"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. 


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