The U.S. has 35,000 museums. Why is only one about slavery?

tags: slavery, Whitney Plantation

John J. Cummings, III is a retired trial lawyer who is redeveloping the Whitney Plantation as a memorial. The site was opened to the public in December 2014.

The United States is home to more than 35,000 museums that memorialize our nation’s culture and history. Revitalized plantations that commemorate the old South are popular among them, celebrated as “bastions of genteel culture,” in the words of an official New Orleans Web site, and monuments to the rural beauty of a bygone era. Many have been romanticized as tourist attractions and wedding venues. But none were dedicated to telling the story of the people who sustained them — slaves.

In fact, the United States did not have a single museum devoted entirely to slavery until last December, when I opened the very first one. It’s housed at the Whitney Plantation, a former indigo and sugar farm that I had purchased 15 years earlier outside of New Orleans. The 250 acres on the Mississippi River had been largely neglected since the 1970s and they were at first nothing more than an investment to me. But as I researched the property’s history, it became clear that this was not going to be one of my usual real estate projects.

More than 350 individuals had been enslaved on that land before 1865. That realization began my education on the history of the Atlantic slave trade, from its origins in the 1400s through the lives of the people who worked on the Whitney Plantation. As a lifelong Southerner, I realized that there had been a glaring omission in my education of the nation’s history, and that I was not alone in my ignorance. While everyone knows that slavery existed in America, for many people, the details are sorely lacking. For instance, many Americans do not realize that religious institutions supported slavery. From the papal order in 1452 permitting the king of Portugal to keep Africans in “perpetual slavery” to the published lectures of an American Protestant doctor of divinity in the 1850s justifying slavery as an “appropriate form of government,” religious institutions were complicit in this atrocity.

Likewise, many do not fully understand the economic impact of slavery on the developing United States economy. The web of people who profited from the labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants stretched from New Orleans to New England. Beyond the obvious fortunes made by slave traders, cotton planters and sugar cane farmers, businesses that profited from American slavery extended far beyond the boundaries of the Confederacy. In the North as well as the South, lawyers and notaries created documents for the sale, lease and manumission of slaves; insurance companies wrote policies on slaves and slaving voyages; and northern shipyards built vessels to transport slaves and plantation cotton. New England textile mills used cotton picked by slaves and New York manufacturers produced what was designated as “Negro clothing.” In the 1850s, the I.M. Singer Company in New York advertised the development of a “new, improved sewing machine especially adapted to the making up of Negro clothing.” New England distilleries manufactured rum from from molasses produced on Louisiana sugar plantations. That cheap rum was used as currency in West Africa to purchase people. Every region of the U.S. and arena of American prosperity owes a debt to the forced labor of African slaves.

Our textbooks and museums have largely ignored or underplayed how tragically integral slavery was to the nation’s development and prosperity. Students have not been taught that slave labor produced America’s wealth, while the enslaved were denied the most basic education, preventing them and their descendants from enjoying access to and participation in America’s prosperity. Without knowledge about how slavery worked and how crushing the experience was — not only for those who endured it, but also for their descendants — it’s impossible to lift the weight of the lingering repercussions of that institution. Every generation of Americans since 1865 has been burdened by the hangover of slavery, through the unequal education, and limited political and economic opportunities available to black Americans. ...

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