Impressions of Oak Alley Plantation

Impressions of Oak Alley Plantation

“Why did Jacques decide to free Zephyr?” a man on our tour asks curiously, wanting to know why Jacques Roman granted freedom to his most faithful slave.

The guide’s answer escapes us as we’re too distracted by the incredulous tone of the question.

“It’s like he may as well ask why Zephyr, or any of the other slaves, deserved their freedom,” I murmur to Jave and Aaron who chuckle sardonically in agreement.

By this point, we’re nearing the end of our tour of the Oak Alley Plantations big house, and I’m glad because the whole setup is getting on my nerves. The tour guides attired in their antebellum dresses share stories about Jacques and Celina Roman and how they came to own this beautiful land and this beautiful home that was built by slave labor.

At one point during the tour, our guide explains how during dinners in the dining room, a slave boy was required to gently pull a cord to swing the fan above the table to provide a comforting reprieve from the humidity for dinner guests.

“The slave boy would’ve been required to apply just enough force to the cord to create a gentle breeze without blowing out the dinner candles,” our guide continues.

“Yeah, and I bet that if he accidentally blew out the candles, he’d get beaten and whipped to a pulp,” Aaron says. We all agree.

And that’s what’s annoying me the most about Oak Alley Plantation – it’s all so romanticized. One guest even giddily asks the guide to talk about Jacques and Celina’s courtship. Isn’t it all just so romantic?!

Portraits of the Romans
Portraits of the Romans
The Romans' bedroom
The Romans’ bedroom
The kids' room
The kids’ room

As a black guest at Oak Alley Plantation, I can’t help but wonder if this National Historic Landmark is open for tours simply to remind southerners of the “good ‘ole days” when blacks were treated as chattel and as a symbol of white plantation owners’ power and wealth. What’s really unnerving is that there are even black female employees working as guides, and I can’t help but wonder: Sistahs, you really couldn’t find any other job?!

As we explore the property, I can’t help but try to envision this sugar plantation as it really was – not as the Disneyland-esque fallacy that it’s portrayed to visitors who’ve paid $20 to be bamboozled. But not us. We know better.

Refurbished slave cabins in the distance
Refurbished slave cabins in the distance

As much as I want to be enamored by the property’s leaning oak trees, I can’t help but wonder how many slaves were strung from these trees or tied to these trees for brutal whippings when they waved the fan too forcefully and accidentally blew out the dinner candles.

As we explore the refurbished slave cabins that look suitable enough for our next camping trip, I can’t help but wonder how many times Jacques Roman or one of his overseers entered into these homes to rape and brutalize slave women. And I wonder about the slave children who were torn from their mothers’ arms as they slept, only to be sold and transferred to the next highest bidder.

The slaves’ names on the cabin wall

As I gaze across the field, I try to envision rows and rows of tall sugarcane and hundreds of slaves working under the unforgiving sun while overseers watch on their horses with whips in hand, ready to crack them if a slave dares to take a break from the heat.

These cabins are just a bit too polished

To be fair, on the area of the property where the slave cabins are located, there are placards that acknowledge that the property was built on the backs of slaves and that express the hope that by “bringing the life, work and identity of those who were enslaved here into focus, we look to bring truthfulness and clarity to the full story of Oak Alley Plantation.”

But try as it might, Oak Alley Plantation has failed its mission. Perhaps I’d think differently if my “blackness” didn’t color my opinion. Or perhaps Oak Alley would’ve succeeded if it painted a truer picture. Perhaps if they’d tried to preserve the slave cabins as close to their original versions as possible like those found on the St. Joseph Plantation next door. As sobering as the St. Joseph slave cabins are, they speak volumes by painting a more accurate picture of what slavery was and what it was not.

Slave cabins on the St. Joseph Plantation - see the difference?
Slave cabins on the St. Joseph Plantation – see the difference?

There was nothing romantic about it. There was nothing redeeming about it. The institution of slavery not only dehumanized slaves, but it dehumanized the owners. Why aren’t those stories being told? Why aren’t there characters portraying the slaves and telling their stories – the stories that really matter? Perhaps because then, fewer people would come. Ironically, I suppose that focusing on the slave narrative would be bad for business.

Or would it?

The night before our visit to Oak Alley, I read a post by another blogger announcing that the Whitney Plantation (near Oak Alley) was opening for tours on the day of our visit to Oak Alley. Because of the short notice, we didn’t have the chance to book tickets, but I definitely would’ve since the Whitney Plantation touts itself “as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery.”

Imagine that.



Have you ever visited a Southern plantation? What were your impressions?

Comments 8

  1. Catherine
    Mar 9, 2015

    How crazy! I really would have thought they’d be more sensitive to the issues and not try to romanticise something like slavery. As if it’s even possible to advertise something as the only plantation to focus on slavery – something they should all be doing! I’m at a loss for words!

    • Dana Carmel
      Mar 9, 2015

      Yeah, it was a very disappointing and frustrating tour to say the least.

  2. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer
    Mar 4, 2015

    When I visited LA in 2013 I avoided the plantation tours exactly for the reasons you mentioned. I felt as though the lives of the slaves would not be told, but rather that they would focus on the owners.

    Great storytelling and photos, and now I am curious to learn more about the Whitney plantation as I prepare to head back down to LA this summer. Thank you for your insight.

    • Dana Carmel
      Mar 6, 2015

      Thanks, Chanel! I hope that you’re able to check out the Whitney Plantation. It sounds promising in that it at least sounds like they’re making an effort to make the slaves’ stories a focal point. If you go, I’d love to know your thoughts.

  3. Kemkem
    Mar 4, 2015

    Wow! I wouldn’t have been able to stomach this for sure. It’s understandable how you felt..your pictures none the less, are absolutely gorgeous.

    • Dana Carmel
      Mar 9, 2015

      Thanks, Kemkem!

  4. Mike
    Mar 4, 2015

    Dana, this was an amazing, incredibly powerful post and I love that you shared your deep emotion in how the tour impacted you. I’ve never been to a plantation. I agree with you 100% that there is absolutely nothing to be romanticized about here. That the story of the tour should be depicting the harsh reality of this very horrific part of American history. Thank you for sharing it and I hope you and Jave are doing good 🙂

    • Dana Carmel
      Mar 4, 2015

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Mike. Glad this post resonated with you. I hope all is well with you too. 😉


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