During our weeklong stay at Bayou Segnette State Park, we pulled ourselves away from the siren call of New Orleans to visit nearby Oak Alley Plantation, one of the most famous plantations in Louisiana. Oak Alley was established as a sugarcane plantation—and of course, as with all plantations, this enterprise was made possible by slave labor.
Life At Oak Alley Plantation
The majestic tree-lined walkway is certainly magnificent, with 300-year-old enormous oak trees forming a verdant canopy from the back porch to the levee of the Mississippi River. The house itself, built in 1837 entirely by slaves (from bricks made on the property), is smaller than you would expect for a wealthy family.
It took more than 100 slaves to keep the plantation running, including a large contingent of house slaves who were at the beck and call of the owners for every little thing. For example, it was the job of a young boy to pull the cord that operated the enormous fan in the dining room. For hours.
Most plantations were burned to the ground during the Civil War or fell into disrepair after the war. Oak Alley survived, although barely. It changed hands numerous times; at one point when it was uninhabited, cows broke down the doors and made themselves at home, trampling the black and white imported marble flooring. The floors were replaced with much less extravagant wood flooring.
We toured the house, and frankly, I didn’t find the dry facts of who lived there and when they died very interesting. Here’s one of the few tidbits that stuck with me: Rum was the drink of choice—it’s made from sugarcane, after all—and was served to the men. It was considered improper for women to imbibe, but they got around that inconvenience by serving bowls of dried fruit heavily soaked in rum.
Here’s another custom: A Southern gesture of hospitality in antebellum times featured the pineapple. Guests at Oak Alley were welcomed with a fresh pineapple, an exotic and expensive fruit. But the appearance of a second pineapple in your bedroom meant that you had overstayed your welcome and that it was time to pack your bags and leave.
Slavery At Oak Alley
We found the most interesting part of the plantation the exhibit on slavery, contained in a half-dozen reconstructed shacks. While the family in the “Big House” fretted about whether they had the biggest silverware on the block (the size of the utensils flaunted the family’s wealth), families of slaves lived all in one room. A cornhusk-stuffed mattress, crude table and chairs, burlap curtains, and a few hand-carved gourd bowls and dippers were typical furnishings.
Field slaves put in 12-14 hour days of grueling labor working in the cane fields. You might think being a house slave would be better—except that it meant being perpetually on call to serve the whims of the family. Unable to survive on the meager rations provided by the plantation owners, slaves kept chickens and pigs and grew black-eyed peas, corn, mustard greens, okra, sweet potatoes, and watermelon in small garden plots. All of this work took place at night after they had finished work on the plantation. Medical care was crude, disease was rampant in the hot and humid climate, and punishment was brutal for those who rebelled or didn’t work hard enough. Being a slave meant that you were simply property, to be bought and sold at the master’s discretion.
It is a testament to the human spirit that the slaves managed not only to survive, but to maintain their dignity and culture through their religion, folklore, and music. We found our visit sobering, and at the same time, inspirational.