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Cover story

Beneath the gentility, a harsh, hidden past

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New Orleans

Destrehan Plantation stands about 36 miles upriver from New Orleans -- a French colonial mansion with eight pillars and a grand gallery facing the levee of the Mississippi in St. Charles Parish. (In Louisiana, counties are called parishes.) The building and its grounds symbolize a line of dynasties, the fortune of which turned on the toil of enslaved Africans.

With the studied eccentricity of an actress, the tour guide in a long gown, hat and veil, served pieces of a grand Southern past at Destrehan that January Sunday. Her account of the house and its lineage was studded with details about various owners, the antiques, furnishings, how meals were prepared, how the mansion was built and subsequently restored. Slaves were a minor theme woven through her remarks. They ate twice a day, lived out back and had various duties. But slaves-as-people were shadows to the tale of the French and Creole planter families. No slave dwellings or recreations appear on the grounds. Although the gift shop carries a small assortment of books about African-American history, slaves have a scant presence in Destrehan’s persona. If African-Americans have won February as the month to celebrate their history, much of their story remains buried.

Selling an idealized past

The beauty of the plantation houses can be so stunning as to seem outside of time, in some aesthetic limbo without a whisper from the black people who worked the fields and big houses and suffered in ways that most of us can barely imagine. Perhaps the economic logic of tourism -- selling beauty, an idealized past -- is why the tour guide never mentioned one of the major episodes in Louisiana history. In 1811 a trial at Destrehan culminated in 21 slaves convicted of fomenting a revolt. They were sent back to plantations they had escaped, shot to death, the bodies decapitated and heads posted on spikes as a warning to other slaves.

Two of the slaves were executed on Jan. 15, 1811, in front of the plantation house owned by Jean Noel Destrehan.

“This was the largest slave revolt in America,” said Leon Waters, a New Orleans waiter who traces his ancestry to slaves in St. James and St. Charles parishes. “The Nat Turner rebellion in 1831 has been made more popular, but this was the largest effort to overturn a slave system [in the United States]. … This was not a riot, not a spontaneous uprising. It was a well-thought-out and disciplined attempt to bring down an oppressive dictatorship, and it almost succeeded. A war is the highest level of struggle, and that’s what it was.”

Waters, 50, a graduate of St. Augustine High and Xavier University, is part of a group that has been researching the 1811 slave revolt for years, trying to pressure historical and preservation groups along River Road and elsewhere to enlarge an awareness of slaves in tours, museums and other public forums. In 1995 the group, the African American History Alliance of Louisiana, published a book by Albert Thrasher, On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt. The book includes a long appendix with copies of 19th-century legal documents and newspaper ads for slave sales or rewards for runaways.

How much of the memory of slaves should be reflected in the stories told to tourists by plantation guides? Should the cruelty that slaves endured, the splintering of families, the revolts, be presented in tours? Or does it matter?

As protesters unearth new information, the past refuses to go away. The souls of people once bought and sold find voices in the likes of Waters and others who insist on being heard.

This month, Harvard University Press is publishing Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, by historian Walter Johnson of New York University. New Orleans is the focus of Johnson’s book. He describes in graphic, often wrenching detail how slaves lived in small houses called holding pens before they were sold, how their bodies were touched and groped, their orifices inspected by prospective buyers who saw them as a species of property. Johnson writes of the harrowing journeys the slaves made in coffles, long lines of people chained together, as the traders rode horseback with guns and whips.

“As they neared their destination, the traders shaved men’s beards and combed their hair, they plucked gray hairs or blackened them with dye,” writes Johnson. “The rituals of preparation continued once slaves had reached the market. In the slave pens the traders increased rations of bacon, milk and butter, a fattening diet one trader referred to as ‘feeding up.’ To keep the slaves’ muscles toned, the traders set them to dancing and exercising, and to make their skin shine with the appearance of health, the traders greased the slaves’ faces with ‘sweet oil’ or washed them in ‘greasy water.’ ”

Famous auction block

Although Johnson does not mention it, the most famous sales block was the rotunda of the St. Louis Hotel, an ornate room in the building designed by a noted French architect. (The hotel, since demolished, occupied the block of St. Louis Street opposite the Royal Orleans.) “This exchange not only contained the finest barroom in the city,” noted a 19th-century guidebook, “but the principal auction mart where slaves, stocks, real estate and all other kinds of property were sold from noon to 3 p.m., the auctioneers crying their wares in a multitude of languages, the English, the French and the Spanish predominating.”

Slaves were decked out rather formally -- the men in dark suits and top hats, the women in blouses with long sleeves, as shown in a famous magazine drawing from the 1850s. “None of the poverty and toil that characterized the daily life of American slaves, none of the bareness that contributed so powerfully to the historical sexualization of black bodies, was immediately apparent in the slave market,” writes Johnson. “These people were dressed as ideal slaves, exaggerated in the typicality of their appearance, too uniform, too healthy, too clean … individual slaves were turned into physical symbols of their own salability.”

The slaves created a culture in order to resist the dehumanizing tactics used upon them. More than mere entertainment, their songs and folk tales, music and dance became survival rites. “As separated lovers, grieving parents or orphaned children, as resigned victims or angry rebels,” writes Johnson in Soul by Soul, “slaves in the trade made themselves known by telling their stories. During the weeks they spent in the ship holds, in coffles and in the slave pens, the once anonymous slaves built a network of mutual recognition through communal remembering of the past.”

Hearing about the revolt

“OK, the story begins with me,” said Waters, who spearheaded the 1811 revisionist project. “I was nine or 10 when my cousin Kizzy, an elderly lady, told me about the revolt.”

Kizzy’s name was Clara Duncan. She was born in 1880. Her parents had been slaves; her father had fought in the Civil War against the Confederacy. She told Waters, “We would take advantage of every opportunity to tear up, rise up to destroy things.” The “we” of whom she spoke were ancestors; “we” was a connective tissue to the past. As a 10-year-old, Waters didn’t grasp the implications.

But in time, as he began seeking out older relatives in an effort to understand her comments, he found corroboration in two articles on the 1811 revolt, one by James H. Dormon, a University of Southwestern Louisiana professor, in a 1978 anthology, Readings in Louisiana History; the other by the late Thomas Marshall Thompson in the winter 1992 edition of Louisiana Quarterly.

Waters’ research took him to the National Archives in Washington, where he combed the pension files of soldiers who had fought in the Union Army. In the late 19th century, federal investigators conducted extensive interviews of many men and widows seeking military pensions; the interviews were done to determine whether people were who they claimed to be, if they had fought in the Civil War (or had been married to a war veteran), thus assuring eligibility for a pension. In assessing the pension claims of ex-slaves, said Waters, “the investigators would go from house to house, naming people they interviewed, with detailed information on how different people were related.”

New Orleans fell to Union forces in 1862. Several thousand Louisiana slaves and free men of color enlisted in the Northern army.

Scouring the pension archives helped Waters trace his kin line several generations, identifying people who made the transition from slavery to freedom in the river parishes. He is convinced he had ancestors in the 1811 revolt.

Waters found an ally in Malcolm Suber, who operates a printing and photocopy store on Canal Street. Suber, who grew up in South Carolina, did community organizing in Appalachia before moving to New Orleans, where he has been involved for years in social protests. Among other things, Waters and Suber wanted to understand how an army of slaves could rise up virtually overnight. Eventually they enlisted Albert Thrasher, an independent researcher and writer, to take on a book. “As more information comes in,” says Waters, “we will update future editions.”

As Marxists, Waters, Suber and Thrasher view the slave revolt in a global context of class struggle. Thrasher’s narrative sags with ideological polemics, but the breadth of research is impressive. The narrative enlarges the scope of small uprisings, attacks on plantation crops and livestock, and occasional killings of whites: They began long before 1811 and continued for years thereafter.

Outside the city lay communities of maroons -- fugitive slaves. “The police came to the levee between Bienville and Iberville streets to arrest a runaway slave named Jeff. They found him there with about 30 comrades engaged in a ‘Congo dance.’ When the police sought to arrest him, ‘the whole of his colored companions assailed the officers with bricks and other missiles and rescued him,’ ” writes Thrasher, quoting an 1840 newspaper.

Network of spies

On a rainy afternoon in late January, Waters and Suber sat in the latter’s photocopy shop and discussed the revolt. They are convinced that the timing was strategic. “Governor Claiborne was worried about Spanish troops fighting in Florida and was about to send soldiers to fight over there,” says Suber. “Charles Deslondes [leader of the slaves] knew the U.S. was about to go to war with Spain.”

The only way the planning could have worked, says Suber, was with slaves who worked in the military garrison passing information through a network of spies out to Deslondes who lived at another plantation in St. Charles Parish. The distance of 36 miles was a day’s ride by horse or carriage.

“It was Christmas season,” continues Suber. “Planters were having big balls after the successful harvest, parties in one house after another. It was the right time to strike.”

Deslondes was a mulatto who had come to Louisiana from St. Domingue, or Haiti as the island republic was renamed in 1804 after the slave revolt that culminated in a humiliating defeat for the French. Deslondes, writes Thrasher, “convinced his comrades that New Orleans could be captured by a two-pronged assault: A large mass of slaves would march down on the city from upriver until they reached the city gates, while at the same time, a detachment of African collaborators inside the city would seize the arsenal and transfer the large stocks of weapons and ammunition to the advancing slave army. Then, jointly, both forces would capture the other institutions, including the governing bodies and the banks.”

On the rain-chilled night of Jan. 8, Deslondes led a group at what is now Norco, wounding the plantation owner, one Col. Manuel Andry, and killing his son. Deslondes was the “slave driver” -- an overseer of other slaves -- who turned his people around, seized guns, swords, several horses, some liquor and “set off, marching in parade formation, singing songs, and chanting the war cry, ‘on to Orleans!’ ” wrote Thompson in Louisiana History.

As word spread along the River Road plantations, white families began fleeing in carriages, loaded with belongings, heading toward the city. Slaves from other plantations and maroons from the swamps and wooded hideaways joined Deslondes’ shock troops. They killed another planter, Francois Trepagnier, and fortified their ranks with cane knives, axes, hoes and sharp tools. The rebel force surged to some 500, according to press reports. In the meantime, Col. Andry pulled himself up and rallied a militia with help from federal troops.

When the white troops attacked on Jan. 10, the insurgent slaves had reached a plantation 16 miles from New Orleans. They had moved 20 miles in two days. The attack by the white troops was a massacre, with 66 slaves killed and no white casualties. “Numerous uncounted bodies remained scattered through the woods, victims of a shooting spree that continued until no other suspected blacks could be found in the vicinity,” wrote Thompson. “The next day local planters hired Indians to search out and kill or capture all blacks who were still hiding in the woods. After the slaughter was over, the authorities held about 75 captives for questioning and returned the rest of the slaves to their owners.”

Neither Thrasher nor the two white historians estimate how many slaves got away; but from the various accounts, it seems clear that a fair number were not caught. Perhaps as many as 200 slipped into maroon communities or surreptitiously returned to the plantations they had fled.

On Jan. 13 the trial began at Destrehan Plantation. The judge appointed a tribunal of five planters to interrogate the 27 captured slaves and render justice. In the end, Deslondes and 18 others were returned to their owners, executed by bullets and beheaded. Jean Noel Destrehan had two of his slaves killed.

Eight more were tried at the Cabildo and executed at nearby sites, including Congo Square and what is now Jackson Square. “Since so few records have come to light,” writes Thrasher, “there is little known about the work of the slave owners’ tribunal in St. John the Baptist Parish. It is known that at least seven slaves were executed on the orders of this panel.”

That would bring the combined total -- including the Orleans and St. Charles tribunals -- to 36 executed.

Can’t cover everything

The River Road Historical Society has owned and operated Destrehan Plantation since 1971. Similar foundations own some of the antebellum houses along the river and elsewhere in the state; others are family-owned and run as tourist businesses. Marathon Oil Company owns San Francisco Plantation. The houses along River Road are nestled among oil and petrochemical refineries, the economy that long ago supplanted sugar cane as the state’s major export.

“Whatever we have documented, we do share,” says Nancy Roberts, the manager of Destrehan, regarding the story of the 1811 slave revolt. She did not know Waters or members of his group. “We try to give as complete a picture of plantation life as possible.” Roberts cited a pamphlet that Destrehan published on the 1811 revolt as an example of the historical society’s accounting of the past.

Why isn’t the revolt and trial discussed by the tour guides?

“We have an extensive history,” said Roberts. “The slave revolt was a period of a couple of weeks. Unless a specific question is asked, our tours can’t in any way cover everything. We try to give as complete a history as possible. We get people from all over the world, and they have questions; but to address all areas of 200 years of history is just not possible.”

“We would like the truth to be told at these plantations, or they should be shut down,” said Leon Waters.

As is often the case when symbols of history (like South Carolina’s flag) rise into the stratosphere of “issues,” the clash comes down to narrative, the form of the story, its emphasis and tone.

“Those tour guides give a presentation that’s really romanticist,” said Waters. “In terms of class forces, who produced the wealth? What class benefited from this unfair labor? This is not overstated. To me it’s a crime -- they’re doing a real disservice. They should tell the truth.

“Look, these [houses] are tourist attractions … and the people who run these operations are doing harm, providing sham propaganda.”

So is there any hope for a middle ground?

“We’re willing to sit and talk with them,” said Waters. “There’s been some motion on their part and that’s definitely a good thing. It’s a small gain, but a gain. In terms of the larger issue, there has to be a continuing debate, more research and discussion, so that an honest and authentic interpretation of the past is provided at all of these plantation tour sites. When that is done, I think society will have made some significant gains. This is a beginning.”

A longer version of this article appears in Gambit Weekly and can be accessed at bestofneworleans.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000