"You Weren't Telling The Truth, So I Will!"

I have always wanted to own a place on land that rippled with time and mystery...walls that breathed the past and gave hope for a creative future. That's a wee bit hard for a woman working as a writer, artist, and photographer, but not so hard if you're a successful, white New Orleans lawyer.

photo from Sunny Skyz

According to a journalist for The Advocate, the white NOLA lawyer, John Cummings, who bought the house and land that would become our nation's first slavery museum, declared, "Who the hell built this house? Who built this son of a bitch? We have to own our history!" I already love the man. Doesn't that just sound so...so...Southern? Imagine it said voiced as Donald Sutherland in his many roles as a "white Southern gentleman." Maybe with a lit cigar and a mint julep at the ready?

In 1998, Cummings bought the land from a petrochemical company. In the ownership of the chemical company, the land would be destroyed, and because of that, the company fought a good deal of opposition from people who knew there was history there. They hired researchers to come in to discover the truths about what the house and land had been, writing a total of eight, thick volumes. Coupled with the opposition of the public and the truth that eight volumes of research contained, they sold the land to Cummings and walked away.

But not before they passed on those eight volumes of research to the new owner. Maybe they thought it would become his curse now? And maybe it could have, if this man hadn't a heart that could be moved with empathy from what he read in the research.

The Big House, photo from thewhitneyplantation.com

It was the human souls that Cummings found; human souls that were owned, bred, killed, whipped and held as slaves for generations. And the truth of that nightmare was enough to brew moral outrage and action in the lawyer. He wanted our nation to reckon with our past. He could have designed a restored plantation that would host weddings, B&B's, or tours with women in hoop skirts and not a single black soul to be found or spoken of. He could have profited from whitewash and silence, but he did not.

Cummings partnered with Dr. Ibrahima Seck as the Director of Research and an expert historian on the Slave Trade. Together, they brought the voices of the slaves long gone to life again. They would design a museum that highlighted their stories with tours that forced you to walk in their footsteps. They would tell the brutal truth, truths that we missed in our history classes, with the intention that visitors that came there would not leave the same.

photo by Mark Peckmezian of The New York Times

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War. That's how long it took to have a museum, built with his own money and without Federal funds, to show our nation their past for what it was.
"Like everyone else," Cummings said to the crowd on opening day in 2008. "You're probably wondering what the rich white boy has been up to out here." It took him 15 years and around $8.5 million dollars, breathing life into history without any noticeable qualifications to do so. He simply did it, with help from experts and folks determined to do the right thing.

The New York Times reports that he continued to address the crowd with these powerful words:

"I suppose it's a suspicious thing, what I've gone and done with the joint, spending millions I have no interest in getting back. Challenge me, fight me on it. I've been asked all the questions. About white guilt an this and that. About the honky trying to profit off slavery. But here's the thing: Don't you think the story of slavery is important?" Then silence....

"Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren't telling it. So I figured I might as well get started."

I have to stop right there with those truly heroic words. They gave me goosebumps and caused hot tears to come to my eyes. Dear God, this man, with all his white privilege...he called out our collective sin. With beauty and artistic design, he brought the home of the white plantation owners, the Hayleys, back to life with truth and honesty, a reflection of what our nation allowed to take place for generations. When he opened those volumes the chemical plant gave him and read the names and the value of money penned beside them, when he read of the woman most valuable of all because she was a "good breeder," he did the right thing. He brought honor back and refused to allow their stories to be lost in 8 volumes of research.

photo cred: Elsa Hahne for the Whitney Plantation

But Cummings went much farther than just the slaves of the Hayley land. Together with Dr. Seck, they researched the whole of slavery in Louisiana and the South. They did not forget those human souls too. They were determined to focus on the enslaved children, taking you through the grounds through the eyes of the children. John Cummings also remembered the 95 slaves involved in the German Coast Uprising that took place on River Road where plantation after plantation stands beside one another. Those slaves that were murdered and then decapitated with their heads put on pikes to terrorize the black men and women brought into the ports in New Orleans. He built a provocative and emotional memorial for those slaves. The face of 60 of those slaves has been remembered in ceramic, the heads atop steel rods to look as they would have scattered across what is now Jackson Square in the famed French Market. Cummings said this memorial wasn't for the kids, it would be your choice. "Just in case you get distracted from that pretty house over there, the last thing you'll see will be the heads of 60 slaves." Lest we forget. "It is disturbing," he explained. "And you know what else? It happened. It happened right here on this road."

Lest we Forget. 

Thankfully, because of John Cummings and Dr. Seck, we will not forget if we are willing to allow someone to teach us, remind us, and guide us through history.


I set out today to share my experience and tell you how the Whitney Plantation impacted me and my family, but telling you about how the museum came to be felt very important. I will try again tomorrow to share my photos, the stories, and my family's thoughts. But for now, I encourage you, LEARN. Learn the truth and share it by any means you have. Tell your children. Take them to this museum if you can. If you're creative, use art to tell the truth. Write the truth. Photograph the truth. Read the truth...

Lest we forget. 



NOLA's Past Made Public

Most people who know me understand that I like to be at home, or at my Grandma's home, but very rarely do I like to go far from my comfortable, cozy little home where I can find everything I need. So, it's a good thing that opportunities and time for travel don't come up very often. However, Roger was given a job to do in New Orleans and he asked if the children and I would like to go. Even though I don't like to travel, I have a list of places I want to see and New Orleans has always been on the list, so YES!

Off we went.

It took me TWO DAYS, y'all. TWO DAYS to let my body literally relax and the tension ease from my shoulders...and my butt. Let's be honest, all the tension was in my butt. Dear Lord, I am such a scaredy cat! I don't know what I was expecting or thought the city would be like, but I was shocked. It was other-worldly, and if the tourist and locals were dressed a little different, and the things inside the shops were changed, it would have felt like the place was untouched by time. The Caribbean feel to the area coupled by affects of the hands of the French made it all so surreal and very, VERY unlike my little farm town back home in Indiana. I immediately regretted not bringing my actual camera, you know, the one clients pay me to use to take gorgeous photos. Silly Gia. (these photos are not mine, by the way, but stock)

I have a lot that I can say about my trip, and maybe I will get into that in future blog posts, but I want to skip over that to tell you about the moment that broke my heart. Yesterday, I wrote about how I grew up devouring stories from our nation's history and how important that was for me, how it shaped my life and heart. What I was most excited about in exploring New Orleans, was the history. This city is old and at it's heart was the oldest operating market for imported slaves into our nation. If there was a place where the air, even today, would hum with time and mystery and pain and anguish, it would be in New Orleans. And Lord, did it ever! Goosebumps rippled over my arms when we pulled onto Esplanade Avenue. The tangled oaks with the Spanish moss stood in the median and gorgeous homes flanked the street. As Roger was driving on our way to Cafe Du Monde, I was busy looking at everything I could. One thing I have a habit of doing is spotting historical markers (my pal, Brett would appreciate this) and quickly googling them and reading what they were about, since when you're driving, there's no time to read them. The avenue was spotted with beautiful, shiny markers and I got to work.

How had I missed that we had come to NOLA during it's 300th anniversary? And because of this, new historical markers were erected over the city only weeks before I had arrived. What were these markers for that I was seeing on Esplanade Avenue? They were the cities FIRST markers highlighting the truth of New Orleans history in slavery...

I wanted to weep.

Three hundred years later?

All the human souls shipped into the port from the West Indies or on barges down the Mississippi...

Three hundred years later?

The slave pens that lined the city. The auction houses or the blocks quickly put up wherever a crowd could gather, even inside churches...selling human souls and tearing families apart...

Three hundred years later?

The slave ship that docked in the delta named Jesus. The German Coast Uprising along River Road which we don't hear about in our history classes in school. The amputated heads of captured "rebels" put on spikes through the city to bring terror to imported slaves and the free blacks that walked the street.

Three hundred years later?

The Quadroon ballrooms where women of mixed race were groomed and bartered over by their mothers and white wealthy plantation owners' sons to serve as "kept women" for sexual pleasure. The truth that human lives were the second largest asset in the American South and the city of New Orleans. Human souls. The women that were good breeders constantly kept impregnated and some of the most valuable souls to own.

Three hundred years later.

It dawns on me that I am no longer saying that with a heartbroken question mark. It settles in my heart that it is our truth, collectively. It took African Americans fighting for the recognition for the history to be told and the city to stop hiding. It took advocates. It took a fight in civil campaigns. And here I was, staring at the markers that were only weeks old.

Three hundred years later. 

My heart breaks. Because three hundred years later, we do not import and sell humans, black men and women can vote and attend the same schools as white people, but we still live and breathe and thrive off racism and hate. How far have we actually come when it took all this time to tell the truth in a beautiful city that sees a flood of tourism annually?

Not very far.

And why did we allow that to happen? Are we too busy? Are we too ashamed? Do too many of us honestly not know our history? Did we so easily forget? Three hundred years isn't really that long in the grand scheme of human history. Why did we hide the truth? 

Tomorrow I will share about our trip to the Whitney Plantation, the nation's first slavery museum. I am so thankful for the man who purchased it, realized it's history and decided it had to be told. Why? So that in three hundred years, our wrongs of today are not fresh markers in our cities. There is far too much darkness that can grow in three hundred years of silence.



A New Kind Of Abolitionist

I had a list of things that I wanted to study and write. I mentally filed my inspiration away when walking the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans last week. But I am home now and need to put it aside for a moment. There are too many things pulling at my heart with urgency. It feels like I have walked with my countrymen to an edge of a cliff that hovers over a dark void. Standing so close to the edge that drawing too much breath will send us all over into the darkness, swallowed up and devoured...

I grew up in church. I have always known what the Bible says, but I grew up loving history too. Even as a little girl, it gave me pause to see how often people used the Word of God to justify evil acts. It made me wonder if we were all serving a different God. How can the Bible be true if one man holds it up while standing on a auction block with a black man standing naked beside him, selling him off to the highest bidder? How can the Bible be true if evil men are holding it while carrying out genocide on Native Americans, telling them that God gave this land to them, not the Natives who were heathens and unacceptable? How can the Bible be true if pastors held it in their hands while justifying wars and ignoring the black men and women in American streets, marching for equality and the right to attend the same school as the white child? Too often the Bible has been in the hands of men and women who have used it to push hate, murder, and separation between people groups. They held it in their hands while tying the knot in rope and placing the loop over the black man's neck, and they still hold it now as they tear children from their parents at out nation's Southern border.

I grew up hearing the phrase that we must remember and know our history lest we repeat it. So I learned it. I devoured it. I cried as I looked at the photos of Jews in concentration camps, wept when I read their stories. And here I am, at 35 years old, and wondering what my fellow countrymen were doing instead of learning their history, because they did not learn; they did not grow; they did not succeed in becoming something good. But hear this: We are not repeating history, we are making a new chapter of renewed hate and bloodshed. Fresh. New ink. A new story. And it lacks love and compassion and the very spirit of what America could have been...

The ugliness began generations ago, perhaps when our Founding Father dipped the quill in the well and the first drop of ink bled into what would become our Bill of Rights and Constitution of the United States, because even they held human beings in bondage while holding their bibles.

I have grown weary of watching the Word of God be counterfeited for evil. I will forever stand against such actions and fight for all humans to be treated with the love of a neighbor, as Christ commanded. I beg you to start to hold these men and woman accountable as well. We must reclaim the love of Christ and set aside our love of country. We must choose who we will serve. It is not easy. It causes you to deconstruct from the religion you were raised in and learn a new way that is spiritual, not religious. Yet I find that this is where I can breathe and find a loving version of God.

Tomorrow, I will do my best to write what I know, what I have learned, what I have studied, and hopefully pen it in stirring words that might move hearts and minds towards a place of compassion for our fellow man. It may not work, but it is what I can do as a true Patriot of freedom and safe harbor for all. I will be a new kind of abolitionist...

And I hope I will not find myself alone.