going to live here,” Cummings said as he drove past the blacksmith’s shop that he spent $300,000 rebuilding, where a plaque noted that a slave named Robin worked on the plantation for 40 years and where the actor Jamie Foxx, playing a slave in “Django Unchained,” was filmed being branded. “But aside from that, I didn’t know what I would do with the place.”

It takes just a few minutes of conversation with Cummings, however, to understand that he would never have been keen on restoring the Whitney in the mold of neighboring plantations, which rely on weddings and sorority reunions to supplement the income brought in by picnicking tourists. Pet projects he has taken up in recent years include outlining for the Vatican a list of wrongs the Catholic Church should formally apologize for and — to the chagrin of, in his words, “my friends who have all had political sex changes in the past 15 years” — exploring ways to curb the influence of conservative “super PACs.” Decades ago, his interest in abuses of power led to his involvement in the civil rights movement; in 1968, he worked alongside African-American activists to get the Audubon Park swimming pool in New Orleans opened to blacks. “If someone is going to deny someone rights simply because they have the power to do it — well, I’m interested,” he explained. “I’m coming, and I’m going to bring the cannons.”

Still, his plans for the Whitney might have gone in an entirely different direction, if not for the existence of an unlikely document. The property’s previous owner was Formosa, a plastics and petrochemical giant, which in 1991 planned to build a $700 million plant for manufacturing rayon on its nearly 2,000 acres. Preservationists and environmentalists balked. Looking for avenues of appeasement, Formosa commissioned an exhaustive survey of the grounds, with the idea that the most historic sections would be turned into a token museum of Creole culture while a majority of the rest would be razed to make way for the factory. In the end, it was wasted money and effort: The opposition remained vigilant, rayon was going out of fashion, the Whitney went back on the market and Cummings inherited the eight-volume study with the purchase. “Thanks to Formosa, I knew more about my plantation than anyone else around here — maybe more than any plantation in America outside of Monticello,” said Cummings, a litigator accustomed to teasing secrets from dense paperwork. “A lot of what was in there was about the architecture and artifacts, but you started to see the story of slavery. You saw it in terms of who built what.”

After digesting the study, Cummings began reading “any book I could find” about slavery. Particularly influential was “Africans in Colonial Louisiana,” by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a professor at Rutgers. Certain details startled Cummings, like the fact that 38 percent of slaves shipped from Africa ended up in Brazil. No wonder, he thought, that the women he watched on television celebrating Carnival in Rio de Janeiro so closely resembled those he saw dancing in the Mardi Gras parades that surrounded him as a youth. “I started to see slavery and the hangover from slavery everywhere I looked,” he said. As a descendant of Irish laborers, he has no direct ties to slaveholders; still, in a departure from the views held by many Southern whites, Cummings considered the issue a personal one. “If ‘guilt’ is the best word to use, then yes, I feel guilt,” he said. “I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world — wealth that has benefited me — was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by. How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”

Cummings steered the vehicle past the yellowing fronds of banana trees and pulled to a stop in front of a sculpture, a black angel embracing a dead infant, the centerpiece of a memorial honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in the parish in the 40 years leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. At traditional museums, such memorials come to fruition only after a lengthy process — proposals by artists, debates among the board members, the securing of funds. This statue, though, like everything on the property, began as a vision in Cummings’s mind and became a reality shortly after he pulled out his checkbook. Perhaps most remarkable is that this unconventional model has yielded conventionally effective results: at once chastening and challenging, beautiful and haunting. “Everything about the way the place came together says that it shouldn’t work,” says Laura Rosanne Adderley, a Tulane history professor specializing in slavery who has visited the Whitney twice since it opened. “And yet for the most part it does, superbly and even radically. Like Maya Lin’s memorial, the Whitney has figured out a way to mourn those we as a society are often reluctant to mourn.”

Before leaving the grounds, Cummings stopped at the edge of the property’s small lagoon. It was here that the Whitney’s most provocative memorial would soon be completed, one dedicated to the victims of the German Coast Uprising, an event rarely mentioned in American history books. In January 1811, at least 125 slaves walked off their plantations and, dressed in makeshift military garb, began marching in revolt along River Road toward New Orleans. (The area was then called the German Coast for the high number of German immigrants, like the Haydels.) The slaves were suppressed by militias after two days, with about 95 killed, some during fighting and some after the show trials that followed. As a warning to other slaves, dozens were decapitated, their heads placed on spikes along River Road and in what is now Jackson Square in the French Quarter.

“It’ll be optional, O.K.? Not for the kids,” said Cummings, who commissioned Woodrow Nash, an African-­American sculptor he met at Jazz Fest, to make 60 heads out of ceramic, which will be set atop stainless-steel rods on the lagoon’s small island. “But just in case you’re worried about people getting distracted by the pretty house over there, the last thing you’ll see before leaving here will be 60 beheaded slaves.”

The memorial had lately become a source of controversy among locals, who were concerned that it would be too disturbing.

The Whitney Plantation’s ‘‘Big House’’ in January.

slave plantation tours mississippi

The Whitney Plantation’s ‘‘Big House’’ in 1926.

slave plantation tours mississippi

Ibrahima Seck, the Whitney's director of research, at a memorial on the plantation.

slave plantation tours mississippi

John Cummings brought these cabins from another plantation to replace the ones at the Whitney, which were destroyed in the 1970s.

slave plantation tours mississippi

Cummings and Seck in one of the cabins.

“It is disturbing,” Cummings said as he pulled out past Whitney’s gate. “But you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road.”

A nation builds museums to understand its own history and to have its history understood by others, to create a common space and language to address collectively what is too difficult to process individually. Forty-eight years after World War II, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington. A museum dedicated to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks opened its doors in Lower Manhattan less than 13 years after they occurred. One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, however, no federally funded museum dedicated to slavery exists, no monument honoring America’s slaves. “It’s something I bring up all the time in my lectures,” says Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” “If the Germans built a museum dedicated to American slavery before one about their own Holocaust, you’d think they were trying to hide something. As Americans, we haven’t yet figured out how to come to terms with slavery. To some, it’s ancient history. To others, it’s history that isn’t quite history.”

These competing perceptions converge with baroque vividness in the South. The State of Mississippi did not acknowledge the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery until 1995 and formally ratified it only in 2013, when a resident was moved to galvanize lawmakers after watching Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” While some Southern states have passed resolutions apologizing for slavery in the last decade, a majority, Louisiana among them, have not. In 1996, when Representative Steve Scalise, now the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, was serving in the Louisiana State Legislature, he voted against such a bill. “Why are you asking me to apologize for something I didn’t do and had no part of?” he remarked at the time. This episode recently came to light amid the revelation that in 2002 he addressed a gathering of white supremacists at a conference organized by David Duke, formerly the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization founded the year the Civil War ended.

Slavery is by no means unmemorialized in American museums, though the subject tends to be lumped in more broadly with African-American history. In 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in Cincinnati with the mission of showcasing “freedom’s heroes.” Since 2007, the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, S.C., has operated as a small museum focusing on the early slave trade, on a site where slaves were sold at public auctions until 1863. The National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in Memphis in 1991 and was built around the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, offers a brief section devoted to slavery. Next year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to be dedicated in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Institution, a project supported by $250 million in federal funding; exhibits on slavery will stand alongside those containing a trumpet played by Louis Armstrong and boxing gloves worn by Muhammad Ali. “It has to be said that the end note in most of these museums is that civil rights triumphs and America is wonderful,” says Paul Finkelman, a historian who focuses on slavery and the law. “We are a nation that has always readily embraced the good of the past and discarded the bad. This does not always lead to the most productive of dialogues on matters that deserve and require them.”

What makes slavery so difficult to think about, from the vantage point of history, is that it was both at odds with America’s founding values — freedom, liberty, democracy — and critical to how they flourished. The Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal” was drafted by men who were afforded the time to debate its language because the land that enriched many of them was tended to by slaves. The White House and the Capitol were built, in part, by slaves. The economy of early America, responsible for the nation’s swift rise and sustained power, would not have been possible without slavery. But the country’s longstanding culture of racism and racial tensions — from the lynchings of the Jim Crow-era South to the discriminatory housing policies of the North to the treatment of blacks by the police today — is deeply rooted in slavery as well. “Slavery gets understood as a kind of prehistory to freedom rather than what it really is: the foundation for a country where white supremacy was predicated upon African-American exploitation,” says Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”

In 2001, Douglas Wilder, a former governor of Virginia and the first elected black governor in the nation, announced his intention to build a museum that would be the first to give slavery its proper due — not as a piece of Southern or African-American history but as essential to understanding American history in general. Christened the United States National Slavery Museum, it was to be built on 38 acres along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Va. Wilder, the grandson of slaves, commissioned C. C. Pei, a son of I. M. Pei, to design the main building, which would be complemented by a full-scale replica of a slave ship. A number of prominent African-Americans, including Bill Cosby, pledged millions of dollars in support at black-tie fund-raisers. The ambition that surrounded the project’s inception, however, was soon eclipsed by years of pitfalls. By 2008, there were not enough donations to pay property taxes, let alone begin construction; in 2011, the nonprofit organization in charge of the project filed for bankruptcy protection. As it happens, it was during the same period Wilder’s project unraveled that John Cummings, unburdened by any bureaucracies, was well on his way to completing a slavery museum of his own.

For much of the last 13 years, Cummings has been joined on the Whitney’s grounds by a Sen­egal­ese scholar named Ibrahima Seck. A 54-year-old of imposing height, Seck first met Cummings in 2000, when Seck, who has made regular trips to the South since winning a Fulbright in 1995, attended a talk at Tulane with Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, the Rutgers professor. Cummings put up Seck at the International House, the hotel he owns in downtown New Orleans, and invited him to see the Whitney. Though at that point it was little more than a series of decrepit buildings entangled in feral vegetation, Seck was impressed that Cummings was thinking about it exclusively within the context of slavery. As someone from the region of Africa that provided more than 60 percent of Louisiana’s slaves, he was disturbed by the way other plantations romanticized the lives of the white owners, with scant mention of the enslaved blacks who harvested the land and built the grand homes fawned over by tourists. After walking the property with Seck for a few hours, Cummings invited him to return to New Orleans the next year to help crystallize the Whitney’s mission. Seck took him up on the offer, and for the next decade, Cummings flew Seck in from Africa each year during the scholar’s summer vacation.

Since 2012, Seck has lived full time in New Orleans to serve as the director of research for the Whitney. “As historians, we do the research and we write dissertations and we go to conferences, but very little of the knowledge gets out,” Seck said one afternoon in his French-inflected baritone while seated on the antique upholstered sofa in the parlor of the property’s Big House. “That’s why a place like this is so important. Not everyone is willing to read nowadays, but this is an open book.” He took a moment to glance around the lavish room, its hand-painted ceiling now meticulously restored. “Every day I think about how remarkable this is,” Seck said. “One hundred and fifty years ago, I would not be able to do what I’m doing here now. I would have been a slave.”

The alliance between the two men has been an auspicious one, with Seck’s patience and expertise serving as a counterbalance to the instinctual eccentricity of Cummings. While Seck researched the Whitney’s history, Cummings became something of a hoarder, buying anything he thought might one day be relevant to the project. When he learned about a dilapidated Baptist church in a neighboring parish that was founded by freed slaves in 1867, for example, he brought it across the Mississippi and had it restored on the grounds at a cost of $300,000. When recordings of interviews with former slaves that were made in the 1930s as part of the W.P.A.’s Federal Writers’ Project were acquired, Cummings hired a son-in-law who works as a sound engineer in Hollywood to clean them up; he plans to install a speaker system near the slave cabins, where the recordings will play on a loop, allowing visitors to hear the voices of former slaves while staring into the type of homes in which they once lived. After Seck unearthed in old court documents the names of 354 slaves who worked on the land before emancipation, Cummings bought an engraving machine so they could be etched in Italian granite in a memorial he christened the “Wall of Honor.”

“By 2005, it was clear to me that we were building a museum, but I’m not sure John was thinking about it in those terms,” Seck said. “If John feels something, he just goes ahead and does it. His stubbornness can be frustrating, but who in the world is willing to put so many millions of dollars into a project like this? If you find one, you have to support it.”

In his years of working on the Whitney, Seck has come to see the museum as both a memorializing of history and a slyly radical gesture: Cummings’s desire to shift the consciousness of others as his own has been altered, and in the process try to make amends of a kind that have been a source of debate since emancipation.

“If one word comes to mind to summarize what is in John’s head in doing this,” Seck said, “that word would be ‘reparations.’ Real reparations. He feels there is something to be done in this country to make changes.”

In 1835, a biracial child named Victor was born on the grounds of the Whitney, the son of a slave named Anna and Antoine Haydel, the brother of Marie Azelie Haydel, the slaveholder who ran the plantation at the time. One hundred and seventy-nine years later, a group of both the black and white descendants of the Haydels made their way to the Whitney’s opening in December. Many were meeting for the first time, and the sight of them embracing and marveling at the similarities in their appearances was as powerful as any memorial on the plantation. Among the black Haydels in attendance was one of Victor’s great-grandchildren, Sybil Haydel Morial, a well-known local activist who is the widow of Ernest Morial, the first black mayor of New Orleans, and the mother of Marc Morial, a subsequent mayor. “I was with John when he helped get the pool in Audubon Park opened to blacks,” she said in a later conversation. “Now, with the Whitney, he has given us a place where we can come and clear the air. If my slave great-grandfather had lived eight more years, I would have known him. Yet growing up, whenever my elders talked about slavery, they’d always get quiet when we kids were near.” Morial added that she hoped “some people around here may find their views changing” after visiting the Whitney, which seemed to be the case with some of her white relatives at the opening.

“I have to say, I was a little offended when I heard that slavery, of all the stories, was going to be the focus,” Glynne Couvillion, a white Haydel, said while standing inside the Baptist church, surrounded by dozens of ghostly sculptures of child slaves that Cummings commissioned to represent those interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project as they would have looked when enslaved. “But after today, I’m just in awe and proud to be connected to this place.”

For all the time and money Cummings has dedicated to the Whitney — and he is by no means finished, with plans to build an adjacent institute for the study of slavery — the museum was built on a shoestring budget compared with traditionally financed institutions. (The Holocaust Memorial Museum cost about $168 million.) Besides Seck, there were only two full-time staff members, an energetic young woman named Ashley Rogers, who serves as the director, and her deputy, Monique Johnson, a descendant of sharecroppers from the area, and it was evident that they were still finding their footing. Like the other plantations along River Road, the Whitney can be seen only through a guided tour — the cost is $22 — and a number of the docents struggled to find the proper tone. (“Time to depress you a little more,” one could be heard saying at various points.) Others struggled to answer questions about how, exactly, sugar cane was harvested by slaves, responding instead with generalities intended to incite emotion rather than educate: “It was the hardest, most grueling slave work imaginable.”

Yet this awkwardness might well serve as one of the Whitney’s strengths. Talking about slavery and race is awkward, and the museum stands a chance of becoming the rare place where this discomfort can be embraced, and where the dynamic among the mainly mixed-race tours can offer an ancillary form of education. A man who grew up in a “maroon community,” as bayou enclaves founded by runaway slaves are known, was so moved during his tour that he volunteered to work as a guide. A young black woman mentioned that she avoided tours at another nearby plantation because an ancestor was lynched on the grounds. Among the Whitney’s first visitors was a black man named Paul Brown, whose father was a field hand and who arrived dressed in a sharp blazer and a fedora on opening day “to shake the man’s hand who made this place possible.” During his tour, he offered personal anecdotes that served to buttress the white guide’s skittishness — bringing the past into the present, for instance, by pointing out how the images of slaves etched in one memorial were reminiscent of portraits of his ancestors. “I wish some of my white co-workers would come to this place,” he said afterward. “They’d understand me in ways they’ve failed for 30 years.”

Jonathan Holloway, dean of Yale College and a professor of African-American studies, arrived for a tour in late January. He was in the area to give a talk at Louisiana State University about the ways the horrors of slavery are confronted and avoided in heritage tourism, and he found the Whitney to be a “genius step” in a long-overdue direction. “People have tried to do a museum like this for years, and I’m still stunned that this guy made it happen,” he said afterward. “There I was, coming down to talk about how in trying to tell the story, it’s often one step forward and two steps back, and boom, here’s the Whitney.” Holloway was particularly taken by the museum’s subversive approach. “Having been on a number of tours where the entire focus is on the Big House, the way they’ve turned the script inside out is a brilliant slipping of the skirt,” he said. “The mad genius of the whole thing is really resonant. Is it an art gallery? A plantation tour? A museum? It’s almost this astonishing piece of performance art, and as great art does, it makes you stop and wonder.”

Cummings, for his part, has been on the grounds every day since the Whitney opened, where he is in the habit of approaching visitors as they enter and telling them how they should feel afterward: “You’re not going to be the same person when you leave here” — a line that some found more grating than endearing. Inwardly, though, he was constantly making notes on what could be done to improve the experience.

“Look, we’re not perfect, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we’ll make more,” he said one afternoon as the sun set across the sugar-cane fields that surround the plantation in much the form they did when slaves worked them 200 years ago. “We need all the help we can get — not financial, but we need brains.” With this in mind, he recently started reaching out to prominent African-American academics, hoping to create a board of directors — typically the first step for a museum, not one taken six weeks after opening day. “I’m firing before I’m aiming, O.K.?” he said. “I’m smart enough to know I don’t have the answers, but so far it looks like it’s the right thing.”

An article on Page 48 this weekend about the first slavery museum in the United States misidentifies the source of the phrase “all men are created equal.” It is from the Declaration of Independence, not from the Constitution.

An article on March 1 about the first slavery museum in America misstated the title of Jonathan Holloway, who visited the museum in January. He is dean of Yale College, not a dean at the college.

How we handle corrections

David Amsden is a novelist and journalist who lives in New Orleans and Brooklyn. This is his first article for the magazine.

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This Mississippi plantation was 'not normal,' says a slave descendant

slave plantation tours mississippi

JEFFERSON COUNTY — When James Belton first set foot on the dirt of Prospect Hill, a plantation during the 1800s, “it sent chills over my body — like I was walking on hallowed grounds.”

His ancestors were slaves here, but the longtime math and science teacher at McComb High School felt no anger or bitterness.

“And I know some people might think that’s strange,” says Belton, 76. “But Prospect Hill was not a normal plantation. Yes, my people were slaves, and there is nothing good about slavery.

“But my people were also treated like human beings. I know it for a fact. My daddy was 54 years old when I was born, (and) the things I’m telling you were told to him by his great-great-grandmother who lived to be 112.”

(Story continues below photo.)

Prospect Hill has been host to “open houses” where descendants of slaves and descendants of their owners have gathered to share the grounds of their ancestors. The first was in 2009.

“It was about 50 or so people here,” says Jessica Crawford, Southeast regional director for The Archaeological  Conservancy, which purchased the place in hopes of restoring it. “Nobody really discussed slavery. It was simply emotional for everyone to see where their great-great-grandparents lived — no matter the circumstances.”

Roslynn Solis-Champion, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the original owner, Capt. Isaac Ross, has attended about a half-dozen reunions.

“I’m not sure what I expected,” Solis-Champion says. “But what I found was we welcomed the slave descendants and they welcomed us. We just talked about things like anyone else would when discussing the people they came from.”

Mississippi in Africa

Capt. Ross “was entirely ahead of his time,” Belton says.

Ross encouraged the slaves who could read and write to teach the others, which was against the law at the time. He provided the slaves with top-notch medical care.

“My grandmother talked about how they had a 50-acre garden and Mr. (Ross) would go out and work, too,” Belton says. “Other plantation owners didn’t like that.”

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Ross also put in his will that his slaves were to be freed at the time of his death — but only if they returned to the African nation of Liberia. About 150 of Ross' 200 slaves did so. It was illegal at the time for freed slaves to remain in Mississippi.

Belton's great-great-great-grandmother chose to remain a slave.

Harry Ross’ great-great-grandfather, however, decided to travel to the southeastern region of Liberia, then known as Mississippi In Africa.

“Growing up (in Africa), I always wondered why I had a western name and not an African name,” Ross wrote in an email for this story. “I remember in school that I got teased by my classmates about it.”

In 2007, Ross came across the book by Mississippi author Alan Huffman — “Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today.” That is when he realized the link between the Rosses of Prospect Hill and Mississippi in Africa.

Ross, who now lives in New York, describes his childhood in Liberia as “beautiful.”

He writes: “My family, being descendants of the freed slaves from America, formed part of the ruling class. This provided them the opportunity to have obtained a formal education and a better life.”

But Ross’ father died in the Liberian civil wars. “Much of the information which was passed down by words of mouth, went to the grave with my father."

Ross had mixed feelings about visiting Prospect Hill.

“I never wanted to have any contact with a place and an ideology that enslaved my people. I felt going there will open wounds and make me resentful to those who perpetrated slavery. However, I needed to fill the gaps in my life.

“I visited Prospect Hill for the first time early in the morning, when the dew was still in the air, the morning birds singing, and the leaves still wet from the dew,” he writes. “The atmosphere was so peaceful, and I said to myself, ‘How can such a place be where people were kept against their will?’

“After learning from some of the other descendants of Prospect Hill of the relationship between Capt. Ross and his slaves, it changed how I previously felt .... It was then I realized, I was more than just a name — ‘Ross’. It felt like the spirits of my ancestors were happy.”

The fight over the will

After Capt. Ross died in 1836, his grandson Isaac Ross Wade contested the will.

“I look back on that and analyze (the grandson’s) thinking,” Solis-Champion says. “And the only conclusion I can come up with is pure greed.”

The slaves were furious, and a few of them set fire to the original house. Wade escaped, but a young girl died and several others were injured. As many as a dozen slaves believed to have been responsible for the fire were lynched. The girl who died is buried on the property, near Capt. Ross.

In 1845, the grandson lost his court fight.

Preserving Prospect Hill

The second house at Prospect Hill was built in 1854. It is in desperate need of repairs.

The Archaeological Conservancy bought it for $114,000, primarily from donations from individuals from Mississippi and elsewhere.

“Places like this need to be saved,” Crawford says. “They are part of our history.”

Watkins: After 5 trips to rehab, Miss. woman now helping others

Belton believes the home and the land around it is important to telling Prospect Hill’s story.

“And it’s a story that needs to be told,” Belton says. “I want people to know about the bad things that went on during slavery — and after slavery. But I also want the story told of how my family was treated like human beings during a time when most slaves weren’t. Young people need to hear this story instead of it being put away in a desk drawer or a trunk.”

Harry Ross would like to one day build a Mississippi Institution for Higher Learning in Liberia “to help solidify the link between Mississippi In Africa and Prospect Hill."

It would help “provide vocational training to the downtrodden young people of Liberia” who have endured Liberia’s brutal civil wars, he says.

Another Isaac

The last permanent resident of Prospect Hill hasn’t been seen for more than a year.

A peacock named Isaac used to serve as “public relations director,” Crawford says. “He would greet people. He would watch over the place. His favorite resting place was on the back or the arm of a rocking chair on the front porch.”

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Isaac was loved and spoiled by visitors. Crawford fed him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, honey buns and Cheez-Its.

"I don’t know if something got him or what — and I’m kinda glad not to know,” Crawford says. “He was so much a part of this place.

"But somehow I knew when we put a new roof on the house a couple of years ago to keep it from falling in that Isaac would disappear. I think he felt his job was finally done."

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History is huge draw for Mississippi River cruise goers, but whose history?

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slave plantation tours mississippi

Overnight cruises returned to the Mississippi River a decade ago, following the industry’s collapse. As existing cruise lines adapt, and companies like Viking enter the market, many passengers say the river’s storied past is part of the draw. 

On a hot afternoon in late May, Lee Hendrix stood on stage in the dimly lit Grand Saloon — an elaborate floating reproduction of the original Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

The former river captain and self-schooled historian described the sinking of the Sultana near Memphis more than 150 years ago, when at least 1,400 people drowned on the Mississippi River. A rapt crowd listened as their own vessel, the American Queen, mosied safely up the same route.

Hendrix is a riverlorian — think: river, lore and historian — aboard the American Queen, a steamboat that can haul more than 400 cruise-goers the length of the Mississippi River. This audience is nearing the end of a seven-day journey from New Orleans to Memphis.

This cruise line offers presentations about local history, as do all three overnight Mississippi River cruise lines — American Queen Voyages, American Cruise Lines and Viking. Some presenters are Ph.D. historians, and others are self-schooled, like Hendrix, who’s a veteran on the river.

slave plantation tours mississippi

The American Queen is billed as capturing the nostalgia of 19th century steamboat travel. The company prides itself on using a restored, century-old steam engine, and the sentiment extends to the rest of the vessel, which oozes with memorabilia of the period.

slave plantation tours mississippi

Passengers are greeted with red carpeted stairs at the bow of the boat, ending at a set of gilded double doors that open to the Mark Twain Gallery, a dimly-lit room lined with ornate bookshelves, steamboat replicas in glass cases and displays of Twain’s works. 

Lower river tours with American Queen Voyages start at about $4,000 — well above the cost of an average Caribbean cruise — and the most expensive tickets come with a $10,000 price tag. They attract a crowd that’s mostly retired, wealthy and well-traveled, and history is part of the draw for many passengers.

The company’s strategy “is to identify thoughtful and deliberate shore excursions” and provide riverlorians to help guests understand the complexity of the region, Cindy D’Aoust, president of American Queen Voyages, said in a statement.. . 

Most days, passengers can find Hendrix walking laps around the fourth floor deck of the American Queen or in the Chart Room — an airy room at the boat’s bow, filled with books and maps of the river — ready to answer passengers’ questions in between excursions in riverside towns.

But at a time when many plantations are facing scrutiny for not accurately representing the legacy of slavery in the South, historians like John Anfinson, a Ph.D. historian and riverlorian with American Cruise Lines, try to add context to these stops along the tour in a “Plantation Preview.”

Anfinson does his best to prepare tourists before they step off the boat, steering away from the history they often hear on guided tours and opting instead to describe the legacy of slavery in the South. That way, he said, people can make sense of the stories shared on tours in a meaningful way.

American Cruise Lines’ description of the Houmas House, one of the most notorious plantations of the South, reads: “Step off of your ship docked right at Houmas House and explore one of the most elaborately renovated of the grand homes along the river, once a private home and thriving historical agricultural enterprise.”

Anfinson read the description and exclaimed: “Talk about a way to avoid saying ‘plantation!’”

Houmas House is named after the indigenous Louisianans they stole the land from and was owned by Revolutionary War general Wade Hampton, one of the largest slaveholders in the antebellum South. In the same year he purchased Houmas House, he suppressed a slave revolt that resulted in the deaths of 95 enslaved people.

The Houmas House website does not mention this history, and Anfinson understands why not all historic sites lead with that.

“In the fractured America of today, the audience is going to be fractured in how they listen to that story,” Anfinson said.

The Laura Plantation , situated between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, was the first museum of its kind in the South that highlighted the lives of enslaved people when it opened in 1994. Operations manager Jay Schexnaydre said many other plantations have followed suit since then.

The Laura Plantation prides itself on taking guests through the house, grounds and slave quarters, compared to some other plantations that keep visitors in “the big house.” Some plantations still choose to showcase the grandeur of Antebellum homes on plantation tours, focusing on antique furniture and portraits.

American Queen Voyages and Viking feature the Laura Plantation on their itineraries, but Schexnaydre said the logistics of tours can impact visitors’ experiences.

If passengers start their tour in New Orleans, the Laura Plantation is one of their first stops. If their tour starts in Memphis, heading downriver, Schexnaydre said passengers likely will spend the last week touring other plantations, and might opt for an alternate excursion instead.

Part of the Laura Plantation’s tour follows the arc of one family over three generations rather than telling the stories of enslaved people in a general sense. Schexnaydre said it helps visitors connect more intimately with people whose stories might otherwise be lost to history.

slave plantation tours mississippi

Riverlorian Hendrix makes an effort to confront forgotten history in his 45-minute lecture about the Sultana — a maritime disaster that rivals the death toll from the Titanic. He talked about how commercial navigation impacted indigenous peoples; the neglect of a steamboat captain who overcrowded the Sultana for profit; and the prisoners of war who died in the fiery explosion.

The story of the Sultana was lost in headlines about the killing of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth and other events as the war neared its end, but Hendrix said it’s more than that.

“So, why doesn’t anybody know about the Sultana?” Hendrix wondered aloud on stage. “The people on the Sultana were poor soldiers returning home. Most of the people on the Titanic were rich people.”

Anfinson and Hendrix know some passengers will skip their talks. Some people are celebrating a birthday or anniversary, Anfinson said; not everyone is there for a history lesson. In many ways, it’s up to passengers to craft their experiences, but the histories that passengers encounter often depend on who’s telling them, and how.

Hendrix became a riverlorian after decades on the river, first as a deckhand and then as a river pilot, with a brief stint away that involved performing skits where he played a steamboat captain. He said he’s always loved river history, “probably more so than other pilots.”

By the time passengers heard Hendrix’s recollection of the Sultana’s sinking, they had stopped at ports in Nottoway, St. Francisville, Natchez and Vicksburg. In St. Francisville, passengers could choose between two excursions: “Plantations of the Back Roads” or “Redemption and Rehabilitation at Angola Prison.”

The Louisiana State Penitentiary — more often called Angola, for the former slave plantation that occupied the land — is the largest maximum-security prison in the country. Under the convict lease system, prisoners were abused, underfed and worked to death during much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it earned a reputation as “the bloodiest prison in the South.”

The Angola Museum included on the cruise line’s itinerary tries to tell “the complex and compelling stories of corrections and justice in Louisiana.” Visitors tour through the prison’s infamous past, including a stop at the Red Hat Cell Block, adjacent to a small room that was the site of 11 executions by electric chair between 1956 and 1961.

The prison now touts a philosophy of moral rehabilitation, though it continues to come under fire for involuntary servitude . The tour brings visitors to the present-day with a tour of the crop fields, where prisoners grow the food they eat.

American Queen passenger Jennifer White Fischer felt she left the tour with a more nuanced understanding of the criminal justice system. But then, she said tour guides at the nearby Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum raised critical questions about Angola she hadn’t considered.

As someone who discovered her love of history later in life, and recently wrote a book about her travels, she prioritizes the educational excursions on her tours.

About halfway through the cruise from New Orleans to Memphis, passengers spent an afternoon in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The itinerary featured mainstays like the Jesse Brent Lower Mississippi River Museum and the Vicksburg National Military Park, but a more recent addition to the lineup tells Civil War history in a different way.

Charles Pendleton opened the Vicksburg Civil War Museum two years ago to talk about the war from a Black perspective.

“You open something like this, and all of the factors are not in your favor,” Pendleton said. “You’re Black, you’re in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where everybody has deep feelings about the Confederacy…and here you are telling a different story.”

A self-made historian, Pendleton started out attending Civil War gun shows, where he said white attendees made a point to tout their own theories about the war. It was the impetus for his own research, which led to him sharing presentations at his church.

Then, he stumbled across more Civil War-era memorabilia at antique shops, including a receipt for a seven-year-old girl named Ella. It elicited an emotional response he hadn’t experienced at other Civil War museums, and he wanted to capture that emotion for other museum-goers in Vicksburg.

Pendleton said most visitors are white and estimates at least half come from river cruises, which he said have been a boon for his museum and other small businesses. As cruise lines add new boats to their fleets and more stops to their itineraries, Pendleton hopes the industry will continue to elevate voices like his.

This story, the first of a three-part series, published in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, part of Mississippi Today, is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk , an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America , funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

slave plantation tours mississippi

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by Keely Brewer, The Daily Memphian, Mississippi Today July 11, 2023

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slave plantation tours mississippi

IMAGES

  1. Natchez Mississippi Plantation Tours

    slave plantation tours mississippi

  2. Plantation Tours in Natchez, Mississippi

    slave plantation tours mississippi

  3. Whitney Plantation, Museum of Slavery and St. Joseph Plantation Tour

    slave plantation tours mississippi

  4. 10 Notable Southern Plantation Tours in the United States

    slave plantation tours mississippi

  5. Mississippi slaves freed by owner at this plantation

    slave plantation tours mississippi

  6. 'This is surreal': descendants of slaves and slaveowners meet on US

    slave plantation tours mississippi

VIDEO

  1. 1862 A slave family on a plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina #historical #history #shorts

  2. This Slavery Plantation Kept All Its Records

COMMENTS

  1. 7 Historic Plantations In Mississippi Being Reclaimed By Nature

    1. Melmont (Natchez) 715 N Rankin St, Natchez, MS 39120, USA Janie Fortenberry/Photography with a Southern Accent, Vicksburg, Mississippi Construction on Melmont began in 1850 and was completed in 1854. It was built for a lawyer named Henry Basil Shaw and his wife Mary Elizabeth.

  2. List of plantations in Mississippi

    This is a list of plantations and/or plantation houses in the U.S. state of Mississippi that are National Historic Landmarks, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, listed on a heritage register, or are otherwise significant for their history, association with significant events or people, or their architecture and design. [1] [2] [3]

  3. Visiting Natchez Historic Homes and Plantations

    Longwood Longwood is the most unique antebellum home in the country, built in a circular "Oriental-style" mansion. Built for a cotton planter, all work stopped during the Civil War and never continued. Tours of the home go through the basement, where the family lived, and the unfinished upstairs.

  4. Mississippi Plantation Tours

    Jump To Brandon Hall Plantation Linden Plantation and Gardens Monmouth Plantation Rosemont Plantation Blessed with the most fertile ground on earth, Mississippi is renowned for its sprawling plantations that once fueled the cotton industry, satisfying the voracious appetite of American and European textile manufacturers.

  5. Notable Southern Plantation Tours in the United States

    Visitors to Belle Meade Plantation enjoy a tour of the property led by trained and costumed guides, who share the history of the mansion, as well as many other historic buildings like a horse stable, carriage house and log cabin.

  6. Explore Melrose

    Allow 2.5 hours to take the guided tour of the main house, self-guided tour of the outbuildings and grounds, and time to read the exhibits in the slave cabin. ... Natchez, MS Reservations. Yes. Reservations required for groups of eight or more. Reservations can be made by calling (601) 446-5790. ... Self guided garden tours; Furnished slave ...

  7. Whitney Plantation

    Whitney Plantation (legal name The Whitney Institute) is a non-profit museum dedicated to the history of the Whitney Plantation, which operated from 1752-1975 and produced indigo, sugar, and rice as its principal cash crops.

  8. Visit plantation homes of the South

    Established in 1752, Whitney Plantation is by far the best plantation in the region for confronting its history of slavery. Its museum focuses solely on the lives of the 350 enslaved people who were forced to live and work on its land for more than a century.

  9. Evergreen Plantation

    Evergreen Plantation is the most intact plantation complex in the South with 37 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including 22 slave cabins. ... People live here and work here. Evergreen Plantation is located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. 4677 LA-18 Edgard, LA 70049.

  10. Laurel Valley Village & Sugar Plantation

    Visit the largest surviving sugar plantation with miles of sugarcane fields and original slave quarters in Bayou Lafourche. Guided daily walking tours are available for purchase on the Laurel Valley website. ... Tours run daily at 10:30 AM & 2:00 PM and are available for purchase directly on their website under the 'Tour Booking' tab HERE .

  11. Natchez, once Mississippi's biggest slave market, reckons with its past

    Natchez was the largest slave-trading market in Mississippi before the Civil War, and one of the largest in the country. Today, the city is full of the former homes of plantation owners and...

  12. 'This is surreal': descendants of slaves and slaveowners meet on US

    Mississippi 'This is surreal': descendants of slaves and slaveowners meet on US plantation At Prospect Hill in Mississippi, people came from as far as Liberia for an unlikely gathering that...

  13. Visit the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana

    Everyone who visits the Whitney Plantation, located on the west bank of the Mississippi less than an hour's drive from New Orleans on Louisiana's historic River Road, receives a similar card....

  14. Whitney Plantation: Tour of an American Slavery Museum

    The 90-minute walking tour begins with a visit to the Antioch Baptist Church, which was built in 1870 on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. Slaves would come from nearby plantations to worship there. The church was donated and relocated to the Whitney after its community opened a new, larger one in 1999. Slave children

  15. Tours at Former US Plantations Focus on Telling Truth About ...

    Dunn, of Laura Plantation, said some tours in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi hark back to antebellum nostalgia, with stories about "the big house" with the wealthy white family.

  16. Destrehan Plantation, The Closest Plantation to New Orleans

    Explore Destrehan Plantation, the oldest documented antebellum plantation home in the lower Mississippi Valley and the closest to New Orleans. Learn about the 1811 Revolt and the slavery experience from knowledgeable guides. Go back in time now.

  17. Frogmore Cotton Plantation and Gins

    Frogmore is the only cotton plantation in the South offering a comprehensive guided tour that fully explains the causes and effects of change on a working cotton plantation from the 1700's through today. ... The Cotton Plantation Tour for Schools. Group Only. More Info. What's new. September 9, 2023 at 10:51:58 PM. Picking and Ginning Sept. 15 ...

  18. PDF History of Plantations and Slavery in Mississippi

    relied entirely upon the labor of slaves, so Mississippi's enslaved black population grew as its white settler population did. Records show that the white population of the state grew from 5,179 in 1800 to 354,000 in 1860, and the enslaved ... Plantations and Slavery in Mississippi .

  19. Building the First Slavery Museum in America

    Building the First Slavery Museum in America. 365. John Cummings (right), the Whitney Plantation's owner, and Ibrahima Seck, its director of research, in the Baptist church on the grounds. Mark ...

  20. Mississippi slaves freed by owner at this plantation

    Preserving Prospect Hill. The second house at Prospect Hill was built in 1854. It is in desperate need of repairs. The Archaeological Conservancy bought it for $114,000, primarily from donations ...

  21. History of slavery in Mississippi

    Natchez to New Orleans: Norman's chart of the lower Mississippi River by A. Persac (1858) showing cotton plantations of Mississippi along the Mississippi River, Natchez to state line 1860 US census, Mississippi, number of slaves per owner Former slave quarters at Jefferson Davis' plantation Brierfield in Mississippi, drawn by A.R. Waud, etching published 1866 in Harper's Weekly

  22. Discover the 5 Largest Plantations in Mississippi

    The 5 Largest Plantations in Mississippi. 1. McGehee Plantation. The McGehee Plantation in Senatobia, MS, is a private residence on 1,200 acres still owned by descendants of Abner McGehee, who purchased the property in 1854. The Chickasaw Nation originally held the land until U.S. President Andrew Jackson had them removed in 1830.

  23. History is huge draw for Mississippi River cruise goers

    The Laura Plantation prides itself on taking guests through the house, grounds and slave quarters, compared to some other plantations that keep visitors in "the big house." Some plantations still choose to showcase the grandeur of Antebellum homes on plantation tours, focusing on antique furniture and portraits.