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.
Fascinating read. Photos that took me there and then just a little. Love the photo of you in that room. XXXOOO kyle
Thanks, dear cuz. Love you.
It is amazing what a slave went through in their life time. I just read The Invention of Wings by Susan Monk Kidd and then Twelve Years a Slave. It is so hard to read about their sad situations. You wonder how one can survive such poor treatment.
It makes it hard to view the grand plantation in the glory the families thought they were living.
Thanks for the tour:)
I agree, Pam — the grandeur of the plantation is definitely tainted knowing that it was built on slave labor. I’m glad you mentioned the books — they’re going on my to-read list. I really like Sue Monk Kidd’s writing.
Both books were wonderful while very sad to read. I didn’t realize that Invention of Wings was based on a true story which made the story even more impressive. I haven’t seen the movie Twelve Years a Slave, yet. But I knew I needed to read the book first. I am sure the movie doesn’t portray half of what the book contains.
I generally like to read the book behind a movie first, too, although I understand “Twelve Years a Slave” is incredibly powerful because of the visuals. I need (and want) to read the books and see the movie — I’m just trying to prepare myself emotionally because I know that I’m stepping into a very different experience than reading “The Help” or “The Secret Life of Bees.”
I have not read the book Twelve Years a Slave but recently watched the film, which was heartbreaking. I cannot imagine the strength it took to survive such a life, nor the entitlement many felt that those who were enslaved were nothing more than chattel. A very bleak time in our history for sure.
So bleak, so tragic. I’ve never understood how anyone could feel that they had the right to enslave another human being. Thankfully there have been those throughout history who have been willing to speak up and fight for the rights of all. The work is not yet done.
Beautiful pictures as always. The opening one is spectacular. It really does affect how one feels coming into a plantation house knowing that however well they might have been treated, slaves had pretty much nothing. How did they live without hope?? Amazing the strength of those people. Add the book Wash to your list. Just finished it and found it quite powerful. I love Sue Monk Kidd and tried to get her latest out of the library when I was in C’ville where I have a card but there were 75 holds on 15 copies. LOL I’d have had to be there 6 months for my name to come up. Oh well…………
Knowing how the slaves lived definitely affected my perceptions of the plantation house. We were much more interested in our self-guided tour of the slave cabins. At least Oak Alley is making an attempt to tell the story of the plantation from the slaves’ perspective. But I think they need to include an actual tour of the cabins and talk in-depth about the slaves instead of just focusing on the Big House.
You’ve just put another place on our “must-visit” list. Thank you for the tour!
Thanks, R & K. It was a worthwhile visit; we were just hoping for more discussion during the tour of the slaves and their lives. The slavery exhibit in the cabins was very well done, however, and provided a lot of information.
That was a sobering read. Makes me feel grateful.
Laurel, you have encapsulated in your writing and pictures the physical aspect of the plantation. Beautiful, but at what cost?
Did you get a Mint Julep? Did you know that there is a trail near the river just outside the oak alley?
ML, we didn’t get a Mint Julep (we had lunch at the restaurant and a local beer instead). The mint julep would have added to the Southern ambiance! We saw the trail but didn’t have time to walk it.