Updated: Jul 25
My first experience visiting a plantation was as an eleven year old child visiting Virginia. All I knew of the South was the stories my Dad had told me about growing up in Virginia and the romanticized version of the antebellum South I had seen in ‘Gone With The Wind.’
I was enchanted by the beauty and charm of the old South; the enormous old trees with Spanish moss dripping from them, the sound of cicadas humming, the wraparound verandahs with swings, the fireflies winking at night, and the classic architecture of the plantation homes.
The antebellum romance of the South faded when I visited the slave quarters of a large plantation. The energy I felt there was palpable and it had a profound impact on me. It felt so dark and so terribly sad that I couldn’t be there very long. After visiting these hauntingly beautiful locations, I thought about what it would be like to be trapped there by people who owned you and treated their dogs and livestock better than you…who would sell you or your family without a thought to the pain and grief it would cause. The beauty of the plantations was never the same for me after that, however, I believe it is important to preserve those still existing for history and to teach our children that those horrors should never be repeated again.
During our family’s recent visit to Robert, Louisiana near New Orleans, we decided we wanted our children to experience a visit to a plantation so that they could better understand the experience of enslaved people and the history of the South. The closest plantation to us was about 45 minutes away in Vacherie, Louisiana. Oak Alley plantation is the most famous of the plantations near New Orleans because it is so well-preserved and because of the stunning and iconic beauty of the alley of 28 enormous 300 year-old live oaks leading up to the stately Greek-revival style mansion. There has been a long-standing debate as to who planted the trees. Recent research by the Oak Alley Foundation indicates that instead of a mysterious French settler planting them, they were transported to the property and planted and cared for by the slaves that lived there, making it possible for all of us to enjoy their magnificent beauty today.
The spectacular tunnel of Virginia Live Oaks is the first thing that commands your attention as you approach the property. The oaks are absolutely massive, and so impressive with their twisting, overarching branches. Interestingly enough, the giant oaks do not have any Spanish moss draping from their twisted branches. This is curious, and quite a mystery to me, as almost all the oaks I’ve seen in the South are covered in it.
If the setting looks familiar to you, it may be because it has been a popular filming location for several Hollywood series and movies such as “Interview with the Vampire," and “The Originals.” If these venerable old oaks could talk, just imagine what they would have to say about all the history and changes they have seen over the centuries.
To visit and take a tour, I purchased tickets in advance online and walked right up to the entrance window to have them scanned from my phone. We took a guided tour of the 200-year-old plantation home, owned by the Roman family, which was very interesting, and gave us the opportunity to explore rooms on both levels of the home, learn some history of the Roman family, see historical artifacts, and ask the guide questions. We were not allowed to take photographs inside the mansion house, but we could take photos from the balcony, with that breathtaking view of the avenue of oaks stretching down the road.
I imagined the Roman family on horseback coming up the road under the arch of the majestic oaks.
Photo of Jacque Roman is from the Oak Alley Planation website History Timeline:
I saw the portraits of Jacque and Celina Roman on the wall and wondered “what could these people that owned other people have been like?” I lingered on the portrait of the wife with her severe hairdo and prim black dress, and instantly had an impression that she was a difficult woman whom I would not have liked.
Photo of Celina Roman is from the Oak Alley website Plantation History Timeline:
The tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and well-versed in the history of the family, the property, and the era. While the guide made a couple of brief mentions of enslaved people living there, the main focus was on the slave-owner family during the tour instead of a more balanced tour including more information about the enslaved people that made this home and its grounds and crops possible. This was disappointing to me, and I resolved to learn more about the experience of the enslaved people of Oak Alley after my visit. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who felt that way after a visit to Oak Alley. I read the comments online after my tour, and noticed there were a considerable number of guests who felt similarly and also agreed the tours were not as balanced as they should be. Some visitors had traveled down the road to other plantations nearby, where they observed that both the experiences of the slave-owners and the enslaved were represented equally. When I visit again, I will be sure to also go to the other plantation locations nearby (such as the Laura and Whitney plantations) for a tour to get a different perspective.
During our visit to Louisiana, there was an excessive heat watch. By 9:00 a.m., it was 90 degrees with 100% humidity, and any walk outdoors would leave you drenched in sweat and sap your energy. By afternoon when we were able to do the tour of the plantation home, it was 98 with a heat index of 108. We had a brief respite from the heat when we did the tour inside the plantation home, but walking back outside felt like Hell’s front porch!
On the verandah of the home, there was a small refreshment stand set up so guests could cool down with lemonade, water, or a mint julep. This was my first time trying a mint julep, and it was very refreshing in the heat.
After the tour and cool refreshments, I walked through the beautiful gardens of Oak Alley and looked up at the Doric columns of the mansion, thinking of the 3 years of slave labor that went into building this home in 1839, into planting these elaborate gardens and harvesting 1200 acres of sugarcane, and into maintaining this opulent lifestyle.
Butterflies floated above the flower gardens, songbirds sang sweetly in the giant magnolia and live oak trees. Squirrels frolicked across the grounds. Pink water lilies bloomed in the ornamental ponds.
It all looked so lovely and serene, but my peace was disturbed by the thought of the horror and sadness that took place behind the facade of all this beauty. I wondered if the enslaved people here at Oak Alley found any kind of solace in nature while they endured so much hardship and sadness.
After the tour of the mansion and my walk through its gardens, I strolled down the avenue of oaks leading to the slave quarters and walked into the small wooden cabins with simple construction and furnishings.
I stood on the porch and looked up toward the “big house,” imagining how it would feel to look at that giant mansion everyday and know that the people in that home owned me and my family, could hurt me or kill me if they wanted to, sell my children, and could force me to work 18 hour days in the 1200 acres of sugarcane fields surrounding the property. I resolved to learn more about the history of the property and of the Roman family and the enslaved people who lived at Oak Alley. After my visit, I read articles about Oak Alley and discovered some fascinating information that wasn't discussed on the tour.
Life for slaves at the plantation was extremely difficult. There are not many detailed records of the more than 100 slaves that lived there, but there is information about what they endured. They were forced to work long days of back-breaking labor in the sugarcane fields in the heat and humidity of Louisiana. The field slaves weeded and irrigated hundreds of acres of sugarcane, harvested it with machetes, and then ran it through the sugar house machinery to make juice, which would become molasses and sugar. Some days during harvest season would be 18 hours of labor. There were house slaves to attend to the Roman family’s needs; at least one servant per person. If they did not succeed at pleasing the family in the “big house,” they were sent to labor in the fields.
While doing the tour inside the plantation home, I saw a hand-written list of prices for each enslaved person and how much a mother and her children were worth, which was around $1200. It was a sickening feeling to see a price tag on human beings and to imagine what they endured. I had observed the portrait of Celina Roman in the hall of the "big house" and felt immediately that she was a woman I would not have liked. After reading some of her letters, I now know why I had that impression as I stood in front of her portrait.
This is an artifact at Oak Alley Plantation of a 'Crab Rattle Shackle' used on slaves who attempted escape. It would wrap around the ankle, and every movement created loud noise from the metal balls it was filled with that rattled. Every movement also created pain, as it chafed and rubbed blisters, bruises, and sores on the ankle.
Photo of artifact from the Oak Alley Plantation website:
Celina wrote to her son Henri, whose portrait is next to hers on the wall of the home. She indicated her indignation and fury that two young women, Elizabeth (they called her Zabeth) and Nancy, two of their house slaves, had decided to escape enslavement to the Roman family after the announcement that the Union had taken New Orleans and lowered the Louisiana flag. Enslaved people began to feel encouraged to resist their slave owners and to “self-emancipate.”
In this excerpt from her letter, Celina Roman wrote of the missing slaves, “I have no news of your [Henri’s] servants, Zabeth and Nancy, and for the rest, I am looking for them and if they are found they will be caged up right fast. I have three of them in prison [in New Orleans] for now. This costs $36 a month and when we find a way to send them back to the country, I beg you to put them to work in the fields and lock them up in the evenings and on Sundays… Send me your news often and let me know if your Negroes return to you. The first of January there were rumors in the streets that the blacks would no longer serve their masters.”
Letter from Celina Pilie Roman to her son Henri Roman, Tulane University, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, LaRC 179 Roman Family Papers
After the Civil war and deaths in the Roman family, the plantation’s ownership changed hands many times and fell into disrepair over the years. It was quickly deteriorating until it was purchased by Josephine and Andrew Stewart in 1925. They felt it was important to restore and preserve it for historical purposes. They set about renovating and restoring many of the buildings, including the slave quarters, over the years.
Photo of Josephine Stewart from Oak Alley Plantation website
Mrs. Josephine Stewart was integral in this process of restoration and started the Oak Alley Foundation in 1966. After her death in 1972, Oak Alley Plantation was made a National Historical Landmark in 1978. It has been painstakingly restored, preserved, and maintained so that visitors can learn about what life was like on the plantation and better understand the history of Louisiana and the United States South.
Plantations and plantation tourism and events are not without controversy, and there is a feeling of discomfort seeing people do fancy photo shoots or weddings there, knowing the dark history behind the facade of Southern charm, prestige, and beauty. I would recommend taking the opportunity to visit multiple plantations in the area and gaining a more balanced understanding of the two worlds that existed at Oak Alley and what life was like for both the slave owners and the enslaved people who made that lifestyle possible. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and awkward at times, but it’s our history, and we shouldn’t turn away from it and pretend it never happened. We should learn about it and learn from it so that it never happens again. My visit there enabled me to see both the beauty and the horror that coexisted in this plantation next to the Mississippi River, where for some, it was an antebellum dream come true, and for others, a terrible nightmare.
For more information about Oak Alley Plantation visit: https://www.oakalleyplantation.org/
Copyright @ 2023 Love Wild Nature, Lorien Villucci Nature Photography