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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. ….