Relooking Louisiana’s River Road history through the eyes of the enslaved
By Marguerite Cleveland
The myth of the Grand Ole’ South has long glamorized plantation life as one of beautiful homes, epic parties, southern gentlemen and their lovely brides, with no mention of the thousands of people ripped from their homes in Africa who were enslaved on the plantations. Tours used to involve hoopskirt gowned guides and sipping mint juleps. In recent years, things have changed, and many historic sites have begun to tell the complete story of what life was like on a plantation to include that of the enslaved people. Whitney Plantation, in particular, shares the story purely from the perspective of the enslaved. This trip focuses on an area known as the “German Coast,” which begins just north of New Orleans and follows both sides of the Mississippi River.
Where to Stay
There is something about staying on a historic property along the river road. After the crowds leave for the day, a quiet sneaks in. The Spanish Moss dripping from live oak trees in the evening dusk seems to whisper the history of those before you. Destrehan Plantation offers two cottages for rent, which are on the grounds of the plantation. They offer a vintage charm and modern conveniences. Oak Alley Plantation has a more upscale experience with luxury cottages and an onsite restaurant. It is a separate business from the nonprofit, which runs the plantation, but you still have access to the property and its stunning dual columns of live oaks that lead to the levee and the Mississippi River. The property is surrounded by sugar cane fields, so you really get the feeling of how isolated the river plantations were.
What to Do
The 1811 Rebellion of Enslaved People, also known as the German Coast Uprising, was a key historical event that took place in this area—and it is relatively unknown. It was well planned and the largest in U.S. history. The revolt began at what is now known as the 1811 Kid Ory Historic House and was led by Charles Deslondes and more than 500 enslaved people. You can learn about this significant event as well as early jazz great Kid Ory on a tour.
To truly begin to understand what life was like on a plantation through the eyes of the enslaved people, a visit to Whitney Plantation is a must. Plan to spend a couple of hours so you have time to absorb the experience. In addition to learning the history of slavery on the Whitney Plantation, you will also visit memorials that honor the enslaved people. The experience is like visiting a concentration camp such as Dachau in Germany—especially when you visit the memorial for the German Coast Uprising. The leaders of this event were tried, executed and beheaded, their heads then placed on pikes that lined the River Road for 60 miles. When touring the site be respectful and quiet. It takes place outdoors, so dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. If you are unable to visit, take a virtual tour by downloading the Whitney Plantation app.
For a very personal experience, take “The Unheard Voices of the German Coast Tour” exclusively offered by Dianne Honore Destrehan. She is a family descendant of Jean-Baptiste Destrehan, the owner of the plantation, and Catiche Destrehan, who was enslaved by him. By the time you finish the tour you will have a better understanding of the cultural melting pot of this area. Learn the heritage of the German farmers, Acadians, the enslaved Africans, Native Americans and Sicilians, as well as their contributions to the cultural heritage. Destrehan is a gifted storyteller, and her family history adds an authenticity to the tour. As more is learned about the history of the plantation, the tours have evolved over the years. The leaders of the German Coast Uprising were tried at Destrehan and held in the wash shed on the plantation grounds. There are plans to expand on this history.
Laura Plantation shook up plantation tours when they first opened in 1994. They were the first historic home tour in Louisiana to use the term slave instead of servant and the first to include the history of enslaved Africans as part of the tour. Let that date sink in. The year 1994 was the first time the stories of enslaved people were included in plantation tours. Opened in February 2017, the permanent exhibit “From the Big House to the Quarters: Slavery on Laura Plantation” is housed in a restored overseer’s cottage. Research into the plantation’s history is ongoing in both the United States and France where some descendants settled. Laura has an extensive collection of primary source documents including Laura’s diary, which are invaluable in sharing the history of this unique Creole plantation.
Oak Alley is the iconic southern plantation with its double rows of live oaks leading to the home. Once a traditional tour with hoopskirt gowned guides and mint juleps, it has evolved over time. The hoop skirts are gone, but you can still get a good mint julep. Rather than move old slave cabins from other plantations, authentic reproductions were built with a permanent exhibit of the enslaved people on the plantation. As part of the foundation’s Revisit Oak Alley initiative, the “Big House” Experience and Site Interpretation was completed in January 2018. The mansion tour now fully integrates the histories of the enslaved people at Oak Alley and shows their contributions.
Where to Eat
The German Coast area of Louisiana is an amazing melting pot when it comes to the cuisine. African, mainly Senegal, French, German and American influences have shaped the local food culture. Cajun chefs will cook just about anything. In addition to staples such as crawfish, shrimp and andouille sausage you will also find alligator, rabbit and frog legs. What the area is famed for though is its andouille sausage—and they even made a trail for it. The Andouille Trail will take you to the makers in humble shops and meat markets to chefs at upscale restaurants.
Spuddy’s Cajun Cooking Experience is a must, as he shares family recipes passed down for generations. B&C Seafood restaurant is a family owned business that the locals love. Workers in the area stop by for the plate lunch specials each day or a bowl of their flavorful gumbos—smoked rabbit is the most popular. The Seafood Pot is a restaurant and market with fresh local seafood. You can purchase their daiquiris by the gallon. Don’t miss the Creole House, where Chef Jason Roussel cooks everything from scratch. He is passionate about sharing real Cajan cooking.
The plantation tours mentioned are all nonprofit foundations that are dedicated to telling the authentic history of the area. For more information about the German Coast, visit LARiverParishes.com to help plan your visit.
Where to Stay
Destrehan Plantation Creole Cottages DestrehanPlantation.org/Creole-Cottages
Oak Alley Plantation Restaurant and Inn - OakAlleyPlantation.com
What to Do
Destrehan Plantation - DestrehanPlantation.org
Oak Alley Plantation - OakAlleyPlantation.org
1811/Kid Ory Historic House - 1811KidOryHistoricHouse.com
Whitney Plantation - WhitneyPlantation.org
Laura Plantation - LauraPlantation.com
Where to Eat
The Andouille Trail - AndouilleTrail.com
Spuddy’s Cajun Cooking Experience - CajunCookingExperience.com
B&C Seafood Restaurant - BnCRestaurant.com
Creole House Restaurant - CreoleHouseCafe.com
The Seafood Pot - Facebook.com/TheSeafoodPot